We have been witnessing history and ‘herstory’ being made with a spate of allegations on the social media in what has been termed as India’s #MeToo movement. This has resulted in a spate of resignations, the most high profile being the resignation of the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs, M J Akbar. Akbar has in turn filed a criminal defamation suit against his accuser, journalist Priya Ramani.
However, the Editors’ Guild of India has issued a statement that the criminal defamation tool has always been used to harass journalists, and there has been a longstanding demand to repeal it. That Akbar should use the very tool that he, as an editor, and his tribe of journalists have always stood against, is ironic to say the least. But, Farah Naqvi has written, “However long the defamation suit, it will not cover the image of the under-wear,” referring to another woman journalist who has stated that Akbar asked her to come for an interview, and opened his hotel room door dressed in just that!
At the time of writing, Akbar remains a Member of Parliament – a man of incredible power and privilege, and one who can arm-twist just anyone. On the other side is a lone woman’s voice, saying it happened. Though 21 women, who worked with the Asian Age, have written that they either observed or were subjected to sexual harassment while working under Akbar, the question is: should the women not speak out?
After over seventy years, do we not create an archive of those who witnessed Partition, so that we remember history, so as to not repeat it? Testimonies of horrific violence on both sides only serve to humanise society; the women who jumped into wells to escape sexual molestation and rape did not survive to tell their stories, but those who did, must speak out. and record their searing memories for the future generations.
During Partition, over a million people died, and its survivors suffered post-traumatic shock for years after the incident. Reena Nanda’s book, From Quetta to Delhi – a Partition Story, reveals her mother’s suffering many years later. For those who suffered sexual harassment over twenty years ago, let them speak!
While filming for my documentary, Now, I Will Speak, in 1992, I remember recording Guntaben – a Tribal woman who had been displaced during the construction of the Okai dam. She and her husband were sleeping in the fields when they were picked up by the police. Her husband was placed at the back of the truck, while she was placed in the front with two policemen on either side. At some point, the police stopped the truck, a policeman gagged her mouth with his hand, and they took turns in raping her. Amnesty International took up the case, and the policeman were sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment after a trial that lasted several years. Not letting a woman speak is like placing a hand over her mouth.
The personal is political; the testimonies must come forth. It is the degradation, humiliation and oppression of years. If we do not know, how can we possibly deal with it? What do we learn from listening to the silenced? To some men, power and privilege meant that they could say and do whatever they liked with impunity. Perhaps, a truth and reconciliation commission is required where women can place on record what happened, and men (along with complicit women) in power learn from their mistakes. It would be healing for an already fractured and traumatised society.
As South Africa transitioned from apartheid to a democratically elected majority rule, the whites were petrified by a backlash. Yet, it was the humanitarian wisdom of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela that created a space for a rainbow society where the blacks, victimised under apartheid, spoke of what happened, and some whites confessed. As a man testified before the Commission, ‘the man was lain down on his back and a wet sack-cloth placed around his head. Two men would be placed on his back. It took him under ten minutes to squeal about his comrades’. In their compassion, the founding fathers of South Africa did not ask for retribution, but embraced their apartheid oppressors. In India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi launched the campaign for non-cooperation, but withdrew his movement when Chauri Chaura happened – an infuriated mob burnt and killed 25 people at the Chauri Chaura police station.
Women must speak out, and the others must listen; it is the unuttered cry of centuries, and the time has come as Seamus Heaney wrote:
‘History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But Then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.’
Speaking out is the ahimsa (non-violence) of our times.
Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author and film director.