New Delhi: In September 2018, Tanushree Dutta, a Bollywood actress publicly accused senior actor Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her on the sets of a movie in 2009. She had complained back then too. Nothing had happened.
Nearly a decade later, her declaration—the first of its kind in India—set off the country’s #MeToo movement against sexual harassment at the workplace.
Within days, the trickle of women coming forward on social media, many of them with evidence by way of inappropriate messages and photographs, turned into a flood of naming and shaming men and bosses who had sexually exploited them while holding powerful positions.
Accusations by multiple women were made against comedian Utsav Chakraborty, directors Sajid Khan, and Rajkumar Hirani, actor Alok Nath, lyricist Vairamuthu, singers Kailash Kher and Anu Malik, and journalists Gautam Adhikari and, the most high-profile of them all, M.J. Akbar, then a minister in the central government.
In February 2021, journalist Priya Ramani* was acquitted after a 28-month-long criminal defamation trial brought against her by M.J. Akbar. Finding “systemic abuse at the workplace” the trial court judge observed that the right to protect one’s reputation could not come at the cost of a woman’s right to dignity.
Within weeks of that ruling, the former minister filed an appeal in the Delhi High Court on 23 March. On 12 August, notice was served to Ramani. The case will now be heard in January next year.
Meanwhile, in September, Zee News’s WION appointed Akbar as an editorial consultant. Over 150 jurnalists wrote a protest letter against the appointment of Akbar who during the MeToo movement had been accused of sexual harassment by Ramani and at least 16 other women, including one who said he had raped her.
Back in October 2018, as the floodgates had opened, the accusations continued to dominate the discourse as the month wore on. In the early days the impact was immediate.
Utsav Chakraborty apologised on Twitter; his videos were taken off by All India Bakchod, then India’s largest comedy collective. Gautam Adhikari quit his job with a Washington-based think tank and said he was discontinuing his column with a leading newspaper.
Companies set up committees to examine complaints and ensure they were legally compliant with internal complaints committees—a requirement of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, or POSH.
But as the weeks turned to months, a larger pattern emerged. Some of the accused filed legal suits under criminal defamation laws. Others resorted to the character assassination of their accusers, including the question: Why speak up now?
It was no longer business-as-usual, retorted the women with another hashtag, #TimesUp. To be sure, not every accusation fell under the definition of workplace sexual harassment. It was clear that some were talking about a mutual relationship at work that had soured. Men wondered, is it sexual harassment to ask a colleague out on a date?
Others were conscious even then, that the movement was leaving out the vast majority of India’s employed women, 90% of whom worked in the informal sector.
Three years later, the after-effects—and the pushback—continue.
New Rules, Old-Style Intimidation
On 24 September 2021, a Bombay High Court judge issued a seven-page list of guidelines on how POSH cases must be handled. These include anonymity to both the accuser and accused, which is unprecedented in Indian law that offers anonymity to survivors of sexual assault to prevent any further harm.
Moreover, orders can no longer be read out in open court or reported on the courts’ websites. Any transgression of these guidelines will be treated as contempt of court.
“It is strange that the court does this at a time when powerful men accused of sexual harassment continue to attempt to suppress women’s voices on social media and in news media with gag orders,” read a statement issued by the Forum Against Oppression of Women, a Mumbai-based feminist organisation.
The guidelines come on the heels of a judgment by the Goa trial court in another high profile case, the Tarun Tejpal rape trial.
Going against the Supreme Court’s own guidelines to protect the identity of the survivors of sexual assault, the woman judge not only revealed identifying details of the survivor, including her email (since redacted) but also recounted in graphic detail some of the inflammatory questions put to her by Tejpal’s lawyers concerning her past sexual history (another forbidden tenet of the Supreme Court).
In the course of reporting this story, this correspondent experienced first-hand just how traumatic the push-back can be. When I reached out to get in touch with Sangamithrai, the lawyer of Tamil film director Susi Ganesan who has been accused of sexual harassment, she told me the case was sub-judice but would share judgement copies of the slew of cases he has filed in various courts.
Coincidentally, within minutes of my call with Sangamithrai, I received a call from an “Alex” who claimed to be her junior. His tone was derogatory and he questioned my competence. As he crossed the limits of civility, I told him that it was best if we switched to email.
The calls continued to the point where I was forced to switch off my phone. No sooner had I switched it back on, than the incessant calls—over 100 or so—began again. When I blocked his number, he took to calling from different numbers. Sangamithai denied knowing this person but, when told her that I would complain to the Bar Council of India she said that she called Ganesan afterwards and claimed that she would no longer be representing him.
If this is the level of harassment faced by a professional journalist fairly seeking comments on a high profile media case involving a prominent Tamil film director, then one can only imagine the sort of harassment that any woman daring to speak up against sexual harassment might face.
Article 14 tracked four of the more high-profile accounts of sexual harassment to find out what happened to accused and survivor.
“Don't Deserve To Be Treated As A Criminal”
In a Facebook post written in 2017, Leena Manimekalai, a published poet and award-winning independent filmmaker alleged that a Tamil film director, who she did not name, had offered to drop her home in his car, back in 2005. Manimekalai claimed that he then forced her to accompany him to his apartment. When she refused, he resisted but let her go after she took out a knife as self-defence.
Manimekalai’s Facebook expose came soon after the abduction and alleged rape of a Malayalam actress in a car in Kerala in Feburary 2017.
In October 2018, during the #MeToo movement in India, Manimekalai finally named her harasser: Susi Ganesan, a prominent name in the Tamil film industry and a three-time state film award winner for direction and screenwriting.
Ganesan responded on Facebook, calling Manimekalai a “modern woman” who was “immoral” and was targeting him for revenge. “She abuses men for benefits in return,” he wrote. Demanding an apology from Manimekalai, he called her a “flawed woman.”
In January 2019, Ganesan filed a criminal defamation case against Manimekalai in a magistrate’s court in Chennai. Ganesan also applied to have Manimekalai’s travel documents impounded to prevent her from travelling to Canada in September 2020.
Though that court dismissed Ganesan’s petition in November 2020, it got an undertaking from Manimekalai to inform the court when she travels. The court said the case against her could be tried in her absence with the representation of her legal counsel. Ganesan then appealed to the High Court to have Manimekalai’s passport impounded. That court too dismissed his case.
Manimekalai is enrolled as a student for the Master of Fine Arts (Film) course at York University in the Canadian city of Toronto on a full scholarship. According to her, Ganesan has been writing to the university since September 2020, asking it to cancel her student visa and to recall its letter to the Indian court in support of Manimekalai.
In November 2020, Ganesan was back in court, this time asking for a media gag order. Once again, the magistrate at the Saidapet Court turned him down.
“The criminal defamation case was filed in the first quarter of 2019 during the time of the release of my second feature film Maadathy, An Unfairy Tale,” Manimekalai told Article 14. “As the case took off, so did my film with a selection at various prestigious international film festivals. I have been attending court hearings between the various world premieres.”
On February 2021, Manimekalai received a show-cause notice from the Chennai regional passport office asking why her passport shouldn’t be impounded “since a criminal defamation case proceedings are pending”. In August 2021, she said, she got another show-cause notice from the Chennai regional passport office claiming it had received adverse police reports against her. On 9 September, a day before she was scheduled to speak at the Dismantling Hindutva Conference, her passport was impounded.
“Apart from the passport office’s decision to impound my passport, the Magistrate Court also reopened the petition that it had dismissed in November 2020 and issued an impounding order on 13 September,” she said. “This despite the fact that the high court had previously dismissed the same petition.”
Meanwhile, her film, Maadathy was invited for a screening and lecture tour across 15 American universities including John Fisher College, University of Minnesota, Harvard and Columbia.
“One screening that was scheduled for 13 September got cancelled. Another screening in October got scheduled as a virtual event. I am not sure about the fate of the rest of the screenings,” said Manimekalai. “I have filed a writ in the High Court against the impounding order and am waiting for my fundamental right to travel, to study and to screen my films to be restored.”
A passport, she added, “is more than a travel document for a first-generation female graduate with a backward caste agrarian family background from the remote south of Tamil Nadu. I wish my hard-earned life and career not be encroached by court cases that are more harassment than sexual harassment. I don't deserve to be treated as a criminal and called an accused just because I stood by my truth.”
‘At Least Investigate’
On 4 October 2018, Utsav Chakraborty, a comedian based in Mumbai, woke up late in the afternoon like he usually did. He was then working with the All India Bakchod (AIB), India’s premier comedy collective. Still hazy with sleep, he looked at his phone. It had over 30 missed calls and countless messages from friends and colleagues.
“My WhatsApp was filled with links to one tweet. Almost all of the messages were with one singular caption: 'Don't overthink and just apologize',” he told Article 14. These messages on his phone led to a tweet thread by another comedian, Mahima Kukreja.
That afternoon Kukreja had tweeted that Chakraborty had sent her unsolicited photos of his genitalia in 2016. She also shared stories from other women who alleged that they had been harassed by Chakraborty. Some claimed that he had asked them to send their nude photos while others alleged that he sent them, and an apparently minor girl, unsolicited photos of his genitals.
As Kukreja’s tweet racked up thousands of retweets, Chakraborty apologised with a 26-tweet thread. He did not deny sending unsolicited pictures of genitalia but said these were not his and had been downloaded from the internet.
Kukreja had also disclosed in her tweets that she had complained about Chakraborty’s inappropriate advances to “two of the most influential men in comedy in India,” but “nothing happened.” Kukreja was referring to Tanmay Bhat, founder of AIB who continued working professionally with Chakraborty despite knowing about Mahima’s complaint.
Caravan magazine reported the toxic work culture of Only Much Louder (OML), the parent company of AIB, highlighted that “OML’s past records on such matters were poor.”
After widespread public criticism, AIB first said that all videos featuring Chakraborty would be deleted from their channel. Then, AIB asked Bhat to step away and another founder, Gursimran Khamba, who had also been accused of emotional abuse and violating consent by a woman on 8 October, was sent on indefinite leave.
Finally, On Air with AIB, the comedy collective's web television show was cancelled by Hotstar mid-season along with other projects. In no time, AIB was temporarily shut down. By the end of May 2019, it steered towards dissolution.
Then, 13 months later, Chakraborty decided to contest the testimonies of at least eight women who had accused him during #MeToo. “Why would so many women lie about one person?” he tweeted on 21 November 2019.
Chakraborty claimed that he had the consent of multiple women who had accused him of unsolicited sexual advances. He denied seeking intimate photos from many of his accusers and claimed many screenshots shared by Kukreja were false or without context.
A day before Chakraborty’s tweet, a YouTube video titled ‘Expose Mahima’ was released by an anonymous handle. The video had two audio clips of a conversation between Chakraborty and Mansi Kukreja, Mahima’s sister who also legally represents her. Chakraborty told Article 14 that the Kukreja sisters had threatened him with damaging legal consequences in case he put out certain ‘screenshots' publicly.
Kukreja turned down a request to be interviewed by Article 14. In a statement published on 26 November 2019 in Firstpost, she disputed the authenticity of the audio clips. She said: “I never asked Utsav for a nude, or a dick pic. It was an unsolicited dick pic. I never consented to seeing his genitals. It was sexual harassment, plain and simple.”
Of Chakraborty’s counter tweets, she said: “I wonder how it has suddenly emerged in public after all these months. For all this while, there was no whisper of any such thing. On the contrary, Utsav is on record publicly apologising.”
“I felt like I had no way out,” Chakraborty told Article 14. “I didn't even know I had proof. I was doing what people I trusted at that point asked me to. But deleted my apologies just as fast because they were being used as admission and that it definitely wasn't.”
Two years have passed since his allegations. There has been no formal investigation into the case.
“I see #MeToo as necessary but also very deeply flawed,” said Chakraborty. “Hold powerful men accountable, help survivors find justice but also take some accountability for the abject misfires. At least investigate?”
Have Things Changed? ‘Certainly Not’
“I have waited for this moment to come for 19 years,” filmmaker Vinta Nanda wrote on Facebook, marking her entry on 8 October 2018 into the #MeToo movement.
Nanda’s post described how she had been raped at her home nearly two decades ago by a lead actor in the 1990s popular television show, Tara. Although she didn’t name him, it was clear that she was talking about Alok Nath.
Nath denied the allegations. In an interview to ABP News he said, “It [rape] must have happened but someone else would have done it.”
After Nanda’s post went viral, actors Renuka Shahane admitted knowing about Nath’s behavior while Sandhya Mridul and Deepika Amin alleged that they too were harassed by him.
The Producers Guild of India released a statement saying that it supported the movement to call out and report sexual harassment. The Cine and TV Artists Association (CINTAA) general secretary Sushant Singh issued a show-cause notice to Nath asking him to explain why he should not be expelled from the body. When he failed to appear before the internal complaints committee set up to probe the allegations, CINTAA expelled Nath.
A week after Nanda’s post, on 13 October, Nath’s wife Ashu Singh filed a complaint with the Mumbai Police alleging offences by Nanda under sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code that pertain to defamation. When police refused to take any action, Ashu Nath sought a court-ordered injunction against Nanda from speaking to the media. (The application was dismissed on 26 October 2018.) Article 14 reached out to Alok Nath's lawyer Ashok Sarogi however his number was switched off. Despite multiple attempts he could not be reached out for comments.
On 15 October 2018, Ashu and Alok Nath jointly filed a civil defamation suit against Nanda in the Dindoshi sessions court. Nath demanded a written apology along with compensation of one rupee (The case was withdrawn in 2019). Two days later, Nanda filed a police complaint against Nath alleging sexual assault. In November 2018, on the basis of this complaint, Mumbai police registered an FIR and Nath was booked for rape.
Alok Nath was granted anticipatory bail in January 2019. “He is innocent. He has a family to support including children and a wife,” noted the judge. He also pointed out that since Nanda could not corroborate the date and month, the “possibility cannot be ruled out that the applicant has falsely been enroped in the crime.”
The judge concluded: “Perhaps the complainant’s allegation against him is inspired by the unrequited and unreciprocated love and affection that she had for him.”
Speaking to Article 14 about her decision to write her Facebook post, Nanda said: “It was a great moment in time when I told my truth.” She found “so much support” because “Everyone knew that sexual harassment existed. But three years down the line what has been the outcome of this movement?”
Have things changed? “Certainly not,” she said. “I had wide support, yet had to go through extremely difficult legal challenges and humiliation. What about other women who did not have as much support as me?
“Our justice system is so skewed towards the perpetrators. The procedure is positioned to undermine and humiliate the survivor. The burden of proof is on the woman while men are protected. It is not just my case. Just see where the other cases have reached. What happened to other women who had accused Alok Nath of sexual harassment?”
“I Named My Harasser. After That, My Work Dried Up”
Vairamuthu, a Padma Bhushan awardee Tamil poet and lyricist was accused of sexual misconduct by several women artists from the Tamil film industry in October 2018. Almost all these women were anonymous until the award-winning singer Chinmayi Sripada on 9 October named him as her harasser on Twitter.
In a series of tweets, she said an organiser of a concert in Switzerland asked her to meet Vairamuthu at his hotel in the year 2005-2006. When she refused to do so, she was told that it would be the end of her career. She said, “Vairamuthu actually molested me. He was not just asking to come to the hotel room.”
Soon after Sripada’s revelation, she began facing a barrage of trolls. “There was widespread slut-shaming. Trolls called me a right-wing proxy,” she told Article14. “Questions were raised on my character,”
Vairamuthu countered on Twitter in Tamil: “Spreading defamatory things about popular personalities is becoming a culture across the country,” he tweeted. Article 14 reached out to Vairamuthu through his son, however despite repeated attempts he did not take calls.
In November 2018, the South Indian Cine and Television Artistes and Dubbing Artistes Union removed Sripada without any intimation.
“I have been terminated from the dubbing union. Which means I can no longer dub in Tamil films. The reason stated is that I haven’t paid ‘subscription fees’ for two years though this hasn’t stopped them from taking 10% off my dubbing income,” she tweeted.
If she wished to be reinstated, the union said, Sripada would have to pay Rs 150,000 and issue an apology. Instead, she filed a petition at a Chennai court against the ban and on 15 March 2019, the court granted an interim stay order.
“Tamil Film Industry was my substantial income source. No one offered me work despite the High Court’s relief for months,” Sripada told Article 14.
In February 2019, Sripada approached the National Commission for Women (NCW) and registered a formal complaint against Vairamuthu. “Nothing has happened in that case so far. In 2020, almost a year after my complaint, the NCW team reached out to me for statements. After that, I haven’t heard from them,” she said.
“I was barely 19 when that incident happened to me. I gaslighted myself into silence. However, when I spoke up, I thought it would give some closure. But not just males, but also females assassinated my character," Sripada said.
"In the year 2018, I had one of my biggest hits in Tamil cinema, just before I named my harasser. After that, my work dried up. Even today I am told that the producers do not want to work with Chinmayi because of Vairamuthu."
* Priya Ramani is an editorial board member of Article 14
(Srishti Jaswal is an award-winning independent journalist based in India.)