Changing the Status Quo

Article excerpt

New Delhi, Nov. 23 -- You could say it's just another week in the life of working women in India. A retired Supreme Court judge is probed for sexual harassment. A high profile editor faces charges of sexual assault. And revelations emerge of a massive surveillance effort on a working woman in Gujarat, allegedly by then home minister Amit Shah at the behest of an unnamed "saheb".

Each instance involves powerful men in roles that demand public accountability. Two cases bring home the terrifying brutality of that violence, and the inordinate courage it takes to stand up against it.

A three-judge Supreme Court panel has begun an inquiry into charges of sexual harassment levelled by an intern against a recently retired judge. The intern had earlier this month blogged about her harassment that had occurred last year in December. What began as a solitary blog has rippled wide. Another intern has spoken about being sexually harassed by the same judge and a lawyer says she was harassed by a senior advocate. How far does this rot go? And what protection does the legal fraternity afford to women who speak up?

A similar can of worms is being prised open with a journalist at Tehelka saying she was sexually assaulted by the magazine's founder Tarun Tejpal at its recent Think festival (disclosure: my husband and I were invited to Think by Tejpal).

Tejpal has admitted to a "lapse of judgment" as he "recuses" himself from the magazine for six months, an act he describes as "atonement". It is not enough. His publication has assumed the role of public interest journalism and, ironically, Tejpal's own favoured thinking cap is of a crusader against injustice. An alleged violation of the law is not an "internal matter" as Tehelka's managing editor Shoma Chaudhury told The Indian Express. If Tejpal has broken the law, he must face its legal consequences.

There is no room for ambiguity. But sadly these narratives of violence seem to follow politically preordained trajectories. Our responses to them are fashioned not in absolute terms of right and wrong but selectively conditioned by political leanings. …