A complaint by a retired Bollywood actress living in the United States alleging sexual harassment on a 2008 movie set has galvanized women in India, but for the country’s burgeoning #MeToo movement to reach broader swaths of society, a little-known labor law must be more aggressively implemented, lawyers and activists said Thursday.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013 says Indian workplaces can be held liable for sexual harassment, and must create committees that are at least 50 percent women, presided over by a woman and with one external expert, to investigate and redress complaints. The law builds on the landmark 1997 Vishakha case, in which India’s Supreme Court held that sexual harassment at work violated a woman’s constitutional right to equality.
But nearly five years since the law came into effect, not enough managers or employees are aware of it, in part because of a lack of corporate and political messaging, said Naina Kapur, the attorney who argued the Vishakha case before the Supreme Court.
“Every time I get a call it’s after the event has happened. It’s supposed to be effectively communicated and it hasn’t been,” Kapur said, adding that in India, “as women get more into the marketplace and the workplace, their experience of sex harassment and violence is a growing area of concern but it’s not being heard.”
A flood of Indian actors and writers made themselves heard in recent days on social media, bypassing the protocol created by the 2013 law.
“The lack of faith in the system has led to people using social media to articulate their complaints,” T.K. Rajalakshmi, the president of the Indian Women’s Press Corps, said in a panel discussion Thursday.
The social media storm began in September, when former Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta spoke to several Indian TV news channels about her frustration with a fruitless police complaint she filed in 2008 against actor Nana Patekar for alleged sexual harassment on a Mumbai movie set.
Dutta said that after Patekar groped her during a dance routine, she fled the set and a mob surrounded her car, smashed the windshield and trapped her inside.
Patekar has denied the allegations.
Then on Oct. 4, Mumbai comedy group AIB announced it had decided to de-list every video featuring former member Utsav Chakraborty, whom women had taken to social media to condemn for alleged sexual harassment.
On Oct. 7, an unnamed former employee at Phantom Films writing in the Huffington Post described allegations she had made in 2015 against one of the company’s partners, director Vikas Bahl, whom she said behaved inappropriately during a trip to Goa.
The following day, company partners Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane dissolved Phantom Films. Bahl has filed an intent to sue his former partners for defamation.
Also on Oct. 8, journalist Sandhya Menon shared screenshots of her conversation with two women claiming that actor Rajat Kapoor harassed them over the phone.
Kapoor apologized on Twitter if he had “slipped and through my actions or words caused pain or hurt.”
That same day, former TV producer, director and writer Vinta Nanda said on Facebook and in TV interviews that she was raped 19 years ago by actor Alok Nath.
Nath responded to the allegations in a TV interview, saying he neither denied or agreed with them. “It must have happened, but someone else would have done it,” Nath said.
TV actress Sandy Mridul expressed her support for Nanda in a Tweet. Fellow TV actress Deepika Amin followed on Twitter: “Everyone in the industry knows that #AlokNath is an obnoxious drunkard who harasses women.”
On Oct. 10, actor and heavyweight Bollywood producer Aamir Khan and his wife Kiran Rao put out a statement saying they were “committed to doing any and everything to make our film industry a safe and happy one to work in.” In a Tweet, Khan said they were about to begin work with someone who has been accused of sexual misconduct and the matter is pending in court.
Perhaps the most startling development has been the string of accusations against Junior External Affairs Minister M.J. Akbar. In less than a week, at least nine women journalists have accused Akbar of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior when he was a newspaper editor in Kolkata and Delhi. Neither Akbar nor the ministry has responded.
For the movement to take hold in a broader strata of Indian society, the 2013 sex harassment law must be implemented more broadly, said Sunieta Ojha, a lawyer who regularly conducts workshops on the law.
“It requires a complete change of attitude toward women and toward workplace ethics. Employers instead of looking at it as a hassle, they have to see it as an investment. If they start doing that, it starts to have a very positive effect,” she said.
Mumbai police on Thursday said they had opened an investigation into Patekar after Dutta filed a fresh complaint, charging him with violating two sections of the Indian Penal Code related to offending a woman’s modesty. The maximum penalty if he is found guilty is two years’ imprisonment.
Dutta said that after the alleged attack in 2008, she also lodged a complaint with Cine and TV Artists Association (CINTAA), an institution now subject to the 2013 law.
Dutta’s lawyer, Nitin Satpute, said Dutta decided to speak out again about what allegedly happened to her in 2008 because she hoped the spotlight would help enforce the workplace sex harassment law within CINTAA.
“We think it will help further implement the law for working women who are victims of sexual harassment in the film agency association,” Satpute said. “Some are rich, some are poor, but many women are working there, and it will benefit all,” he said.