By Sharanya Gopinathan
Harvey Weinstein is the current gold standard of sexual harassment — there are whispers about other Harvey Weinsteins, think pieces on the next Harvey Weinstein, and our media has hinted at India’s own Harvey Weinsteins. But why do we need a Weinstein in these Make in India times, when we have our shuddh desi RK Pachauri?
On 1 March 2015, the Delhi police filed a chargesheet against Nobel Prize winner Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, the director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), accusing him of offences of sexual harassment, stalking and “outraging the modesty of a woman”, based on the complaint of a former researcher at TERI. Soon after these reports came out, 12 others spoke out through lawyers and the media about their own experiences of harassment by Pachauri. It emerges from these accounts that Pachauri, like Weinstein, allegedly seemed to carry on his harassment through a systematic abuse of his power, and did so over decades.
The similarities between the sexual harassment allegations against the Miramax founder and TERI director would be laughable if they weren’t so telling. Looking at the parallels, and particularly what seems to be their MO of sexual predation based on survivors’ accounts, you realise this doesn’t just 'happen' — there are frameworks and tools in place making sure that powerful men get away with it.
Immediately after the Weinstein allegations, there’s been discussion in the American media about the fairness of one of these tools: Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). NDAs are legal contracts that define information that can be shared between two parties, and what must be restricted from everyone else. It’s a standard part of employment contracts worldwide, including India, and such a clause is partly why Weinstein’s employees found it hard to speak out.
In cases of sexual harassment in America, it’s common for powerful men to “buy” their victims’ silence through NDAs before the cases ever reach court. These are agreements — in return for a sum of money — that the victim cannot pursue a civil case against the harasser, nor speak about what happened. They’re not framed as admissions of guilt by the accused, but have been called (usually by the accused’s lawyer) an attempt to “buy peace”. Women often resort to NDAs in the face of their harasser’s influence and pressure, and in the uncertainty of receiving justice through the long, humiliating legal process. As one former Miramax employee told the New York Times about Weinstein’s legal tricks — “It felt like David versus Goliath. The guy with all the money and the power flexing his muscle and quashing the allegations and getting rid of them.”
In India, you can’t make this kind of agreement about sexual harassment. Our system sees crimes as dire violations against society that cannot be compensated with money, which is why you can’t file a civil case in most instances of violent crimes, including violence against women. You also can’t contract away your right to approach courts in the event of a crime.
So, Indian men turn to other legal tools, like arbitrary court orders, injunctions and even defamation suits against their accusers. They’ve proven to be hugely effective in frightening and silencing women, and while several men involved in sexual misconduct controversies like Mahesh Murthy and Manik Katyal seem to have tried this, it looks like RK Pachauri has mastered the art of legal hopscotch better than anyone.
On 17 February 2015, a reporter at the Economic Times heard of the FIR that one of Pachauri’s victims had attempted to file. The reporter called Pachauri for a quote, which was the first Pachauri had heard of it (oh, to have been a fly on the wall!). Pachauri managed to secure an emergency meeting at a judge’s house that night, after court was closed, to say his devices had been hacked (the cops eventually figured that was a big fat lie), and to (successfully) secure an injunction on the story based on this lie. The stay lasted a day, but it's still amazing to see how quickly a man like Pachauri can wriggle around within the system, when women have been waiting for years to just get their day in court.
Even more brazenly, Pachauri has swung his legal bolas at the women who supported the survivors. Two of his victims approached senior advocate Vrinda Grover with their accounts, and she requested police to record their testimonies in the ongoing case to show his predatory patterns and character. After months, Grover made a statement to the media detailing the latest victim’s account, and her own repeated representations to the police to record other victims’ testimonies. In retaliation, Pachauri filed a defamation case against Grover for Rs 1 crore in a move that the country’s leading activists called bogus and damaging to the pursuit of justice. They also hinted that the lawsuit seemed to be a SLAPP, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation; one “intended to silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism.”
He also managed to secure a court order making it mandatory that all media houses publish a disclaimer alongside their coverage of the allegations against him that said, “in any court the allegations have not been proved and they may not be correct”.
It isn’t just the legal tools powerful men have (remember when TVF founder Arunabh Kumar responded to the allegations of sexual harassment against him by threatening legal action against the survivor?), but other factors too. Both scandals, Weinstein and Pachauri, were called their industries’ “worst kept secrets” (Arunabh’s was too, actually). Everybody knew about their behaviour, and either encouraged them (Weinstein’s staff were reportedly involved in the process of procuring women), turned a blind eye or were afraid to challenge them.
They also operate under frameworks of massive power, especially when they're leaders of their own institutions. Reporting sexual harassment by the top boss to the internal complaints committee can seem daunting (and useless: TERI’s response to the first victim who spoke out against Pachauri was reportedly to do nothing). It’s been said that the internal attitude towards the founder, and the fact that the top appointments in HR are probably made by the company’s head, make it extra difficult for the victims to speak up internally, or to continue in the organisation if they do. In Pachauri’s case, the complainant left TERI, while Pachauri was promoted.
Weinstein's case threw everyone for a loop because he was a known champion of “liberal values” — he was all for women’s sexual freedom and had donated money to the Clinton foundation (which actually doesn’t prove anything). Pachauri, too, surprised India’s liberals — men who work against climate change and win Nobel Prizes don't find themselves embroiled in cases of sexual harassment… or so people thought. Pachauri even tried to take advantage of having the international audience’s ear and gave a pitiful interview to The Guardian where he tried to make it sound like he was the victim of a conspiracy to bring down climate change researchers.
The similarity ends at their reactions to the allegations. Pachauri ran from pillar to post crying conspiracy, extolling his virtue and innocence to make people feel bad for him, and attempted get back at those who supported his victims by lobbing cases at them and ducking. Weinstein, however, has reportedly been seeing a gender sensitivity advisor for a year, and when these allegations broke, released an apology in response. He didn’t actually admit to anything and it’s not a real apology because he doesn’t admit to the allegations, but it’s a damn sight better than an alleged harasser who continues to play the victim.
The many unlikely similarities between the two cases only show us that sexual harassment is about power, and hierarchies of power, that exist all over the world. They aren’t the aberrations of some bad eggs, but entire industries, laws and systems working to abuse, oppress and silence women. It's an uphill battle and it’s easy to feel daunted and overwhelmed by it. But women, through global responses like #MeToo, are clearly standing together in equally overwhelming ways, and it’s wonderful, because now, more than ever, women realise that they have a chance against the Man.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine
Updated Date: Oct 17, 2017 17:15:52 IST