By Nisha Susan
Who is MJ Akbar? By the time I started as a reporter, MJ Akbar only came up in stories of women that involved his hotel room and their puzzlement. So his intellectual and professional legacy is not one that I have ever had to engage with. But I have been thinking of the imagery of his defence in the face of detailed and credible accusations of sexual harassment from 14 different women on record. “Lies do not have legs,” he said on 14 October, a day before filing a defamation suit against the most prominent of his accusers, journalist Priya Ramani. Lies do not have legs. A clever sentence meant to be the title of a noir movie or a newspaper headline. It’s true, I think, that lies do not have legs. But courage does. Just witnessing acts of courage can make your leaden, cautious self, lift off briefly like the Banksy girl with a whole clutch of balloons.
We are a country where men and women are taught continuously to conform, to not rock the boat, to be fearful of what lies around the corner. In our hearts we carry black drishti bottus everywhere, warding off the evil eye all the time. Among the many things we are brought up to fear, with good reason, is the evil eye of the state. But every now and then something astonishing, someone astonishing, happens to make you wonder why have you been afraid for so long.
The courage of Bilkis Bano. the rage of the Mothers of Manipur, LosHa, the interns who took on Supreme Court judges, the powerful whimsy of the Kiss of Love moment, the truth-telling of Radhika Vemula. You look up and for a moment all you can see is sky and your feet do not touch the ground.
This has been a fortnight of hundreds of instances of courage. Actor Tanushree Dutta’s outing of Nana Patekar and the rest of Bollywood. Hundreds of women who fed the #MeToo deluge. A small group of women led by journalists Sandhya Menon, Anoo Bhuyan, Rituparna Chatterjee and Dhanya Rajendran who did the brutal work of facilitating the careful telling of these stories. A woman who outed her ex-boyfriend, soon after saw her husband being outed as a harasser as well but has seemingly retained her sanity and good humour. Actor Mallika Dua who found a way to sound steadfast and maintain her integrity when her father Vinod Dua was accused of sexual harassment. Christina Dhanraj and young Dalit thinkers who took on the risk of being a killjoy and insisted that savarna women reflect right now what their privileges even in this #MeToo moment. Savarna women who chose to wrestle with these truths about caste and class instead of being smugly crowned heroines. Women asking themselves if they had contributed to the sexist establishment by being one of the boys. Reflection on the legacies of pioneering women in different careers. Admission of guilt and ignorance. Mistakes and missteps. Bravado and jokes. Women looking back at things that happened or didn’t happen to them at work. Women asking if what happened deserved rage and not tears. Laughter not rage. Acts of courage have come in many shapes and sizes this fortnight.
It is hard to find even a tiny fraction of this energy, this churning among men simply reflecting on where they are, who their friends are, what their roles have been in keeping steady this old desi ship of sexism. And MJ Akbar, the allegations against whom would make a nice, longitudinal study, has drunk from the Spring of Recalcitrant Masculinity and surfaced to use familiar tactics: thick-skinned denial, outlandish conspiracy theories and threats of legal action. The only reflection that is involved here seems to be the one in the mirror whereupon he can gaze and remind himself of his luminous career, said luminous career being enough of a justification for any misconduct.
Given the highlights of the ruling party’s position on sexual assault and gender, it does seem unlikely that this government will ask Akbar to resign. (Highlights? Rape accused Unnao MLA is still in the BJP. The BJP has also refused to accept the resignation of Suraj Pal Amu who offered ₹10 Cr to anyone who’d behead actor Deepika Padukone.) And as many observers have remarked if Akbar resigns, there might be a flood of other solid accusations. Nevertheless, Akbar’s accusers seem unafraid. And that too is marvellous to see. Within a few hours the whopping 97 lawyers listed in the vakaalatnama of Akbar’s defamation suit against Ramani has become the stuff of hilarity, with women writing new accounts about his behaviour and others pledging money to support Ramani’s legal defence.
Marvellous to see because a fearful hush had descended into my life (and perhaps yours too) in 2014 with the election of this government. The familiar past-time of complaining about all governments we have ever had was now suddenly a white-knuckle sport. Those few weeks of hearing about people arrested for Facebook posts about Modi, later the lynch-mobs, still later the shameless laughter of the PM while talking up demonetisation. All ordinary criticism had been transformed into sulphurous blasphemy. It often seemed as frightening to grumble about the government as one would be afraid in Saudi Arabia. Where Saudi had its cane-bearing mullahs, here the rebukes and possible violence would come from uncivil civilians, our friends, family and that random dude you met at work once, all of whom seemed to have voted for this government. Or did they? It’s hard to tell given the social media blitzkrieg and the social media budget.
Somehow we have reached the second half of 2018, injured, poorer, nervous but here we are. I have heard many conversations this year about how if we don’t vote this government out in the coming elections we may never have an election again. It has all seemed serious and believable.
Every now and then, during these four years, despite how chicken-shit I and many others of my class have been, some people have broken through the mayajaal and registered strong and impressive acts of protest and at great costs to themselves. But in the parochial way many of us function it takes the breaking out of People Like Us to really feel brave. And nothing has broken through the Modi mayajaal for me as this last year of women naming their sexual harassers. The steady building from early 2017 to this last fortnight’s tsunami of stories has given me a steroid shot. Building as it did on a solid month of kindness and cleverness in the Kerala relief efforts, suddenly we seemed to be living in a land of wonky hope and grumpy complainers again – my own familiar and beloved country.
One tiny clue has been the return of Snoopgate/Stalkergate in circulation on social media. To refresh your memory. Back in November 2013, Amit Shah (then the Home Minister of Gujarat) was named in the media for allegedly using the Gujarat police in 2009 to spy on a young woman, an architect from Bangalore, on behalf of Saheb (or boss). Somehow the story disappeared from the public memory as if we had all been zapped by one of those Men In Black things. And even when I remembered I was often nervous about putting in on social media. Then this week I notice, it’s back in circulation. As if it is now okay to remember it. As if we are all feeling ready to talk about it again.
In early 2017, I had argued in the face of the sexism of liberal men we shouldn’t be shocked and that, “we cannot be clannish about men, sisters, because men are not our clan.” The more we talk about the possibility that the men of our households, caste and class are culpable in violence and sexism towards women, the road forward will be clear. But the more we talk about the possibility that our elected head of government and his powerful right-hand man in their private and personal lives treat women in this way, the more the road forward will be clear.
And we will be lighter still as we shed our supposed patrimony: the supposed genius of men, the intellect, the political connections, social capital. We have been taught to believe these tall tales about men’s greatness by other men. (I had that moment of cognitive dissonance back in college when I was taught that the Liril ad was a marvellous tribute and revelation of Indian women’s desires. A woman under a waterfall? It’s amazing how that story of masculine genius and goodwill towards women continues to be told.) So as I asked earlier, who is MJ Akbar really? Who is Modi really? Are they really geniuses?
Yesterday when issuing his stout denials, Akbar tried to go the hopelessly clichéd route of eyebrow-wiggling that #MeToo was a sham, a vast political conspiracy just to get this government. “Why has this storm risen a few months before the #GeneralElection? Is there an agenda? You be the judge. These false, baseless and wild allegations have caused irreparable damage to my reputation and goodwill.” Political reporters across board giggled at the idea of Akbar being a vote-bank of any sorts.
So much for political conspiracy. But since Akbar has brought up the elections let’s discuss that a bit.
In demanding the ouster of MJ Akbar the #MeToo movement is asking for a bare minimum from our elected government. A bare minimum that laddish new organisations like AIB and opaque UncleJi organisations like Times of India have submitted to, once a critical mass of shaming had been achieved. And when asking our sarkar for this bare minimum doesn’t work, we will hopefully have at least one more round of elections to register a greater critical mass of shame.
The months ahead to those elections will seem long much longer for Akbar, Modi, Shah and Co. Longer than the decades it has taken us women to get here to this state of lightness and power.
Co-published with Firstpost