As India’s #MeToo Moment Hits the Art World, Who is Allowed to Speak Out?

What many call a national movement is far from it: the price for people to tell their stories remains too high

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Opinion | 09 NOV 18

On 4 October 2018, Sheena Dabholkar, a journalist based in the western Indian city of Pune, tweeted: ‘My DMs are open’ to let people know that she was available to hear testimonies from victims of assault. Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta had inspired a wave of allegations after speaking to the press about the abusive actions of veteran actor Nana Patekar on 27 September 2018. Several women in India took to Twitter and Facebook to relay their stories of sexual and psychological abuse in politics, journalism, entertainment and the arts.

Dabholkar also retweeted a statement condemning the Indian comedy group and Youtube stars All India Bakchod (AIB). Members of the group had been accused of creating a hostile work environment by continuing a working relationship with a comedian who had allegedly sent unsolicited photographs of his penis to a colleague, and harassed underage girls. Dabholkar’s follower count quickly spiked: thousands of new followers every few hours. Upon closer look, these were mostly right-wing troll accounts, several of which messaged her saying things like, ‘thank you ma’am, for exposing the depravity of the left.’ This ‘left’ primarily referred to members of AIB and their fans. The group is perhaps one of the most wide-reaching critical voices in the subcontinent, not afraid of confronting politics despite receiving regular arrest warrants and threats. At the time of writing, Dabholkar’s Twitter account has been deactivated, and AIB’s future is uncertain.

Comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) founded by Gursimran Khamba and Tanmay Bhat. Courtesy: Getty Images

The episode is instructive of how what is being touted in the press as ‘India’s MeToo Moment’, is vulnerable to cooption by the right. A few days after she began tweeting her support, Dabholkar’s design blog LOVER was hit by a Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attack. As the cyber forensic analyst, Arpit Doshi of Cybermate Forensics and Data Security, who helped trace the attack, told me, ‘This was an attack performed by a Script-kiddie [an amateur hacker] in order to intimidate Ms. Dabholkar.’ The attack may be read as an effort to let her know that she was being watched, and that she had little control over her online presence.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that, especially in the subcontinent, our online presence has little security. This is especially the case on Facebook: the social media site has been harshly condemned for turning over the data of users to nation states looking to make arrests. In Bangladesh, the government has regularly arrested civilians over social media posts, using ambiguous slander laws. But the surveillance behaviours of states are not the only concern: people like Dabholkar who were voicing their concern and support online were quickly called out for taking to social media, rather than pursuing allegations in the courts, or for not following ‘due process’. In a global historical moment where legal systems continue to fail victims of abuse and assault, the irony of asking for a return to the law is not lost on many.

‘The Feminist Memory Project’. Courtesy: © Nepal Picture Library

This is not India’s first ‘MeToo Moment’. On 24 October 2017, 24-year-old law student Raya Sarkar published a list of over 60 male academics from South Asia accusing them of sexually abusive behaviour. The list included academics and professors from some of the most important institutions in the country: Ambedkar University and Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, as well as institutions abroad: Cambridge University and the University of Chicago. Sarkar had compiled the list after receiving over 300 WhatsApp messages, emails and text messages from people who chose to remain anonymous with their allegations.

Shortly after the list was made public, several important female academics released a statement on the political blog Kafila, asking for the list to be taken down. ‘We are dismayed by the initiative on Facebook, in which men are being listed and named as sexual harassers with no context or explanation,’ read the letter, urging the women to reveal their identities and approach the judiciary: ‘Where there are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilize.’ The letter was received with great fury: most of the women who had signed the letter were of upper caste and class, and thus with arguably better access to said ‘institutions and procedures’. The letter also read like a tightening of ranks, and an uncritical reliance on a biased infrastructure.

Last month, on 8 October 2018, an anonymous Instagram account under the handle @herdsceneand, describing itself as ‘cutting through BS in the Indian art world, one predator and power play, at a time,’ began posting a series allegations against various Indian arts professionals, with stories of psychological abuse, assault, and intimidation. Most of the accounts reportedly came from volunteers, interns and gallery assistants, all choosing to remain anonymous in an effort to protect their already fragile place in the art world.

Artist Riyas Komu, co-founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, was one of the first to be named. ‘Midway through the conversation, he ran his fingers up my arm and thigh, and asked me, ‘what are you really here for?’’ details the allegation against Komu, from an anonymous victim who discusses an incident in 2015 in which he is said to have violated her while offering professional advice. Komu has since stepped down from his position at the Biennale. At the same time, TARQ gallery in Mumbai closed its solo exhibition of the photographer Shahid Datawala, after he was called out on Facebook for assaulting an underage woman who was also a family friend.

‘The Feminist Memory Project’. Courtesy: © Nepal Picture Library

In Patan, an ancient part of Kathmandu, Nepal, Durbar Square currently plays host to a series of faded photographs of a group of revolutionary women. In one of the images, two Nepali women – one wearing a pair of cat-eye sunglasses and the other in a close-fitting velvet blazer – ride a sports car in front of a photo studio backdrop of the Taj Mahal. A small card above the photograph tells us that one of the women is Shanta Manavi, who spent 20 years underground with the Communist Party of Nepal. Similar photographs have been brought together under the banner of ‘The Feminist Memory Project’ by the festival Photo Kathmandu 2018. Curated by Diwas Raja, the project collects oral histories and private archives, including images taken in photo studios, at political rallies, and in intimate moments, some photographed by the women themselves, and others by those the records of which have now been lost. Photo Kathmandu was one of the first institutions to take action after the wave of #MeToo allegations hit the Indian art world last month. In accordance with their ‘No Bullshit’ code of conduct, photographer Pablo Bartholomew’s workshop was cancelled from the 2018 edition of the festival after an anonymous allegation of harassment and bullying was made against him by a young female journalist.

The public display of photographs, identity cards, arrest warrants, and detention papers in ‘The Feminist Memory Project’ gives us the material evidence of revolutionary women that have been forgotten by the mainstream discourse of Nepali history-making. These images remind us of an almost ancient type of solidarity between women of the subcontinent: underground networks of politics, support and care that have often remained invisible, and that are difficult to understand in contemporary terms. This is a timely reminder, as there appears to be a lack of support and solidarity between networks of women and trans people in the subcontinent, where much of the conversation is entirely semantic: people are more concerned with debating their definitions of feminism instead of finding productive solutions, or conjuring up legal jargon rather than working together on new frameworks for negotiating allegations of assault.

Perhaps the biggest success of this year’s ‘MeToo Moment’ in India has been the resignation of the minister of state for external affairs, M.J. Akbar, after 16 women came out with reports of assault against him. Akbar has since hired a team of 97 lawyers to file a defamation suit against the first woman who named him, journalist Priya Ramani. What many see as a national movement is far from it, with the stakes for people coming out with their stories still being too high. 

The conversation is also being conducted in a closed loop. Class and caste bias continues to operate in the ‘calling out’, where trans people, Dalit people, and the working class have been given little opportunity to voice their experiences. It’s a double bind: people take to social media as a way to subvert legal systems, and yet only few have the privilege and access of articulating their stories. One way to directly address this is for arts institutions, a majority of which are privately owned and funded, to set up a centralized network of support and care for victims of abuse. None have come out saying that they will, and only a few public commitments have been made. The Kochi Biennale Foundation has promised to set up an internal complaints committee. But this seems to insulate the issue, rather than create a broader opportunity for victims of abuse to come together with their stories. As academic Vqueeram Aditya Sahai wrote in response to what they regarded as the largely passive reaction of the arts community, it is ‘easier to talk about the equality of equals’, than ‘address the class based access to funding, the caste based division of labour and the racialised and ableist logic of artist profiles.’ The MeToo effort cannot be seen as successful, or even as a ‘movement’, until it addresses these fundamental concerns of inclusivity and accountability.  Hopefully this is to change in the days to come.

Main image: ‘The Feminist Memory Project’. Courtesy: © Nepal Picture Library

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.