India’s Weinstein effect
With non-existent libel laws in India, some victims were expected to take names, but they haven’t

For those looking for the Harvey Weinstein effect in India, have been surprised, even though they shouldn’t be. What began as a whisper about four weeks ago, about the Hollywood Moghul became a murmur of voices and then became a shout that continues to reverberate across the world, the legend of ‘I was molested’.

Before long, women across the world were posting ‘Me Too’ stories. Women of all ages, some even as old as 80, recounting the time when they were touched and felt without their consent, to girls who were once as young as 7 or 8. In a matter of weeks, the movement has now come to acquire a logic of its own everywhere in the world, except of course India.

Which unsurprising as it seems, may still be difficult to explain. Ideally, it should have been the other way around. After all in the West, libel laws are extremely strong and making unfounded allegations can invite stringent penalties and punishments, running into several million dollars and imprisonment. In comparison, India has non-existent libel laws and it is the easiest thing in the world to make any charge, however vilified, without inviting any penalties, not even a formal apology. In other words, you can get away with murder.

Instances of work place harassment abound in this country. While a majority of co-workers could be safely regarded as professionals, there are those – particularly those in position of influence and in decision-making roles – who are not. They are in a position to make illicit advances, safe in the knowledge that the victim will not speak, or would not be a position to react adversely. That gives them immense confidence and a weak, ineffectual law offers virtually immunity. 

In comparison, the situation in the West is different. Apart from Weinstein, who stands shamed and boycotted, Birish defence minister Michael Fallon resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct, former US President George HW Bush has apologised for touching women appropriately after three women accused him of grabbing their butts. The head of Amazon Studio, Roy Price has quit after being accused of the same charges and Vox Media’s editorial director Lockhard Steele has been fired for sexual misconduct. Journalists, film directors, venture capitalists, technologists, the list of those named and shamed are endless.

India presents a study in contrast. There is no more than a whimper about misconduct any kind, particularly given the fact that the latest American trends take about a couple of weeks to make their presence felt in India. In the old, pre-modernist days it took the slow boat from Hong Kong to reach the dirty shores of Bombay, but in today’s digital time and age, it takes even less.

If anything, given the near absence of libel laws in India, it would be the easiest thing in the world to name culprits and bring them to book. In realty, truth is quite some distance away. Harassment czars in India have always felt they are beyond censure. There is a vast old boys’ network more than keen to do their bidding and cover up tracks. The few occasions when some gutsy women have had the courage to complain about the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee (POSH) in their work place, the men they had complained against flexed their muscles and it was the women who had to quit their jobs.

In the West, as the recent weeks have demonstrated, at least there is public posturing against sexual harassment, with many powerful people ready and willing to repudiate the ‘sinner’. In India, men charged with sexual harassment walk away with little or no impact on their lives. Their friends’ circle remain close and tight nit, they are welcome at major events, they continue to make public appearances without batting an eyelid and their companies and universities back them without any problem. Most importantly, their friends – who also include so-called feminists – support them to the hilt. You can easily have the cake and eat it too!

In India, in at least two famous cases – that of swashbuckling editor Tarun Tejpal and film maker Mahmood Farooqi – the reactions of those liberal strands of society, which claim to stand up for human rights of every conceivable kind, were found to be weak kneed and wanting when it came to defending the rights of women who were apparently grievously hurt in charges of sexual misconduct.

The only somewhat feeble responses to this emerging scenario have come from actors like Priyanka Chopra and some others from the Mumbai film industry, who have stopped short of taking names. All they have said – somewhat in generalised terms that such things must come to an end and that indeed, there were many cases of this nature in India. Another actress Pooja Bhatt tweeted about ‘many Weinsteins in India’ without of course taking any names. She made it a point to mention that even if names are taken, there is unlikely to be any collateral damage.

There has been a flurry of similar examples narrated in the social media and interviews, but again, strictly no name calling. Which given the absence of any libel laws, is mystifying. Interestingly, the only name taken is by a former aide to Aishwarya Rai, who claims that a certain Hollywood biggie wanted her in his room. No guesses for naming him: Harvey Weinstein of course.

Ranjit Bhushan