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India's #MeToo Moment Roils Entertainment, Media Industries

Voice of America
10 Oct 2018, 23:05 GMT+10

NEW DELHI - India is in the midst of its #MeToo moment as leading figures from the country's entertainment and media industries face a volley of accusations of sexual misconduct from growing numbers of women.

The firestorm has had a powerful impact. In recent days two leading editors have stepped down, a Bollywood production house has been shuttered, India's top comedy troupe faces an uncertain future and a popular author has apologized.

FILE - India's Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar (front) arrives in Venezuela's Caribbean island of Margarita for the 17th Non-Aligned Summit in Venezuela Sept. 14, 2016. (Miraflores Palace via Reuters)

The allegations have also touched the government. India's junior foreign minister, M.J. Akbar, is among those named by several women journalists for alleged misconduct during his previous tenure as a leading journalist and editor. He has not yet responded to the allegations and foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, did not comment either.

The trigger for India's #MeToo campaign came from Bollywood actress Tanushree Datta who last month filed a police complaint in a 10-year-old case alleging that a leading actor, Nana Patekar, behaved inappropriately during a film shoot. He has denied the accusations and sent her a legal notice.

Soon after, a female comedian, Mahima Kukreja, accused a former member of comedy group All India Bakchod, Utsav Chakraborty, of sending her lewd messages and photos. Following similar accusations by other women, Chakraborty apologized on Twitter saying, "It's a little too late, but I am sorry."

The two allegations appeared to have touched a nerve among many women in media. During the past few days, there has been an outpouring on social media from scores of women journalists sharing their experiences of inappropriate behavior, ranging from suggestive messages to unsolicited advances.

The Network of Women in Media group called it a "watershed moment for all of us in journalism," and said it encouraged more women to "document their accounts without fear or inhibitions."

In the glitzy Bollywood industry, producer and writer Vinta Nanda, accused actor Alok Nath of sexually abusing her almost 20 years ago on a Facebook post. Nath has told a news agency, "It must have happened, but someone else would have done it."

Nanda told reporters the movement taking place is "very encouraging, very enabling and this is the reason why I have brought it up."

Lawyer Vrinda Grover who has helped draft India's laws on sexual abuse and harassment, said that enabled by technology and social media, women had spoken out because in a new environment, "They will not be immediately blamed as in the past." On the other hand, it is bringing consequences for harassers.

A high profile movie company, Phantom Films, was dissolved after HuffPost India published an investigation alleging that one of the founders, Vikas Bahl, had assaulted a female employee after a party in 2015. The other partners apologized for mishandling her complaint.

A popular author, Chetan Bhagat, issued an apology after a woman uploaded a screen shot of a text in which the married writer said he wanted to "woo" her.

The editor of a leading newspaper, Times of India, K.R. Sreenivas, has been sent on leave pending an investigation after several women accused him of making sexual propositions. The political editor of another popular daily, the Hindustan Times, Prashant Jha, stepped down after a former colleague accused him of harassing her.

Amid a global movement to hold powerful men accountable for sexual misconduct, Indian women have picked up courage, said journalist Rituparna Chatterjee. "The floodgates to women's anger have been opened."

Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sept. 27, 2018 in Washington.

Some women said they were inspired by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, the university researcher in the United States, who accused, without evidence, U.S. supreme court judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. He is now a Supreme Court justice.

This is not the first time when efforts have been made to bring the #MeToo movement to India, but in the past it has quickly faded away. Last year for example, a crowd-sourced list of academics accused of harassment got little attention.

But lawyer Vrinda Grover calls the ongoing spontaneous campaign a "significant moment" in the effort to address workplace harassment. But she points out that the women who have spoken out largely represent the educated, urban elite and says it will be much harder for those working on shop floors, on construction sites and as household maids to bring attention to their stories.

While India has been under the spotlight for sexual violence against women, sexual harassment at the workplace has seldom been under scrutiny.

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