Nope, Vishakha Singh didn't really punish her Facebook abuser, and for good reason

One comment on actress Vishakha Singh's official Facebook page reads, "Generally I don't like any personality pages but I liked this one just because of your words."

The reason for such glowing praise? Singh is in news for facing a kind of sexual harassment that almost all women with social media accounts encounter. However, unlike most of us, she decided to hit back at the abuser. How? By chastising him on Facebook.

On 6 June, Singh received a comment on a picture she uploaded on her Facebook page. One MD Mustakim Saifi wrote, "Nice looking & nice boobs'. Instead of immediately deleting the comment and blocking the offender on Facebook like some of us do, she wrote back. "Mr MD Mustakim Saifi, 1) remove that innocent child’s picture as your dp. 2) have the guts to put your own profile picture . And then comment.”

She continued, “I know i am a woman.. And for your general knowledge, Yes, All women have breasts. Your mother, sister, wife, grandmother, aunts, daughter, friends. All of them included. Do you walk up to them and say ‘nice b***s’? Feel sorry for you. Have the guts to say it on my face?? Else, get off my page."

A number of commenters were more supportive. "He wasn't entitled to get a response but the way you responded to that particular comment, I truly appreciate that. I wish majority of Indian females were like this," applauded Ritesh Kathrecha.

Image courtesy: Facebook.

Vishakha Singh. Image courtesy: Facebook.

But let's be clear: Her response aside, Singh did exactly what a majority of women in India do when faced with such a situation. She deleted the post  and took down the picture later, saying, "Deleted the post that went viral. Not afraid of anyone but simply tired of unwanted negativity. A big thanks to all those who supported."

In any case, Singh's "hitting back" was limited to a Facebook response. She didn't go to the police, or try to bring her harasser to justice.

Could Singh, a budding actress in Bollywood, have lodged a formal complaint against the offender? Legally, yes.

But it would have been far from an easy ride to actually bring the offender to book. Sayantani Adhikary, a Kolkata-based PhD student, learnt this truth the hard way. Adhikary, who like us, is a part of several Facebook groups based on shared cultural and political interests, took on a person who was posting unflattering comments about the third sex. Infuriated, the man started sharing the link to Adhikary's profile, claiming that she was harassing him as he had refused to have sex with her.

"He shared my profile link with the message that I have been insisting on a sex chat with him, and since he refused, I am blackmailing him. Two or three other men, who had problems with my political beliefs took up the issue and started maligning me in a different forum. So I decided to complaint against all of them," Adhikary told Firstpost from Kolkata.

She lodged this complaint at her local police station in Kolkata.  The local police, evidently confused, suggested such complaints should be filed with the cyber crime cell.

Later, a man called Sanjay Shende, who Adhikary didn't know and had not interacted with a lot, started sending lewd messages to her on an online forum called Calcomm. Yet again, Adhikary decided to file an official complaint, this time at the cyber crime cell at the Kolkata Police's Lalbazar headquarters. However, nothing has come out of  either complaint yet.

This confusion over where to file a complaint against sexual harassment is one of the greatest hindrances in taking legal action against online harassers. Having adequate resolve to slap down a harasser is rarely enough.

Last year, when a man threatened to rape columnist and life coach Aparna Jain on Twitter, she reported the user and blocked the account. However, the person returned with another handle and mocked Jain's efforts to shut him down. He didn't stop at that, and even graphically described the way he intends to sexually violate her. (Here's a link to Jain's Scribd account of what transpired. )

So, armed with a print-out of all the tweets, Jain went to lodge a complaint at the local police station in Delhi. The officers in the police station didn't even know what Twitter was, leave alone understanding the concept of online sexual harassment. "They kept asking me, how I know the man. When I said I don't know him, they asked me how then, did he get my Twitter profile. It was obvious that he had no clue what he was dealing with," she told Firstpost.

She then went to lodge a complaint at the cyber crime department at Mandir Marg. An impatient junior police officer at the Mandir Marg cyber crime department in Delhi became irate when he discovered that Jain had already lodged a complaint in the local police station. Jain, however, stood her ground and asked for a senior officer, who she says, "was politely unhelpful'. After a lot of mind-numbing questions and information about the legalities involved, nothing came out of it as Twitter had by then taken down the first few accounts the man had been abusing her from.

Debarati Halder, a Tamil Nadu-based counseller for cyber abuse victims say that not only are police across the country ignorant about the laws under which online sexual harassers can be booked, it is difficult to convince them that the issue is serious and requires action.

"You are most likely to be mocked at and dismissed at police stations if you go to them with a case of online sexual harassment. From what my clients have said, most of them are first chided for being on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Then they are asked several questions where the needle of suspicion is always directed at the victim, even if you have comprehensive proof against the abuser," says Halder.

She narrated the case of a client whose picture was taken from her Facebook profile, morphed onto a stock picture of a nude torso and then turned into a separate profile soliciting sex. "At first, she was deeply embarrassed to even approach the police. However, horrified at what was happening, she decided to complain to the police. However, it was impossible to convince the police that the fake profile was not hers and she was consequently shooed away," says Halder.

Facebook is a breeding ground for sexual harassers. AFP

Facebook is a breeding ground for sexual harassers. AFP

The victim later got in touch with Halder, who wrote to Facebook on her behalf, upon which the profile was taken down. Armed with Facebook's response, the victim went back to the police. The police grudgingly accepted that maybe it was a faked profile but said that they couldn't do anything about it anymore as it was already blocked. The offender, therefore, was never brought to the book.

Jain and Adhikary shuttled between the local police and the cyber crime cells of their respective cities, with no outcome in their favour. Like Adhikary, Jain too wasn't told under what sections of the IPC she could lodge a complaint.

"I lodged the last complaint in the last week of May, after the Sec 66A of the IT Act had been scrapped. So the cyber cell police officer told me that maybe this case falls under the IPC (Indian Penal Code)," says Adhikary.

"None of the policemen and policewomen are sure what law to invoke when it comes to these cases. If they are at all convinced that a offence has been committed, they are torn between Sec 67 of the IT Act, which calls for 'punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form'," says Halder.

However, if you study the definition of sexual harassment under the Indian Penal Code, you'd think it wouldn't be quite as confusing. Section 509 of the IPC lists the following as offences:

"1. Accused uttered any word, made any sound or made a gesture or exhibits any object or intrude the privacy.
2. Accused intended that words uttered, sound made or gesture shown or object exhibited seen or heard by the woman.
3. It has to be directed towards a woman or group of women."

Most cases of online sexual harassment involves uttering lewd comments and are directed at women.

Bangalore based Gopika Bashi, a researcher and campaigner for Amnesty International India, writing about the tedious process of lodging an online sexual harassment complaint for Scroll, recounts that the constable who first talked to her seemed slightly confused too . "The constable seems confused and a little annoyed. He consults a few others, and they narrow down to two sections," she writes. In her case, however, the abuser was eventually traced and hauled up by the police.

Interestingly, Bashi mentions in her account that some of the police officers were slightly familiar with her due to a women's safety campaign she was doing for Amnesty. It's difficult to tell if the police officers would have acted with that much enthusiasm for any other woman, but as Bashi's case shows that a little sensitivity and interest goes a long way in booking such offenders.

The police, like I have noted in a previous article, mirror our society's patriarchal bias. This is true whether the harassment occurs online or off. But their ignorance in the case of cyber-harassment makes the usual hurdles that prevent reporting all the more daunting. Surely, the very definition of a law enforcement authority ought to require knowledge of the law. So who can blame Vishakha Singh for buckling down like the rest of us? The knowledge of what awaits us at the thana makes it all the easier to just hit 'delete'.


Published Date: Jun 12, 2015 10:05 am | Updated Date: Jun 12, 2015 10:18 am

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