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Dear Indian Men, breathe, you're not 'under a siege'

Gentle and not-so-gentle men of India, I am writing to you in your hour of crisis. You, sirs, are under siege. Chances are you didn't realise this because you get paid more than women on an average, enjoy greater freedom than women in your demographic, face no gender prejudice, are applauded for your progressive liberalism when you do revolutionary things like treat a woman as your equal, and generally benefit from living in a patriarchal society. But don't let this facade fool you. Listen, instead, to author Palash Krishna Mehrotra.

In a column titled "Men under a siege", Mehrotra shares with readers the insight he has gleaned from the allegations against Tarun Tejpal: "hysterical feminism" in India is making it impossible for men to have relationships with women.

To be fair to Mehrotra, not everything he's written is beyond the understanding of presumably hysterical feminists like me. He has a point when he says Tehelka and Tejpal's financial details are irrelevant to the case filed against him. To hang this dirty laundry out to dry "smacks of going after a fallen man," writes Mehrotra and this is true. However, this doesn't make the reports about Tejpal's finances untrue. One could also point out that Mehrotra's attempt at wiping away the muck of accusations flung at Tejpal don't quite relate to the charges against him either. The general eagerness to pillory Tejpal and whether or not he is a "maverick" have no bearing on the allegation that he forced his attentions upon a woman journalist.

Representational image. AFP.

Representational image. AFP.

Also, in an effort to raise his own and the Tejpal camp's spirits, Mehrotra observes many literary giants have jail terms to their name. This is true. Perhaps in the future Tejpal will write a brilliant novel. Maybe the book launch can be held at Prufrock. However, a criminal case isn't necessarily indication of literary genius. There is an equal (if not larger) number of perfectly law-abiding men and women who have written excellent literature. The list, to quote Mehrotra, is "long and illustrious."

But it's Mehrotra's understanding of the updated legal definitions of rape and harassment that makes me worry for Mehrotra and his notions of masculinity.

"The definition of sexual harassment has been widened to include 'sexual overtures' (like sending an email or a text message), demanding 'sexual favours' and 'forcible disrobing'," writes Mehrotra.

I'm not sure how any of these constitute a grey area. It's not like the law frowns upon emails and text messages in general. If you want to send a message that would colloquially be described as 'dirty', it's a good idea to do so only when you're certain that your correspondent would be open to such propositions. That's the only scenario in which sending such an email or SMS is likely to get you some 'action'. If you're going to sign off a casual message about world peace or instructions to the bai with "Wanna ****?", it's unlikely that this will work out well for you.

Forcibly disrobing someone means you're making a person take their clothes off when they want to keep said clothes on. That's not a grey area. It's aggression. And the point at which you find yourself forcing someone to get naked with you is when you've got to step back and realise this relationship isn't working out for either of you.

It's equally misguided and technically incorrect to suggest one can demand sexual favours. The word 'favour' means "an act of kindness beyond what is due". One can only demand what is due. The moment it's a favour, it can't be demanded. The only situation in which one could demand a sexual favour is a BDSM relationship, and I'm not sure we should rap the legal system on its knuckles for not anticipating the requirements of doms and subs. It's only just managed to acknowledge homosexuality as an acceptable choice. Give it time.

But Mehrotra's outrage doesn't end there. "Frighteningly, the new law makes it clear that consent given under intoxication does not translate into informed consent," he complains. This is perplexing because from what he's written of his experiments with alcohol and narcotics in The Butterfly Generation, you'd think Mehrotra would be intimately aware that when drunk, the last thing one can do is make informed decisions. From walking straight to vomiting and passing out, the only thing informing your decisions when drunk is an inability to process information.

"This means that a drunken consensual tumble with a woman can come back to haunt the man the next day, or even ten years later. This seems grossly unfair," continues Mehrotra.

I have to admit, at this point, Mehrotra's concerns are raising concerns in me too; not for the hapless men who may trapped into false cases by once-drunk women, but for Mehrotra's idea of a love life in which the critical component appears to be a lack of clarity about what 'consent' means. That "tumble" has to add a whole new dimension to "bad sex" if a woman is so disappointed by the man's performance that she will accuse him of rape the next day or worse, ten years later. (Never mind the ego that assumes that women would nurse the memory of 'tumbles' for 10 years.)

The hysterical feminist in me would like to point out, what would qualify as unfair are the ploys used by sexual predators to silence their victims and the number of women who have been denied justice in the past because of the limitations of the law. The well wisher of mankind in me would like to offer one bit of advice: if you can't convince a woman to have sex with you when she's sober, that relationship is obviously not working out for you. Plus, considering the mechanics of the act, blurry vision and limited hand-eye coordination cannot make for particularly satisfying sex.

But these are pedantic details. There's a larger picture that is causing alarm in Mehrotra: "Many Indian men admit privately that they feel they are under a state of siege. The bedroom has been criminalised."

First of all, speak for your bedroom, sir. For those of us who aren't unsure about the meaning of consent, the bedroom is nicely legal, thank you very much. If the bedroom is an area of drunk and possibly unwilling sexual partners or one in which women are forcibly disrobed, then it was arguably a place bordering on the criminal even without the updated legal definition of rape. Never mind the minor detail of who these "many" Indian men whom Mehrotra speaks of are, this siege and criminalised bedroom sounds like a role playing game gone terribly wrong.

Mehrotra's outrage at the "draconian" law is amusing at one level. A single occasion in which he feels the law may not deliver justice to a male accused has Mehrotra flapping with paranoia. For decades, the laws governing violence against women have been appallingly in favour of the perpetrator. Laws have been manipulated and misused, letting many rapists and abusers walk free. In the past, every step of the process of registering and fighting a case of rape, from filing a complaint to the legal proceedings, further victimised the complainant. Women have been under siege for generations. From the terrible plight of people like the Suryanelli victim, it's obvious that many still are. But Mehrotra has eyes only for men who can't adjust to not having the law pronouncedly on their side.

Is the law perfect in its present avatar? No one claims it is and amendments will no doubt be added with time. However, the most recent updates seek to redress the imbalance that made the law criminally unsympathetic to victims and complainants. Today, the burden of proof is placed upon the accused, which makes sense in a country where sex crimes burden women with terrible stigma regardless of whether the perpetrator is found guilty by a court of law. Committing rape and abuse doesn't impact men. Mehrotra offers evidence of this himself by saying we shouldn't write Tejpal off even if he is found guilty. This, apparently, is a sign of a gender under siege.

Men take pride in sexual aggression in India. They find champions like Mehrotra who has no qualms making an exhibition of his misogyny (and weak debating skills). Perhaps it's the hysterical feminist in me typing, but maybe if we actually had draconian laws, men like Mehrotra would be compelled to evolve sensitivity to issues like consent and harassment. After all, centuries of draconian practices against Indian women certainly helped develop our sense of restraint and ability to suffer fools.

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