In October 2018, almost a year to the day after the #MeToo movement erupted in the US around film producer Harvey Weinstein, allegations of sexual harassment and assault flooded India. Women began recounting tales from years or even decades earlier, often at great risk to their reputations and safety.
For five of India’s most prominent accusers, the price has been steep. A young victim of alleged rape by a lawmaker attempted to burn herself outside the residence of her state's chief minister, after her father died in police custody. A high-profile journalist has been sued for defamation by the man she accused. Another journalist says she has had trouble finding work. And a Bollywood actress says she feels her allegations led to real change in India, though the fallout since she first made them more than a decade ago contributed to her decision to relocate to the US, exhausted.
As for the accused men, some have remained in their jobs. Others said their reputations and careers were hurt by the allegations. Most deny wrongdoing and a few have fought back in court.
Despite the mixed record of India’s #MeToo movement, some women feel they are witnessing the beginnings of long-overdue legal and cultural shifts. “#MeToo helped some people realize how widespread molestation and harassment are,” said Karuna Nundy, an advocate in India’s Supreme Court who has worked on rape cases.
“I can’t be anything but hopeful,” Nundy added. “It is these interventions that change not just the life of the individual, but also change the system for everybody else.”
A year into India’s #MeToo movement, here are the stories behind five allegations made last year, and how they have played out:
The Young Survivor
She was barely 16 years old when a prominent member of Uttar Pradesh’s legislative assembly, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, allegedly raped her in the Unnao district in 2017. Her complaint to the police has been laid out in charging documents filed by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, in 2018. The case is being considered by a New Delhi court at the direction of India’s Supreme Court. The girl, whose identity is shielded under India’s laws, is known simply as the Unnao rape survivor.
In the police complaint, she said she was lured by the promise of a job and raped at the lawmaker’s residence by him and others before being abducted and sold to another individual for Rs 60,000 ($846). She managed to escape. The girl’s attempt at self-immolation in April 2018 outside the chief minister’s residence in her state made headlines in India and around the world, just before the country’s #MeToo movement picked up strength.
Sengar was part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, until his expulsion earlier this year. He remains a lawmaker although he is still in police custody. In television interviews, he has denied all charges. He couldn’t be reached by phone.
Her father died in police custody last year after allegedly being beaten by an associate of Sengar’s. In July, on her way to New Delhi to seek a response from the chief justice of India, her car was hit by a truck, an incident that has led to a separate investigation by the CBI. Two aunts traveling with her died. India’s chief justice ordered the girl and her lawyer, who also was traveling with her, to be air-lifted from a local hospital to the state-run All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. He ordered the Uttar Pradesh state government run by the BJP to pay her compensation of Rs 25 lakh ($35,272).
The girl and her lawyer are both still in the hospital, where judges are holding in-camera sessions to hear her case. She is recovering, said Devendra Singh, brother of her lawyer, Mahendra Singh Chauhan.
The Ad Writer
An offhand Tweet by Indian comedian Utsav Chakraborty about men behaving badly on a cruise ship played a role in launching India’s #MeToo movement when it caught the eye of Mumbai-based advertising professional Mahima Kukreja, causing her to come forward with allegations about his behavior.
Replying to the tweet, Kukreja alleged Chakraborty had sent her unsolicited photos of a penis two years earlier. The ensuing Twitter furor prompted an apology from Chakraborty, and from his former employer, comedy collective All India Bakchod. The collective apologized for continuing to work with the comedian after its chief executive officer had received “specific, detailed allegations” of sexual harassment against him.
Almost eight months later, the group announced it fired its staff and halted production of new comedy sketches on its YouTube channel after most of its partners had decided to stop working with it.
In an email, Chakraborty said he has few friends left and would like to be in therapy but can’t afford it because he is not working. “I haven’t worked or seen a paycheck since last October,” he said.
He said that he’s done things that were “problematic” and that the realization they made people “uncomfortable” has taken a heavy toll on him. He wishes the #MeToo movement well, though says in his case the media ran “wildly irresponsible and exaggerated accounts of what happened without a single ounce of verification or factual assessment,” and that there was no independent investigation of the allegations.
“Someday, maybe, I’ll talk about what transpired in detail,” he said. “It was not at all as cut and dry as it was presented to the world. But in the interim, I just hope to not be an absolute dingbat now or in the future — if I get to have one, that is.”
Kukreja emerged as a leader of the #MeToo movement in India, as women across the country asked her to use her Twitter platform to give voice to their experiences of harassment and assault. In an email, she said that in the year since she came forward she has gained “some powerful platforms,” yet has struggled in her career and had to take time off. She also said her social circle has shrunk as she disengaged from those who defended people accused of misconduct, or those accused themselves.
“This experience changed my life in a way that I became a much better judge of people,” she said. “Those who speak in support and those who actually support are not always the same people.”
The Bangalore Journalist
One of the most high-profile #MeToo cases has involved Bangalore-based journalist Priya Ramani, who accused editor-turned-politician M.J. Akbar of sexual harassment. Her tweet in October 2018 called him out as the unidentified man she described at the beginning of a 2017 Vogue magazine article she had written.
In the Vogue piece titled “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world” she described an interview with Akbar that took place when she was a reporter in her 20s and seeking a job. The meeting, as she described it, was “more date, less interview.” It was held in a hotel room, where she was serenaded, offered alcohol and asked to sit on the bed with Akbar, Ramani wrote. Her 2018 tweet set off a cascade of events including accusations of sexual harassment from other journalists, including a Bloomberg journalist who had worked with Akbar earlier in her career. The string of allegations resulted in the 68-year-old politician’s resignation from the position of minister of state for external affairs. He has denied all the accusations made against him by Ramani and other women.
Akbar sued Ramani for criminal defamation, although he hasn’t taken similar action against the other women. Ramani told the court that the case against her is “false and malicious” and that it is “unfortunate that women who face sexual harassment in the workplace must now defend themselves in criminal proceedings for speaking the truth.”Ramani, who was granted bail, declined to comment. “It is not the perpetrator facing prosecution but the survivor, and that is an unjust consequence,” her lawyer, Rebecca John, said.
The trial is ongoing in New Delhi. Akbar has testified that allegations made by Ramani are false and that they hurt his reputation, the court noted in its record of proceedings dated January 29, 2019.
While he no longer holds a ministerial position, he remains a lawmaker. Akbar didn't respond to an email seeking comment. An assistant who answered the phone at his office, but declined to give his name, said Akbar wasn't available.
“I don’t comment on cases which are sub judice, if I am directly or indirectly associated with or advising on the matter, as I believe it is inappropriate for a lawyer associated with a case to comment on it,” said Akbar’s lawyer, Geeta Luthra.