The recent incident in Kerala, in which actor Swetha Menon retracted her charges of sexual misbehaviour by a Congress MP in a day since she made them, should be a typical case study as to why India continues to be an unsafe place for women.
It showed that there is a fundamental problem in the way power works against women in India. It also showed - whether our people and courts are outraged or not, and whether politicians such as Jaya Bachchan shed tears in the parliament or not - that there is no hope for women and they are extremely unsafe.
For those who haven’t seen the details, this is what happened to the award winning actor:
She was invited to the southern district of Kollam in Kerala as the chief guest of a local boat race At the event, she appeared happy, cheered the crowd and participated in the festivities. However, after the event, she told the media that a local politician sexually misbehaved with her. She looked upset and broke down before the media; but didn't name the politician.
The CPM-run news channel soon disclosed that the culprit was the local Congress MP even as TV channels started airing clippings of the event in which they highlighted how the khadi-clad politician was trying to get physically close and touchy-feely with her.
The actor told the media that she was extremely hurt with what had happened to her. Even more hurtful, she said, was that the district collector, to whom she had complained about the incident, denied having spoken to her. The district collector repeated his denial to the media as well. The actor said she would submit a complaint to the chief minister and was determined to fight the case.
Ideally, the police should have suo moto registered a case based on the media reports as it had done in the past. But they kept quiet. The chief minister and the home minister said the police would take action if the actress filed a complaint.
Sensing political mileage, the DYFI, the youth wing of the CPM, filed a complaint with the police and the police was forced to record the actor’s statement, in which she alleged sexual misbehaviour by the MP and an unknown, but identifiable, person. The copy of her statement, which later appeared in the media, clearly mentioned the name of the MP. That was enough for the police to file an FIR and begin investigations. The MP was certainly in serious trouble. By law, the the statement by the victim is prima facie and is good enough.
But what happened subsequently was shocking.
The actor sent a mail from Bangalore, where she had gone for a private function, to media houses saying that she was withdrawing her complaint because her old father advised her to forgive the MP since he had apologised. The MP said he was happy about her decision, but his apology was only as an organiser of the boat-race and not because he committed any mistake.
Why did an upset and angry Swetha Menon, who said she was determined to fight the case and even testified to the police naming the MP, change her mind overnight when the police was pushed to take action?
That’s how power works against women in India. Reportedly, the actor was under immense pressure from various quarters ever since she made the disclosure to the media. The pressure came in the form of advice, sweet coercion, threats and even blackmail. The first to get in touch with her was her own industry colleagues close to the ruling party who warned her about the possible consequences.
The most outrageous was a press conference by the Kollam district Congress committee in which the president made disparaging remarks on the actor and said that her finances needed to be investigated by the Income Tax department. It was a direct threat.
“A woman who had filmed her childbirth cannot be considered a victim,” said another Congress leader justifying the inaction by the police. A film producer openly said that if she pursued the complaint, it would affect her film career.
Reportedly, several centres of power worked overtime in persuading Swetha Menon to withdraw her charges - including through direct threats by politicians in the media. The message to her was that she would have to pay a huge price if she didn’t back out.
So, in the end, despite all the public adulation, awards and apparent power of a celebrity that she enjoyed, Swetha Menon had to eat back her words. The strengthened law of the land, the recent court judgements and the tides of public outrage didn't help her either, although she was among the privileged.
If this is what happens to those with access to power and resources in society, how does one expect the countless girls and women who have no voice? If one cannot stand up against even a local politician, how does one stand up against a system? When she withdrew her complaint, majority of the prominent voices that expressed happiness said what she did was wise. They were in fact making an example of how women should behave, when sexually abused.
The actor would have certainly disappointed activists who wanted the government to take action against the MP. But the most disturbing was her statement that she didn’t want to be made a model for other women by fighting this case.
So once again, the men won and women lost.
Updated Date: Nov 05, 2013 14:54:46 IST