For now, the #MeTooIndia storm appears to have receded from the public mindscape, with the gripping governance blockbuster on the premier investigating agency, with its unpredictable unspooling of well-guarded dirty secrets, taking centre stage. Everyone is waiting with bated breath for the next knock-out punch to be delivered.
Notwithstanding this unexpected, screeching overtaking by the CBI-moment, it is important to ensure that the tremendous initial impact of the historic campaign, as well as its potential for foregrounding gender equity, is not dissipated. It must be carried forward with the same rare spirit of solidarity and feisty determination, on commendable display since Bollywood’s not-so-well-known Manjushree Datta named and shamed Nana Patekar. Nana Patekar’s response of filing a criminal defamation case and his crass attempts to diss the allegations were standard male, entitled and power crazed and not a whit surprising. However, when the Minister of State for External Affairs and the highly celebrated media-star, M J Akbar, accused by dozens of courageous media professionals of the most obnoxious transgressions, also sought, in the foul Patekarmode, to brazen it out and bring on a battery of 97 legal eagles to defend his right to violate, something big gave way.
Though he obviously had the complete backing of the Government of the day, which did not utter a single word in condemnation ~ notwithstanding its trumpeted commitment to the Ma, Behan and Betis of the country ~ and had absolutely no problems with him representing the country overseas during the scandalspiked period or taking his own time to get back to turbulent Lutyens’ Delhi , Akbar had to go. He was tossed out by the unleashing of pent up fury and outrage against despicable sexual marauders, which #MeTooIndia captured so effectively. Though he has been advised to withdraw the criminal defamation case, it appears unlikely. His personal appearance in Court will be worth a scrutiny. Akbar will probably stick to his guns and play the dreary victim card, imploring a sexist, patriarchal set-up for justice. While it is risky to play the tempting guessing game, he may well have it his way.
Banding together in crisis times is, after all, what brotherhood is about. Legal technicalities and loopholes may be roped in to play useful supportive roles in this sequel. It is no wonder that critics of the campaign have again found their patronizing voices ~ many from the media fraternity and females, rather surprisingly ~ forecasting a whimpering end to what is being derisively downplayed as a miniscule urban elite affair, with its own share of unanswered questions relating to motives and credibility. Interestingly enough, the Government decided, around the Akbar exit, that it was safe and useful to make some politically correct noises and moves. These may arguably help redeem its image of shabby non- performance. Maneka Gandhi, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, promised on camera, enquiries by retired Judges and putting in place monitoring mechanisms for complaints that come in to the electronic complaints’ portal of the Ministry. Bureaucrats are reportedly mulling over the details of these promises at snail’s pace.
Their status is not yet in the public domain. Pre-elections, one would have expected something more impressive and out-of-the-box, than setting up of yet another Group of Ministers which was flashed, obligingly and prominently by the mainstream media. It is to be chaired by the Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, with a mandate “to examine the existing legal and institutional frameworks for dealing with matters of sexual harassment of women at the workplace and provide recommendations for effective implementation of the existing provisions as well as for strengthening the existing frameworks.” It has been constituted, according to the Government release, in view of the felt need for broader consultation and to reaffirm its commitment to ensure the safety and dignity of women in the workplace.
The time-frame is three months. Readers will do well to jog their memory taking it back to 2014. GoMs had been objects of ridicule of the then incoming Government! The key legislation for dealing with sexual harassment cases is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, better known, oddly, as the POSH Act. It replaced the Visakha Guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in 1997 and provided for establishing Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) at all workplaces that employ 10 or more persons and Local Complaints Committees (LCCs) under the District Collector for workplaces with fewer employees, for women, in the informal sector, including domestic workers and daily wage labourers. The National Commission for Women (NCW ), which was responsible for the original draft of the legislation, is all set ~ alongside the GoM ~ to hold a series of stakeholder consultations to review the law and suggest amendments.
According to Rekha Sharma, the Chairperson, the recommendations would be sent to the Ministry of Women and Child Development or directly to Parliament. It is very well known, five years on, that the law itself is flawed. It is not equipped to deal with the nature of sexual harassment cases that have come to light in the #MeTooIndia campaign, in many instances, after a considerable time lapse. Another glaring problem is Section 14 that allows the complainant to be penalized, if the Committee concludes that the complaint was false or malicious, thus creating a justified fear of retribution, especially, when all members of the ICC, except one, are from within the workplace. To make matters worse, implementation has been a major disaster, as in so many well-intentioned legislations that festoon our statute books.
Though the 2013 Criminal Amendment Act makes sexual harassment a criminal offence, punishable with 1-3 years’ imprisonment, in most cases the accused is merely suspended by the employer and no police complaint is lodged. That things remain largely the same is disappointingly reflected in the stance taken by Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister, Punjab, who , from Israel, “ sorted out” long distance, a complaint by a lady IAS officer against a Cabinet Minister for sending her inappropriate , lewd text messages , by drawing out an apology from the offender and claiming that it was to the officer’s satisfaction. Pinning high hopes on the GoM and NCW ’s hackneyed exercises clearly will not do.
We know where Reports and recommendations invariably wind up, even if they adhere to given time lines. For them to morph into amendments ~ and to have them implemented with unprecedented rigour ~ may take unknowable ages. Naming and shaming of sexual marauders at the workplace needs to continue with relentless fearlessness and tenacity, admittedly with enhanced coherence and cross cutting coordination. The campaign should remain undeterred by barbs and smart diversionary tactics of the burgeoning tribe of detractors.
The government must be held to account if it fails to enforce existing laws. It is only when the fear factor of being dethroned gets to the presently empowered, will the Constitutionally envisioned gender balance get a fair chance to work its way through our highly distorted socio-political structure that thrives on shamelessly asphyxiating its more significant half.
The writer is a retired IAS officer and comments on governance issues