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India’s #MeToo juggernaut: A cautionary tale & a catalyst for clean-up

With new names of perpetrators emerging with every refresh of the web pages, who are being named and shamed by the women they allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted, one is left wondering – how deep does this rot go? 

Ever since actor Tanushree Dutta brought up a 10-year old case of harassment against Nana Patekar on a film set around two weeks ago, women across industries – led by entertainment, media and advertising – are coming out with their personal experiences of suffering at the hands of their bosses, colleagues, contacts. The allegations are coming in thick and fast and social media has become a powerful tool for women to put forward their case. 

The most discussed and disturbing account undoubtedly has been that of writer-producer-director Vinta Nanda (of ‘Tara’ fame), who has accused well-known actor Alok Nath (popularly referred to as ‘Sanskari’ Babuji) of rape and brutalisation. And the names of those accused are tumbling off the media screens – Vikas Bahl, Rajat Kapoor, MJ Akbar, Suhel Seth, Raj Kurup, Kailash Kher, ex-Hindustan Times’ Prashant Jha, stand-up comedian Utsav Chakraborty, Chetan Bhagat... 

The accounts of harassment are sickening and one sees there is common thread that runs through them – that of intimidation by the perpetrators, the victims remaining silent for a long time, little or no help from the HR departments (wherever the victim approached them), influence of alcohol, working in close proximity. All of these simply reiterate what the know-it-alls of the society spread as common perception of women working in the M&E and advertising industries – that they are too liberal, drink and smoke openly, don’t hesitate to get into a physical relationship. One can almost see them smirk and say “I told you so” as a reaction to the current avalanche of #MeToo narratives in India. 

This only brings out the deep-rooted duality of the Indian society where people say – men get distracted by women who dress and behave in a certain way. Hence, if a woman is assaulted, she called it upon herself. This very attitude is reflected in the meek and weak responses given by those accused of sexual harassment – “I apologise ‘IF’ I have caused hurt in any way...”; “I was inebriated and not in control of myself...”; “I can’t recall...”; “Nowadays, only what a woman says is considered...” – and outright denial. 

The narratives serve as a strong cautionary tale for women in the workforce whether they are the green-behind-the-ears freshers or veterans of the industry – Apni suraksha, apne haath. One would be wary of sharing drinks in an office gathering, maintain that ‘safe’ distance, and God help the day women start carrying pepper sprays to office. It would be a sad reflection of the times when women start curtailing the freedom that men so take for granted, just because they want to prevent from getting molested, or giving out the ‘wrong’ signals. 

But more than this, one desperately hopes that the belated #MeToo movement in India will lead to a clean-up in the system, where the HR departments will have stringent rules laid down, where the work environment would encourage women to come forward and place their complaints without the fear of persecution and without intimidation. 

Women form a sizeable part of the workforce in the M&E and advertising industries. No popular misconceptions can undermine the serious work done by women – be it in the creative field, be it strategising winning marketing plans, be it increasing the revenue and reach of their industry clients. 

Industry response to #MeToo 

There is light at the end of the tunnel as several media and advertising organisations have come forward in support of the movement and reiterated their commitment towards creating a better workplace for women. 

Sony Pictures Networks India: “At Sony Pictures Networks India, we have a robust anti-sexual harassment policy in place that ensures zero tolerance against any form of sexual harassment. We have an Internal Complaints Committee (‘ICC’) headed by a senior woman executive with a majority of women members. Sensitising employees on what constitutes sexual harassment, ways to deal with it and the redressal mechanism in place is a continuous exercise, deployed effectively throughout the organisation by the ICC and women champions.” 

Star India: “Over the last few days, we have heard gut-wrenching stories of abuse from women across the country. At Star, we are taking this moment to reaffirm our commitment to the central values of our company. On Monday, our streaming platform Hotstar announced the cancellation of the third season of On Air with AIB, given the developments around the group. We wanted to draw the line on anything that ran counter to our norms and values. At the company, we are deeply committed to fostering a safe workplace for women, one that accords them the highest degree of respect, dignity and the canvas to aspire for big impact. We have in place policies and institutional structures, including the Internal Complaints Committee that was instituted early 2014 in accordance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal ) Act, 2013.

We stand with women around the country in drawing the line on any behaviour that violates human dignity or their ability to pursue their dreams with freedom.”

Shashi Sinha, CEO, IPG Mediabrands India: “We believe that to ensure a safe and respectful workplace is a continuous process and we make it a point to sensitise all employees on an ongoing basis. Employees have to go through a mandatory course on Appropriate Workplace Behaviour, which not only sets the guidelines for Appropriate Behaviour (ranging from bullying to discrimination to sexual harassment to victimisation), but also defines the role of Managers and their responsibilities in building a culture free of harassment of any kind.” 

“In addition, of course, we are also diligent about local law. We have an Internal Complaints Committee as required by POSH comprising two-thirds women and an external, independent member. All employees are also mandatorily required to go through (and pass) a course on POSH, which covers all aspects of the Act including the process of redressal.”

Anita Nayyar, CEO, Havas Media Group-India & South Asia: “We’ve known the industry to have put a lot of women to this ordeal over the years. However, it is shocking that so many people out there have tried their hands and women had to wait for #MeToo to open up. It’s never late to speak up. However, it is also important to report genuine instances and not take advantage of the situation. I think more #MeToos will lead to a strong #No Means No.” 

Creativeland Asia: “We have seen some of the rumours spread by certain individuals in linking the agency with events. CLA has a great gender diverse working culture, we are one of the most secure and coveted creative environment to work in. CLA has a robust system completely independent of the management to redress, assist and support, complainants having the employees interest at its heart.” 

Publicis India: “We have taken note of the incidences reported in the tweets. We are deeply concerned by the seriousness of these allegations and are investigating them on priority. We will ascertain facts of the matter and see that the outcome is fair and just; and appropriate actions are taken as per the company’s policy. We reiterate that Publicis India has a zero-tolerance policy towards any type of workplace misconduct or abuse of power or harassment.” 

Viacom18 Media: “We are compliant with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013 and we have set up an Internal Committee in accordance with the rules of the Act. The constitution and functioning of the Committee is per the mandate of the Act. As a responsible corporate citizen, we are aware of our legal duties and are compliant with all the laws of the land.” 

DAN’s statement on Happy: “Dentsu Aegis Network has always believed in providing a safe environment at our workplaces which is free from any kind of harassments. We have an internal committee constituted as per the rules prescribed under Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 to look into any complaints in this regard. Certain incidents have just come to our notice involving senior members of Happy that allegedly took place few years ago, when Happy was not a part of DAN. An enquiry into these alleged incidents has already been initiated. Dentsu Aegis Network does not and WILL NOT accept anything but professional behaviour at our workplaces. We have a zero tolerance policy towards any kind of harassment at our workplaces and we are committed to speedy redressal of any complaints raised in this context after following due process, as advised by the internal committee.” 

iProspect India’s statement on Dinesh Swamy: “With more than 50 per cent of our staff being female employees, including the agency CEO, iProspect has always believed in providing a safe working environment for all. We have an internal committee adhering to Vishakha Guidelines. It is unfortunate that one of our recently recruited employees has been named in the #MeToo movement for an incident which is alleged to have happened a few years ago during his tenure with his previous employer. We have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment at workplace and we will immediately be conducting an enquiry regarding this.” 

Dentsu Webchutney’s statement on Omkar Sane: “Omkar Sane worked with us at Dentsu Webchutney between 2014 and 2015. During his time here, we received official complaints about his behaviour from two employees. Post the investigation which started the next day, he was let go from his position and the office immediately. And the company hasn’t worked with him in any capacity since then.”

The fallout 

In a positive affirmation of #MeToo, Prashant Jha had to step down as Politcal Editor and Bureau Chief of Hindustan Times following accusations levelled against him. 

Production house Phantom Films, helmed by Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena and Vikas Bahl, was dissolved ahead of an interview given by a former Phantom employee to Huff Post about the sexual assault on her by Vikas Bahl. Four other women have also levelled serious accusations against him. 

Comedy collective AIB co-founder Tanmay Bhat had to step down for not taking any action on sexual harassment complaints against co-founder Gursimran Khamba harassing. Khamba has been removed. Now there are doubts about the very existence of AIB post the developments. 

The films of AIB and actor Rajat Kapoor have been dropped from the 20th edition of Jio MAMI Film Festival. 

The coming days will see more news of the fallout of #MeToo. Now’s the time for women to come forward and also start legal action against their perpetrators, beyond just narrating their stories on social media. Only then will there be a closure. One is hopeful of a clean-up in the industry and bringing about equality and inclusion in the truest sense.

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