MeToo in India is just about a year old. While plenty of brave survivors of rape, assault and sexual harassment have been speaking out against their perpetrators even before feminism became a term, the MeToo movement’s place in the annals of feminist history is guaranteed for encouraging and helping millions of women tell their stories of abuse with this simple hashtag. Here, we must acknowledge that the movement was started by a black activist in the US, Tarana Burke, in 2006.
MeToo in India
In India, the movement took hold only in October 2017, driven largely by the Weinstein investigations and then kicked into high gear by the publication of a crowd-sourced list of sexual harassers in academia, LoSHA (List of sexual harassers in Academia).
With many predators being outed by ordinary women (mostly) on social media, mainstream media’s primary impulse was to use the movement to generate clicks and traffic by giving space to alleged perpetrators to defend themselves, even as corporate India maintained a studied silence to avoid scrutiny on their own lack of action on this grave issue as well as evade pressure to take substantial action—perhaps hoping that the movement would be ephemeral in its impact and existence. One strained to hear even slight murmurs from corporates on this matter, even as a well-known name in start-up circles, VC investor Mahesh Murthy, was arrested for sexually assaulting a woman.
Then, in September 2018, MeToo erupted again, which in common parlance meant that the media took note of it because Bollywood got (deservedly) dragged into the mud. Tanushree Dutta told her story of being molested by Nana Patekar and the horrific aftermath, and her account precipitated a flood of MeToo stories from survivors across Indian media and arts. Luminaries (but really, sexual predators of the worst kind) included MJ Akbar, Vinod Dua, Suhel Seth, Chetan Bhagat, Jatin Das, Vikas Bahl, KR Sreenivas, Alok Nath and Sajid Khan. Since few women have resorted to filing legal cases against the perpetrators and none of these allegations have been proved in a court of law yet, it means carceral punishment hasn’t been meted out to anyone. Right now, the worst thing that has happened to these men is a loss of income from their jobs and their work being de-platformed, aside from the loss of reputation and the shaming in public and social media.
Whither corporate India?
But where is corporate India in the MeToo revolution? Though usually keen to jump on to any bandwagon that captures the public imagination, most notably the sudden zeal to embrace all things clean and green, companies in India are yet to get involved in this movement. The only exception is when one of their employees or ex-employees is accused of wrongdoing, which elicits a carefully worded statement about how seriously they are taking these allegations, and in some cases has been followed up by suspension of the accused person. For example, Tata Sons issued a terse statement when the allegations against Suhel Seth came to light and ended their association with him. Aside from such forced, unavoidable acknowledgements of the movement’s fall-outs, companies have seen fit to avoid the MeToo spotlight.
The question remains: in one year of MeToo in India, has anything changed?
From reports, it seems most companies were caught napping on this issue and are now in a frenzied rush to finally provide training to their employees and ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) members (if they exist at all) on sexual harassment and the related law – specifically the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act – and have woken up to concepts like statute of limitations and survivors needing moral and emotional support. While, prima facie, this may seem like a positive development, it is quite concerning; as CB had explained in this article on the sexual harassment law, one of the basic duties of employers is mandatory training on sexual harassment for its staff and ICC members. And while not explicitly mentioned, employers are expected to have a good understanding of the features, intent and content of the law.
Judging by the way companies are scrambling to get their houses in order, it does seem most companies have been wilfully ignorant of this important workplace law. This exposes their many hollow words in support of gender equality and the state of their internal due processes. It is also quite troubling when one thinks of the victims of harassment who opted for such shoddy processes or those who kept quiet about such atrocities because they knew, rightly so, that the system was lopsided in favour of the abusers.
Take the latest news report on Taj Hotels (part of the Tata Group) and Tata Sons. The victim who was harassed by the then CEO and MD of Taj Hotels, Rakesh Sarna, couldn’t even lodge an official complaint with the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) committee at Taj since it included Sarna and had his subordinates as members. This requirement of precluding the alleged harasser from being involved in or influencing the committee is the minimum that is expected from any company’s management. Tata Sons even tried to bully her into signing a letter stating that her ‘decision to quit the Tata Group was based purely on personal reasons’ and not because she was repeatedly harassed.
How corporates evade questions and responsibility
But this isn’t surprising. Earlier this year, when CB reached out to multiple companies asking for the steps they had taken to address sexual harassment within their organisations, how they attempted to create a safe space for women employees, and their thoughts on MeToo, barely a handful of companies responded and even fewer gave acceptable replies. Much of the responses were a trite, poorly disguised version of a PR exercise, designed to deflect rather than engage.
The number of sexual-harassment cases in workplaces has increased by 54 per cent, from 371 cases in 2014 to 570 in 2017 and 533 cases in the first seven months of 2018 (the MeToo effect?), as per data from the Ministry of Women and Child Development. When one considers the fact that the Act is applicable to all workplaces with more than 10 employees, these numbers are indeed abysmal. In fact, while perusing annual reports of some well-known companies, the number of sexual-harassment cases lodged (which needs to be disclosed as per the law) was usually zero or in single digits and, in a few cases, even in the lower double digits. Think of it this way: most of these companies have employees in the thousands, and if even 40 per cent of employees are female and if they are actually supported and empowered by their organisations, the aforementioned numbers should be much higher—unless one assumes that corporate India is somehow divorced from the rest of Indian society and has achieved true gender equality for all.
Sexism in its many avatars are rife in Indian companies and sexist, ribald comments are commonplace. Sexual abuse is the next logical next step when perpetrators have no fear of being outed or of negative repercussions. As noted in the same CB report, about 70 per cent of women who perceive sexual harassment at workplace do not complain, as per NCW member-secretary Satbir Bedi.
Playing catch-up with the current zeitgeist is par for the course when it comes to Indian companies. It is unlikely that sexual harassment would have even been an issue for many of them if the Act didn’t exist. The second part of CB’s report on sexual harassment in Indian workplaces clearly shows how lax enforcement actually is, and also how clueless many organisations are about its basic provisions.
For instance, take Infosys, said to be one of the more socially conscious companies in the country. They first gave the standard excuse of the spokesperson not being available for comments and directing us, as usual, to their annual report (lest we didn’t already know about this basic resource). When CB replied that the annual report didn’t answer our specific queries and that we will have to simply mention in the article that Infosys did not respond, they promptly disputed this and stated ‘it would be incorrect to say that Infosys did not respond to your queries’—a classic case of doublespeak.
When explained that Infosys was in a unique position to give its thoughts and recommendations on dealing with this grave matter since it had one of the highest number of sexual-harassment cases reported among Indian companies, all we received was a bland statement with standard corporatespeak, such as ‘encouraging a culture of respect for all people’ and ‘increasing awareness’. So much for women empowerment.
However, Infosys wasn’t the worst offender. Canon India submitted a PR statement that had very little to do with the issue of sexual harassment and more about what a great company Canon was. When this was pointed out, the response was, ‘We will not be answering specific questions on this.’ We did appreciate the honesty.
Again, such deflections and prevarications are expected. In 2016, when the Indian National Bar Association, a non-profit organisation, asked 6,047 survey participants in various cities if their ICC dealt fairly with complaints, around 67 per cent of the respondents replied ‘no’.
So, is it foolhardy to expect corporate India to do more than just react to current events and recognise the importance and primacy of a safe, bias-free working environment? Probably. The fact that organisations have only started cottoning on to this movement and are rushing to comply with the basic requirements of the law shows that left to their own devices, they would have serenely ignored such abuses as long as shareholders were happy. To them, the workplace environment is operating fine as long as no one raises their voice against injustices and harassment; the fact that injustices and harassment exist is of little concern. The idea is to pretend all’s well because a scandal-free company is easier to sell in the market. The problem is that the burden of those scandals, of abuses falls squarely on the shoulders of those who are often in a position bereft of power. So the top executives and the market remain blissfully oblivious, while the precariat, mostly women, suffer. What is patently clear is that without external public pressure and enforcement by the government, sexual harassment at Indian workplaces will continue to remain a common occurrence. What companies should remember is that employee safety and well-being—physical, mental, emotional—is their responsibility and when that is not present, they are culpable for any incident that occurs in their workplace.