The #MeToo campaign arrived in India with a bang and left a trail of devastation. A Minister at the Centre has been compelled to resign, many editors and journalists have been asked to leave their posts, some important figures in Bollywood are under a cloud and there is pressure on companies to terminate the contracts of important figures in media, advertising and public relations. This may only be the beginning. There are some indications that others, including politicians, could be in the line of fire.
That the campaign to name and shame those who have acted indecorously with women colleagues and, worse, misused their power to demand sexual favours from women constitutes an important step forward is undeniable. There is a seamy side to the outward social conservatism of Indian society that needed to be cleansed. #MeToo may not have done so entirely but at least it has injected fear in the minds of men who somehow believed that power and status entitled them to misbehave and prey on vulnerable women. If, at the end of the day, #MeToo succeeds in making the environment of the workplace more wholesome for women, its contribution to nation building would have been immeasurable. If nothing else, the conspiracy of silence that accompanied the worst offences has been broken.
Yet, like most movements that are accompanied by a combination of zeal, euphoria and anger, there are bound to be negative consequences. Pointing these out does not either devalue the courage shown by those women who have truthfully narrated their own horrible experiences or imply any defence of those who ran riot with impunity and man who believed demanding sexual favours was part of their entitlement.
The most frightening of the adverse consequences is the ‘politically correct’ view that all testimonies of ‘survivors’ must be implicitly believed and acted on, particularly if the finger is pointed at powerful men. In an article in The Telegraph, Mukul Kesavan argued: “If proof beyond reasonable doubt for a crime is impossible to produce because it’s committed in private by powerful men whose influence stops victims from speaking out, it becomes reasonable for people to make up their own minds about the balance of probability. If we don’t want to relax the standard of proof for crimes, one way of tackling abuse legally would be to make the judicial system more receptive to civil suits where the balance of probability suffices to determine guilt. In the absence of such a system, we are left with public opinion.” Likewise, relating to a #MeToo allegation involving an editor, N Ram expressed his satisfaction that his organisation didn’t take “a purely technical view of the matter.”
Confronted with the reality of trauma, it is understandable that an exceptional show of empathy overrides a clinical approach. However, it is unlikely that most of the #MeToo charges will ever go to court, unless they involve charges of rape. Social and professional disgrace, the inevitable consequence of being called out for unbecoming conduct, is in any case a very severe punishment. The more tricky question centres on those cases where the charges are contested, and where the man is convinced that the allegations are simply not true or vastly embroidered? Does he not have any legal recourse? If he believes that he is a victim of a lynch mob or a social media kangaroo court, can he not ask for justice from the courts?
The Editor’s Guild has deemed that MJ Akbar should withdraw the criminal defamation case he has filed in Delhi against a journalist who described him as a ‘predator.’ In case he chooses to not do so, the body has stated it will provide material help to the defence.
Politically speaking, Akbar’s search for a legal remedy turned out to be very counter-productive. It was made out that a man in a high post was trying to intimidate a gutsy lady. It was interpreted as arrogance of power. It generated a countervailing reaction and provoked a class action that more or less forced his resignation.
Without going into the specifics of a case about which I know very little, it is clear that Akbar believes he has been defamed and has had his reputation destroyed. As a citizen it is Constitutional right to approach the courts to seek justice. That right belongs to every citizen and isn’t compromised by caste, religion and status. Just because a person enjoys an elevated position in society or happens to be a politician, the right to seek justice is not affected. A few months ago, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley filed a criminal defamation suit against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The case was settled out of court with Kejriwal offering an apology. In short, Kejriwal admitted that the charges of corruption were baseless. Yet it is undeniable that people believe the worst of politicians and his reputation was grievously damaged by Kejriwal. In the knee-jerk test of public opinion that finds favour with the #MeToo cheerleaders, Kejriwal scored. If Jaitley hadn’t gone to court, falsehoods would probably have become conventional wisdom.
The right of Akbar to go to court can’t be denied since he feels he has been wronged, but neither can the right of the defence to present its version robustly, including by making it a de-facto class action. The Editor’s Guild has a right to back the defence, especially if it thinks that a larger question — the dignity of women in the profession — is involved. It has no right to suggest that a citizen should avoid the law courts and leave the matter to be judged in the court of public opinion alone. There can’t be one norm for journalists and a different one for lapsed journalists and politicians.