AIB, India’s best-known comedy group, has imploded. Phantom Films has vanished like a spectre and the second season of its most ambitious project, Sacred Games, is threatened. The Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) has been scorched en passant. Journalists have quit or stepped down from managerial positions and one has exited a US thinktank. Most significantly, it appears that the nation will no longer have to suffer the primetime wisecracks of Suhel Seth. The second #MeToo wave in India is a success because it has hurt the business plans of two industries. The penny does not drop until the paisa is pinched. It’s been pinched hard.
Only MJ Akbar, India’s youngest newspaper editor at one time and a smooth politician at all other times on the journey from Kishanganj to Delhi, survived the immediate holocaust on account of protocol. Of course, his story was splashed on the front page of the Kolkata Telegraph, the newspaper which he founded in 1982 and made “unputdownable”, to quote its own slogan. In the long term, his career could be over. He is unlikely to get an External Affairs portfolio ever again.
Now, the National Commission for Women is taking the matter forward, which has the effect of giving institutional force to what had thus far been a flood of accusations in public conversation. This should also systematise the proceedings. The last round of #MeToo, which had targeted the academic community, had deflated itself by ranging infamous serial offenders alongside casual transgressors, and perhaps even the victims of accusers in search of revenge for sundry slights. In the absence of a classification based on the gravity of the offence, it was never clear what curative responses could be reasonably expected in each case. It was just good entertainment for a while, and then it stalled and was forgotten.
The present #MeToo wave is built on stronger foundations, but even so, it would benefit from categorising allegations according to what should automatically attract the attention of the law, and what can be sufficiently addressed by rights bodies or the internal processes of institutions. Charges like the one against actor Alok Nath clearly invite criminal proceedings even in the absence of a victim’s complaint. Another category, in which the accusation against Suhel Seth falls, calls for an institutional response because a legal process could be inconclusive. A third category consists of women who felt imposed upon, but a bystander could dismiss it as subjective (depends on the bystander selected, of course). The appropriate response here is a done deed — shaming.
The risk of lumping all cases under a single head is to conclude that shaming, the default response, is a sufficient answer to all. This is what happened in the pathbreaking matter of the list of academics which brought #MeToo to India. Lions were ranged beside rabbits, cheek by quivering jowl, and the matter was soon forgotten. A serious problem was trivialised for want of outcomes that could be reasonably expected. The fact that victims have gone to social media suggests that the institutional systems for addressing this problem have been inadequate, and legal recourse unavailable. The latter is important, as the last court of appeal.