Thursday, January 17, 2019

The #MeToo movement reaches India: A long overdue correction and some concerns

Sexual harassment is as old as the act of sex. Sexual relationship and the evolution of the family as a unit, with the woman as its focal point, was the driving force in the progress of civilization.

The #MeToo movement has forced a reckoning on inter-personal relationships, power structures and abuse of power unlike anything else in recent memory. This essay is only an attempt to collate the topics and provide a space for valid concerns about institutionalizing change and even the caution against a vigilante justice. We’re in the very early stages of a social upheaval and this essay should only be considered as grounds for further debate.

A Note:

Those who find the contextual use of graphic language, in discussing a mature topic and nuanced arguments, as offensive will find this essay to be offensive. Such readers, in our mutual interest, should stop here and proceed no further.

Before the #MeToo era:

The words ‘sexual harassment’ probably did not exist in 1929 when Bertrand Russell published his ‘Marriage and Morals’ and yet Russell writes with clarity, “sexual intercourse should only occur when both desire it and it should be approached invariably by a period of courtship”. “Sexual relations should be a mutual delight, entered into solely from the spontaneous impulse of both parties. Where this is not the case, everything valuable is absent.”

When does courtship become careless flirting and degenerate into harassment? Jodie Foster, playing FBI agent Clarice Starling, visits two male experts on moths to pursue a clue. While one male is intent in analyzing the clue the other, with ill concealed sexual desire in the eyes, asks, “agent Starling what do you do when you’re not detecting” and then he asks her out for dinner and a drink. A radiant looking Foster replies, “are you hitting on me Dr. Pilcher?”. I have watched this movie ten times before this week and this scene never struck me as odd but the MeToo conversations have made me see the scene afresh.

Here’s a career FBI agent merely pursuing a clue to a grisly murder and is reaching out to two experts. In an office a male feels its ok to ‘hit’ on her. This is by no means courtship but plain flirting that is inappropriate given the setting. It is mere Casanova type flirting because he’d have asked the same question to any other lady he fancied in the same setting without pausing for a moment to think he knows nothing of her and all that he’s focused on is getting her out for a drink and possibly leading to sex later. 

Now, add a dimension of the male being a boss. Is it mere flirting or a serious question that could impact the future prospects of the female in question? Does the male stop after being called out or refused? Sure, we are all biological beings with chemicals and evolution conditioning our responses but are we just as the mercy of a few chemicals and endocrine glands? Of course not, nature also endows us with better senses. The step from thinking its ok to hit on a lady asking for professional help to leveraging power to wrangle a consent is a short step.

Sexual harassment, as a lawyer explains to her male client wanting to sue his female boss in the movie ‘Disclosure, is “not about sex but about power. She has it, you don’t”. A sexual harasser is not looking for the kind of ‘mutual delight’ that Russell spoke of but by harassing a person, sexually, the harasser, intends to show a lack of respect for another human being. The dawn of the modern era where women step out of traditional roles and the women’s liberation movements tat spawned across societies have seen the woman negotiate her space and relationship to a man in every imaginable setting.

Pre-dating the #MeToo era, scientist Hope Jahren penned a column, “She wanted to do her research. He wanted to talk ‘feelings’” addressing how sexual harassment functions within the science community. Jahren spoke of how a scientist or a teacher would send emails to a student or researcher with subject tag lines like, “I need to tell you” or “my feelings” and then go on to establish a special relationship of trust with the receiver for opening up. It’d go on to comments on “sparkling eyes” and after testing waters would proceed audaciously to comment on “private parts”. Jahren advises that that first email is important because it’d be pointed out later by the harasser the recipient could’ve stopped it back then. Jahren’s suggestion is for women to “write back immediately, telling (not asking) him to stop”. 

Jahren’s column brought attention to a widespread problem within the academia. “Sexual harassment”, Jahren wrote, “is very rarely publicly punished after it is reported, and then only after a pattern of relatively egregious offenses.” This failure of institutions to carry out justice undergirds the most important element at the heart of the #MeToo movement. Soured by justice being denied by the portals of power the accusers turned to democratized social media platforms to channel accusations. That has created its own issues because outright grotesque conduct and far less egregious conduct are all bundled together and the accused, irrespective of the gravity of the offense, carries an universalized label, “harasser” or even “molester”. 

In 2016 Roger Ailes the very powerful CEO of Fox News was terminated from his employment after sexual allegations against him were investigated and found to be true. In April 2017 Bill O’Reilly, a very powerful and important political commentator, was fired after sexual harassment allegations against him were found to be true. Then came the Weinstein saga.

Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo Era: From USA to India. The differences. 

In October 2017 New York Times, after an extensive investigation, published a detailed expose of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein tormenting many women, including those who went on to become A-listers, sexually. Actress Alyssa Milano, borrowing a phrase from activist Tarana Burke, launched the #MeToo movement that encouraged women to share, via twitter and other media, stories of sexual harassment they had suffered. With that, it could be said, a revolution was unleashed.

A torrent of stories followed and much loved and admired celebrities were outed for sexually harassing women and in some cases men too. Many of the acts committed were sheer monstrosities. Bill Cosby, called ‘America’s Dad’ for his affable portrayal as a dad in the much loved eponymous T.V. series ‘Cosby show’, was convicted of drugging and raping women. 

Following the Weinstein revelations, Raya Sarkar, a law student at University of California, Davis, crowdsourced and published a list of 75 men in Indian academic institutions for sexually harassing women. The Raya Sarkar list and what followed illustrated several important aspects of the MeToo movement in India. How the allegations surfaced and how the institutions responded in India were markedly different from the American scene. Political differences, based on who is accusing and who the accused is, colored the reactions. The reactions included conspiracy theories, indifference, rapid rehabilitation of the accused and finally insensitivity on an unprecedented scale.

India’s MeToo movement properly took off nearly a year after the Raya Sarkar list. While the US movement saw its share of allegations via twitter most of the big names that were felled were the result of investigations by reputed news outlets like New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, New Yorker, and even the Wall Street Journal. The news outlets, both to protect credibility and to stave off lawsuits, often times used on-the-record accusations. India’s MeToo movement on the other hand was largely independently led by women using twitter and social media to air accusations. The news organizations later ran the accusations as news items, with little to no investigations or corroborations. 

Another important distinction between the responses in US and India is how the accused were investigated and forced out in their work places. In US, starting with Roger Ailes to Harvey Weinstein to Steve Wynn, Leslie Moonves and currently Neil deGrasse Tyson, the corporations had to undertake their own investigations before the accused were either forced out or put on notice. Legal and financial requirements were the chief factors in necessitating those investigations. Such investigations by the work places of the accused served to validate the news reports and when the accused were forced out not much could be said in their defense. On the contrary in India, so far, only public pressure and mounting allegations have mostly forced some, particularly like M.J. Akbar and Utsav Chakraborty, to be eased out of their jobs. 

Unlike the public personalities in the field of arts the Raya Sarkar list of academics in educational institutions had little effect because of the quintessential Indian apathy. Huffington Post reported that most institutions plainly ignored the list and one even gave the brazen excuse that they’d not take ‘suo motto cognizance’ of an accusation.

Chinmayi Sripada Accuses and Becomes a Voice:

On October 8th singer and dubbing artist Chinmayi Sripada became the focal point of #MeToo movement, quite unwittingly, when she accused legendary and much awarded film lyricist Vairamuthu of having propositioned her. Another lady narrated a similar incident about Vairamuthu and soon, Reihana Rahman, sister of A.R. Rahman, in a T.V. interview asserted that it was quite an open secret in Tamil film industry about Vairamuthu. Coming from A.R. Rahman’s sister that was quite a damning indictment given that Rahman and Vairamuthu had become over the last two decades a blockbuster combination in Tamil film music world. 

Ever since Chinmayi took on Vairamuthu she became a conduit for further allegations with several accusers, anonymously, sending her names and she publicizing them on twitter with the hashtags #metoo and #timesup. Chinmayi has a history with being embroiled in controversies on twitter. I’ll turn to the politics of opposition that engulfed Chinmayi’s accusations relating to Vairamuthu further in the essay.

Following the allegation against Vairamuthu, based on personal experience, Chinmayi then accused TAMBRAS (Tamil Nadu Brahmin Association) president of misconduct. He then called her an “Iyengar bitch”. Even as she was besieged on twitter by legions of Vairamuthu’s defenders, accusing her, a Brahmin, of trying to bring down a highly regarded non-Brahmin, Chinmayi rocked the closeted world of Carnatic music world by releasing a list of musicians, that included highly respected and awarded names, of being sexual harassers. Unlike the accusations against Vairamuthu, where Chinmayi spoke from personal experience, the carnatic music list was, it becomes apparent now, curated and handed over to her for publishing. Leena Manimekalai, activist and director, accused director Susi Ganesan of a rape attempt. 

Both Chinmayi Sripada and Leena Manimekalai ran into a buzzsaw of motivated defenders. In a country where journalists are little more than typists and anchors are nothing beyond those with a microphone and a camcorder the ladies were hounded for proof by inquisitors masking as interviewers. A press meet convened by Chinmayi Sripada and Leena Manimekalai devolved into a Salem Witch Trial with the ladies being pilloried and harangued by male journalists with completely insensitive questions.

The questions primarily revolved around consent and silence. What is consent? Why the silence, in many cases for years and even decades? Those questions were repeatedly used to deflect or even deny accusations. Both are difficult questions to answer and no black and white response exists.

The question of silence:

Reputed biblical scholar and academician Elaine Pagels in her newly published book, “Why Religion: A personal Story” recounts how a Lutheran minister, also a professor at Harvard Divinity School, assaulted her sexually. A Stanford Graduate in 1965 she had enrolled in Harvard Divinity School and was compelled by the professor to babysit for his children. Arriving around midnight he compelled Pagels to sleep in a couch in his basement and in the wee hours of the morning he crept in and fondled her breast. Pagels recounts, “In the morning I pretended everything was normal”. New York Times book review adds, “The best and the brightest women were expected to act as the young Elaine did”

It is too easy to sit in armchairs and say “she should have slapped him”, “she should’ve gone to the police”, “she should’ve complained to the university authorities”. The case of Steve Wynn, exposed by Wall Street Journal, illustrates how difficult it is for women, whether they are Stanford graduates or a pedicurist, to halt serial offenders in positions of power. Steve Wynn, casino mogul and a powerful player in the high echelons of American political circles, would compel women masseurs to masturbate him or have sex with him. Some complained to authorities in his casino organization and some received compensation too and others, until the WSJ expose, have not spoken openly.

The case of Uma Thurman’s harassment by Harvey Weinstein and betrayal by Quentin Tarantino illustrates the complexity of why women have rarely complained openly, especially in the field of arts where larger than life personalities are involved. In a lengthy interview with Maureen Dowd of New York Times Thurman recounted how Weinstein primed her, assaulted her and finally silenced her, for years. Weinstein, after the success of ‘Pulp Fiction’ used to “spend hours” offering suggestions and ideas to Thurman on career, an act that, Thurman says, “made her overlook the warning signs”. This mentor-mentee relationship as a stage setting for later harassment needs to be remembered when we analyze the sexual harassment claims that rocked the Carnatic music world in Chennai.

Steve Wynn’s employees facilitated his trysts and kept the lid on the accusations. Likewise Weinstein’s predatory acts were made possible by active and passive enablers. Following Thurman’s interview Quentin Tarantino confessed that he had been aware of Weinstein’s behavior for a long time and he was a factor in keeping Thurman silent as the duo were to launch, with Wienstein’s production company, a major movie, “Kill Bill”.
Chinmayi was repeatedly harangued by supporters of Vairamuthu, “how and why did you invite him to your wedding, why were you smiling? and if you did those then your allegation appears baseless”. 

The cases of Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Elaine Pagels, amongst many others, show how women who were harassed have often, for many reasons, remained not only silent in public but even seemingly had normal relationships with their tormentors.

Beyond simplistic answers of hostile environment and compelled to silence we lack even the psychological tools to understand the reactions. Mental trauma of rape victims, survivors of wars, wounded soldiers and others are being barely understood psychologically. The field of psychology and sociology is barely catching up with these complex issues. 

Chinmayi, for what it is worth, did clarify that she invited Vairamuthu to the wedding because she was inviting his son, her friend, and it’d be a scandal not to invite the father and that she smiled and sought blessings, as was custom, from all visitors. 

Whether it is journalist M.J. Akbar or Indian stand-up comedian Utsav Chakraborty the rumors have always swirled about them. Utsav Chakraborty was named in a sexting scandal, including sending pictures to an underage girl and his colleagues at his workplace have known his habits for a while. Likewise television actor Alok Nath was quite notorious for being a harasser. 

When the MeToo movement lists appeared in Tamil Nadu, quite often, there was no surprise at many of the names, rather, quite disgustingly, the responses were “oh that person”. A friend who studied in an Indian college recounted how a professor was notorious for asking lady students to meet him for classes in the evenings. Students were cautioned to go with a torch light (flash light as we say in US).

More often than not, men like Weinstein and Vairamuthu are quite publicly known to be harassers. Don't ask why women were silent or why they did not yell, rather ask how such monsters walked around with dignity in the halls of a university or a corporation or a music institution.

The issues of consent and question of evidence, unlike the question of silence, are fraught with more complications and it is necessary to see, briefly, how politics and  generational differences confronted MeToo movement.

Political Biases and Reactions:

When someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Vairamuthu or a professor in a left wing dominated university or a highly respected musician is accused his defenders reach into conspiracy theories. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson as defender of science was seen as being felled by conspiracy by conservatives. This is pretty much a tactic of defenders of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump too. 

Tamil Nadu has been poisoned with Nazi style hatred of Brahmins and Chinmayi was perfect fodder when she accused Vairamuthu, a non-Brahmin and a much admired figure of a powerful political party. Chinmayi was always very active on social media and when the issue of Sri Lankan ethnic strife played out in Tamil Nadu few rowdy elements literally harassed and physically threatened her on twitter for some of her views. She later took recourse to the law and had one of her harassers jailed. In this backdrop her accusations against Vairamuthu provided a fresh lease of life to not just her detractors but habitual Brahmin haters. To say that that the reactions were vitriolic is an understatement. Never mind the fact that two days later the same Chinmayi sent shock waves into the most cherished Brahminical institution, the world of Carnatic music. The onslaught continued. She was, because of her caste, portrayed as a stooge of BJP and it was alleged that she kickstarted this controversy to help the government divert attention from scandals. Of course, there was no merit in any of that.

Outspoken Left wing activist Kavitha Krishnan took issue with Raya Sarkar’s list that mostly targeted professors who were seen as sympathetic to the left and were part of educational institutions that are considered left wing. Krishnan and several others released a statement saying, “One or two names of men who have been already found guilty of sexual harassment by due process, are placed on par with unsubstantiated accusations. It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability”. The statement added, “there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilize”. Coming from left wing activists this is rich hypocrisy because they are the ones who not only do not trust the establishment and are often at the forefront in undermining trust in due process and established judicial means. 

Sexual Harassment and Biology:

After igniting a furor with his column “It’s time to resist the excesses of #MeToo” Andrew Sullivan lit a fuse with his “#MeToo and the taboo topic of nature”. The second column essentially argued that the male hormone testosterone is to be blamed for male sexual behavior. “All differences between the genders, we are told”, Sullivan wrote, “are a function not of nature but of sexism”. Pointedly he asked, “Is male sexual aggression and horniness a function of patriarchy or testosterone?”. Speaking from his experience as a male homosexual Sullivan said males, when it comes to sex, even when women are absent, behave precisely the same way. The sexual attitudes, including aggression, by males towards males is, he says, no different from males towards females and therefore its all a “boys will be boys”. Patricia Churchland, who specializes in neuro-philosophy, partly agrees with Sullivan but underscores that male or female we are not slaves to biology.

Many of the accused in the scandals could’ve easily procured sex for money and many did not lack opportunities for consensual relationship and most knew that they were demanding sex as a price and knew that they could get away with it. Sullivan was being too kind in ascribing the behavior to just hormones.

The MeToo revelations, in US and India, have often included incidents of males masturbating in front of women and walking away. Louis C.K, Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin, Vikas Bahl were some of such accused. Television actress Renuka Shahane recounted an incident of a room-service man in a hotel masturbating in front of her after delivering food. Louis C.K, outed for masturbating in front of women, published an apology letter of sorts that captures the dynamic at work here, “These stories are true. At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them.”

Of the many questions that the MeToo movement raised about psychology and the many grey-areas that emerged this propensity of males to masturbate in front of women depicts the situations difficult to assess. Is this propensity a mere case of exhibitionism at its extreme or is harassment the goal here? “David Ley, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Myth of Sex Addiction," said it is hard to know what motivates someone to do this”.

Why artists are prone to be sexual harassers?

When the #MeToo scandals unfolded it took a toll of some of the most respected and even loved male figures. Who’d have thought Bill Cosby, called ‘America’s most loved dad’, would be a relentless predator? Or a Neil deGrasse Tyson, considered an intellectual heir to Carl Sagan, be clouded by allegations? Throughout history intellectuals and geniuses have always had shady private lives to the point where one could say it is almost like a rite of passage to become a genius. 

“A study of 425 British men and women found the creative types averaged between four and ten partners, while the less creative folks had typically had three”. Daniel Nettle, who conducted the study said, “very creative types lead a bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience's sake, than the average person would.”

Another study found that students at prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge were more likely to use drugs, stay up late and order more sex toys than comparable students elsewhere. A female worker “at a high-end sex shop” reasoned, “I think that the ability to engage in an open sex life comes with the abilities of introspection and logical thought, and those require some level of intelligence. If we're talking about an open sex life that comes from an emotionally healthy place, sexual mores are mostly made up anyway and intelligent people can rationalize past them.”

Whether it is artists in the music field or a CEO who is responsible for a line of blockbuster hits at a studio or a T.V. station they all function at a level where they are pushing the boundaries of social norms, through their art or their business acumen, and as result they do think that boundaries do not apply to them. Sexual boundaries are the most tempting to transgress. These men, mostly they are men, are also those who do get consensual partners fully aware of what they’re indulging in and that too feeds their ego to the level where when they see a female resist their advances the tendency to harass asserts itself. No man, or woman, who is not used to hearing a ‘no’ takes kindly to refusal. 

Is Atwood a ‘bad feminist’? The question of due process: 

Booker prize winning novelist and feminist Margaret Atwood found herself being labeled a ‘bad feminist’ for asking due process to prevail in the case of author Steven Galloway who was fired from his job by University of British Columbia. Atwood went to the heart of the complexities unleashed by internet based accusations. Key excerpts are:

 “The #MeToo moment is a symptom of a broken legal system. All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn't get a fair hearing through institutions – including corporate structures – so they used a new tool: the internet”. 

“If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers?”

“In order to have civil and human rights for women there have to be civil and human rights, period, including the right to fundamental justice"      

Atwood cautioned, “understandable and temporary vigilante justice can morph into a culturally solidified lynch-mob habit, in which the available mode of justice is thrown out the window, and extralegal power structures are put into place and maintained”. Note, the caution against extra legal power structures for a later argument about Swarnamalya Ganesh and Radhika Ganesh in connection with the allegations against Carnatic musicians.

Question of Evidence, Raya Sarkar’s Limit and One Broad Brush:

Given the intimacy of these crimes or infractions most will not stand scrutiny in a court of law. This has led to a slogan asking us to believe every accuser. The very cornerstone of modern jurisprudence, presumption of innocence, has become casualty and anyone even asking a question of the evidence, let alone not believing an accuser, has been tarred as sexist or enabler.

Many of the accused, particularly in US, have either accepted guilt or proven to be guilty based on multiple credible accusations. This is a fact. Asking for a sympathetic hearing of the accuser or even giving the accuser a benefit of doubt is perfectly ok. However, there have been well publicized accounts of wrongful accusations too.

Much before the #MeToo era was the case of a stripper, an African-American, accusing a group of boys, all White, of Duke University’s  Lacrosse team of having molested her. An over eager prosecutor and racial politics made the case a lightning rod and later it turned out that the accusation was scurrilous and baseless. Recently one of the accusers against judge Brett Kavanaugh was found to have lied under oath of being molested by him. Another case in University of Virginia was likewise found to be baseless. Betsy Devos, Secretary of Education, is revamping rules governing adjudication of sexual assault in American universities that provide basic rights to the accused. So, yes false accusations by women do exist. The statistics about false rape accusations, pegged by the F.B.I, is at a low 8%. We should note that that is ONLY about rape charges and not the broader harassment charges.

Indian-American comedian Aziz Ansari faced a #MeToo allegation that turned out to be false. A girl alleged sexual harassment because Ansari failed “ignored clear nonverbal clues”. Bari Weiss, writing for New York Times, summed, “Put in other words: I am angry that you weren’t able to read my mind”. The article alleging Ansari harassed the woman was “met with digital hosannas by young feminists who insisted that consent is consent only if it is affirmative, active, continuous and — and this is the word most used — enthusiastic”. That Ansari, unlike the woman, was rich and a famous comedian implied, in the eyes of his accusers, a position of power whereas in reality he had no power over the said accuser. Essentially, Aziz Ansari was guilty of only one thing, “not being a mind reader”. 

From women misusing, on a large scale, a law meant to curb murders relating to dowries to girl students complaining about classmates to college authorities for merely propositioning India’s case rests on a different plane. No, this is NOT to suggest, even remotely, that sexual harassment charges by Indian women are suspect but merely to ask the reader to consider the possibility.

Between charges borne out by solid evidence and those that fall apart as baseless is the gray area of possible mischaracterization. The cases of scientists Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss illustrate these best.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss was accused by several women of sexual harassment. One of the charges was that he groped a woman’s breast in public while she took a selfie with him. Krauss has put out on the internet a very detailed rebuttal of the charges including photographic evidence and emails from witnesses supporting his version. I’ll not begrudge him this defense. Arizona State University, where Kraus primarily worked, was on the verge of charging him with misconduct and only such a charging, per the process, would even allow him to appeal. Essentially he has to accept the charge in order to appeal. The University and Krauss agreed mutually that he’d resign at age 65 with no acceptance of wrongdoing. Krauss’s doc is publicly accessible and I’m sure vetted by legal counsel for protecting against victim shaming. 

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was accused of rape by one woman and harassment by two others. Tyson has denied the rape allegation and contextualized the harassment allegations. A woman alleged that Tyson traced a tattoo of the solar system and lifted the tops near the shoulder to see where Pluto was. Now, Tyson has a history with demoting Pluto as a planet and is known for his over exuberant attitude. He explains that while he is sorry about the conduct he was not harassing.

The Raya Sarkar list is a perfect example to critique the limitations of crowdsourcing allegations in a social movement. Historian Partha Chatterjee was one of the accused in the list. Chatterjee pointed out that his name was listed twice, once with an organization in Calcutta citing the number of violations as one but providing zero details on the incident and second time his name was mentioned against Columbia University with no details whatsoever. 

When Chatterjee demanded details Raya Sarkar replied via tweet in a self-righteous and outright arrogant manner. She said that some one else was maintaining the list and that the list was moved out of google docs because it is prone to hacking. She then said the person maintaining the list does not “need to explain” and she herself was busy studying for mid-terms and she concluded saying “if this is the only response, instead of taking accountability then never mind. The list will stay for students to be wary”. This is breathtaking arrogance. 

If Chatterjee is correct a perfectly innocent man has been besmirched. In Cyberspace the good and bad live forever, how can Sarkar ever make amends to Chatterjee? Oh and Raya Sarkar also blamed Brahminical patriarchy for Indian men sexually harassing women. Then what is the reason for American men and, in some cases, even women, sexually harassing others? 

A rape and a fumbling attempt to kiss are not the same and an attempt to kiss and a sexual innuendo are not the same and a sexual innuendo is not the same as an accidental brush during a selfie. 

The Ganesh Sisters as carpetbaggers and the Carnatic Music World:

To anyone who has followed my blog posts on Carnatic music it’d be apparent that I’m neither an admirer of that industry nor of some of the accused. That the industry is a cloistered one replete with casteism and male chauvinism are criticisms I’ve leveled repeatedly.

Like any industry Carnatic music too is plagued by sexual harassment and as I’ve asserted before as a field of art it is prone to sexual promiscuity and transgressions. The added complexity is teacher-student relationship that takes on a reverential guru-disciple tone in Carnatic music. The long tutelage from childhood, the necessary recommendations for a career and other factors create a ground for sexual harassment in Carnatic music. Every field has its own enabling factors and those are Carnatic music industry’s enablers for harassment.

The manner in which the allegations broke out about Carnatic music is indeed puzzling, by hindsight. Suddenly on October 9th Chinmayi released a list of names with no accompanying details or corroborations. Much that came out as details was what followed in subsequent days. The salacious nature of the accusations fed into a narrative and soon being accused in a list became evidence enough.

For example, as soon as the first list was released by Chinmayi she quickly followed up with a screen shot from a girl accusing O.S. Thiagarajan and Nagai Sriram and the girl accused Thiagarajan of molesting her but gave literally no detail of any accusation on Nagai Sriram beyond saying “add these names”. Then evidences start trickling in with little or no corroboration and the evidences range from horrific to “he touched the hip”. It was literal mayhem. Of course amidst this Chinmayi was facing her own storm of naysayers for her accusation about Vairamuthu. Chinmayi, is not New York Times or Washington Post or The Atlantic, and yet, possibly heady with the attention, without realizing what she was putting herself out for, Chinmayi became the de facto channel for accusers. 

Out of nowhere Radhika Ganesh and Swarnamalya Ganesh, two sisters, jumped into the fray and took on the Carnatic music list. Swarnamalya is a yesteryear actress and now dancer and academician. Radhika Ganesh was largely unknown and now calls herself an activist. Radhika posted the Carnatic music list and referenced a crude joke from a tamil movie about a lengthy grocery list. That’s how they approached this serious issue.
Swarnamalya, though connected to the film world, took only a passing interest in the Chinmayi-Vairamuthu affair and even as dancer though she claimed to know of harassers, in a separate post, she refrained from naming them herself. Srinidhi Chidambaram, a dancer, wondered at the near total absence of accusations in the Bharatanatyam world. A girl recounted a harassment by Pappu Venugopal Rao and how Padma Subrahmanyan, a popular and legendary dancer, when informed of it brushed it aside. Swarnamalya called out Venugopal Rao but remained conspicuously silent about Padma, possibly in the interest of her own career.

In this backdrop Swarnamalya released a letter announcing a Public Consultation Process and said she had reached out to “Ek Potlee Ret Ki which is an activist collective that has been working on cultural identities”. Now, ‘Ek Potlee Ret Ki’ is run by her lesser known sister Radhika and that was not mentioned let alone the fuzzy verbiage about them being a “activist collective” working on “cultural identities”. It is not far fetched to say the sisters fashioned themselves a bandwagon. 

The Public Consultation Process, as per a later Facebook recounting the event, selected 12 cases out of 98 and presented them. That raises the question of who were named as part of the 12 cases and why were they considered representative and would not the remaining 86 then go scot free. Essentially, just 10% were outed and such accused could fairly claim that they were handpicked by the sisters. This is classic vigilante justice.

Mandolin Rajesh, for example, was called out as “sexual predator” by an accuser who alleged that he was trading on the name of his deceased and more famous brother. The accuser said he had several affairs and fathered an illegitimate child. From thereon the charges were plainly scurrilous and barely substantiated. Is it possible that Rajesh is a harasser or even predator? Yes. But the proof supplied leaves one wondering. This allegation was prefaced by Swarnamalya as “haven’t you puked enough today? Here is more.” Madame Defarge would’ve been subtler.

Posting a message about Sashikiran with screenshots of messages from an accuser Radhika ranted in the preface, “Looks like your “genius” brother Chitravina Ravikiran and you the “prodigy” are running a racket to trap, abuse, harass, intimidate and terrify woman.Your music is worthless without morals. You art is your weapon and your students and admirers your prey.” Note, at this point Ravikiran had only been named in that Chinmayi list but no evidence had been forthcoming. Why tag a man just because she had screenshots of an allegation concerning his brother? The ranting language is precisely the pitfall of this kind of vigilante attitude and not one that a New York Times article or a proper investigator would use or even someone truly just interested in justice. 

Radhika mentioned having known Sashikiran and that she was ashamed for it. However, she did not mention in what manner she had known Sashikiran. In the interest of disclosure that should’ve been said. When Ravikiran protested that his name, without evidence at that point, was being unnecessarily tagged Radhika retorted, “I am a sociopolitical activist and I work extensively on gender issues. You do not need to know me for me to #CallYouOut on your misogyny and abusive behaviour. Btw, your brother Shashikiran Kn knows me quite well. The #MeToo movement has arrived to tell people such as yourselves who misuse and abuse art and power that your #TimesUp. I will not take down this post and I will pursue all action against you.” 

The invectives and innuendoes are wrapped in exceeding self-righteousness. Accusing the brothers of running a racket, being misogynist and declaring their music is worthless without morals all make one wonder if justice for an accused is the only motive here.

The drip, drip of accusations of various hues continued when finally on Oct 24th, a fortnight after the allegations were first made, screenshots of a survivor accusing Chitravina Ravikiran, a Sangita Kalanidhi awardee, were published. Radhika Ganesh said, “We were processing these with stringent due diligence and through due process, but your trolls and “supporters” have mounted so much pressure on me that I am cornered to put these out in public today.” This is breathtaking, the man was accused on Oct 9th and, in all fairness, this diligence should've PRECEDED the announcement NOT after. To add to the cacophony another person commenting on the thread asserted coolly, “once an abuser always an abuser”. 

Ravikiran defended himself first with a Facebook post in which he published email exchanges, carefully redacting personal information, between himself and who he thought was his accuser to establish that the relationship was one of mentoring and caring one. The Ganesh sisters took umbrage that he was intimidating. At this point no detailed evidence had been provided. Ravikiran had every right to defend himself against an accuser. When I read Lawrence Krauss's document that he published, also redacted, to establish his innocence I was reminded of Ravikiran's post and I do think he had every right to do that, particularly when he had taken care to redact personal markings.

Ravikiran then published an article defending his innocence and openly narrating an abuse he had suffered at the hands of a male teacher. I'm listing these as facts that happened without arrogating to myself the right to judge any side as valid or invalid. 

Now, the intention here is not to exonerate anyone or whitewash anyone’s linen. If any of the above are guilty then so be it. But it is precisely this kind of vigilante justice that eventually degenerates into blood lust and rolls like a juggernaut over the guilty and innocent alike. Serious and tragic issues have become casualties of trigger happy fingers with a keyboard and a phone. 

As if the drama was not enough the Music Academy, the self styled custodian of all things Carnatic music, decided to ban the accused musicians from their then upcoming prestigious December music season. Contrary to first impressions the Academy had not undertaken any independent investigation, like how Weinstein’s Company or Fox News did in response to the allegations, but just used the Chinmayi list as evidence. One wonders why an institution, never given to immediate reactions, reacted with such promptness, or dare I say, haste.

We do not know, yet, if the Internal Complaints Committee, formed by the collegium of Sabhas has received the above accusations in a formal manner. Else, as Lawrence Kraus put it, the accused face a Kafkaesque situation of facing off anonymous allegations hanging as a pall over their reputations with no closure. This is bad for the accusers too because this condition has also provided the excuse for the accused to resurface. One cannot begrudge that either.

It should also be noted that with the screenshots being published on October 24th about Ravikiran the sisters pretty much went silent on anything further on this topic and no new allegations have cropped up since. Accusation about Ravikiran was, in a way, the denouement, a sort of “Mission Accomplished”, and that evidence too came 15 days after the list first surfaced in a tweet with no evidence. Let me reiterate, Ravikiran’s guilt or innocence is a separate question from questioning the sequence of events and what unfolded. It is absolutely not my place to defend or accuse anyone of guilt. 

Chinmayi realized the limits of her being a conduit for the allegations when a prankster played a sick joke of using her to relay an unsubstantiated claim about a film dance master. Though the charge was later withdrawn it damaged the process. It was a sick joke but it showed why Raya Sarkars and Chinmayis have limits. 

There have been cases of suicides of a few accused, in other cases not discussed here, where the charges later turned out to be baseless. This is serious business. Let the carpet baggers stay away. Swarnamalya Ganesh, after all the pompous righteousness, was seen recently, after an event by her, posing happily alongside dance critic and accused harasser, Sunil Kothari.

Atonement, forgiveness and how to relate with flawed geniuses:
Many, or almost all, of these sexual harassment claims will not see daylight in a court of law. As such there’s no formal legal punishment for any of the perpetrators. The absence of legal proceedings complicates simplistic notions of time served as penitence and we’re in no-man’s land about sincere apologies and those offered with little contrition and matter of fact just wanting to move on.

Jill Filipovic, writing for Time, put it well, “There is also the question of what atonement means, and what it looks like to truly take responsibility for one’s own choices and one’s own life.” She then asked, “What do offenders need to do for us to be comfortable with them resuming activities that initially brought them power or fame? How far is too far to earn back our trust?”

A connected question is what do we do with the work of a genius who’s private conduct was reprehensible. Jean Paul Sartre, Louis Menand wrote, was the “classic womanizer” and Simone de Beauvoir, “was the enabler”. Gandhi had his Brahmacharya experiments. Wagner was an anti-semite, Rousseau was an exhibitionist and the list goes. Man or woman, their foibles aside let’s celebrate their genius and their works, whether it is a scientific equation or an opera or a painting or a book. While we celebrate the genius let us always remember, without whitewashing, who they were as mortals. One should not be done to the exclusion of the other.

Chinmayi and a Culture of Retaliation

In a Facebook post I compared Chinmayi to the mythical war hero Abhimanyu who fights a valiant but futile battle and falls on the battlefield. India’s laws are still taking shape about dealing with sexual harassment and protecting whistleblowers. Retaliation is common in the Indian setting. Chinmayi, a member of the dubbing artists union, was not only dropped from the union, thus depriving her of being able to function as a dubbing artist, the leader unleashed women from the union who advised Chinmayi to go wash dishes in homes. The leader of the union, actor Radha Ravi, known for his foul mouth was an accused. 

Manasi Karthik’s article in First Post illustrates, literally in pictorial fashion, how the Internal Complaints Cell (ICC), mandated by Indian law, often falls short. The ICC at JNU deemed a student’s complaint as frivolous and intends to bar the student from campus and ‘withdraw her degree’. The government has set up a committee of ministers to examine change to law and the minister not in the committee is the law minister. The law also limits participation of junior members of an organization in the ICC and instead populates it with senior management, who are often the colleagues of an accused. 

The case of Catholic nuns being retaliated against by a Kerala church, for accusing a male priest of being serial molester, is a depressing case of how the laws are feeble in India.

Curbing a #MeToo Backlash:

American Vice President Mike Pence famously said that he’d never have lunch with any lady alone if his wife was not present. A Wall Street Journal article spoke of possible backlash against women in hiring process and offered guidelines. It is no different from saying “I don't want to be accused of racism and therefore let me not hire blacks”. It is stupid and reprehensible. The rule is simple, “don’t be a jerk”, respect a women as a colleague or an employee or as neighbor. Respect the private space. There is no room for a raunchy joke at an office meeting whether or not there are women in the vicinity. 

Unlike US where not hiring a woman for being a woman would violate the Equal Employment law India, to my knowledge, has no such law. Another, area of serious concern for India.

If you want express interest in a woman remember Bertrand Russell’s rule, “sexual relations should be a mutual delight, entered into solely from the spontaneous impulse of both parties”. 

Every industry reacted with, “we’re not alone, sexual harassment happens everywhere”. True. This is not a conspiracy to undermine any one industry or art. I completely reject Carnatic musician Sowmya’s contention that the allegation about Carnatic musicians was motivated to undermine the art. Carnatic music industry should evolve rules of conduct between teachers and students. A simple thing for any parent to do is to be there with a child during classes and encouraging children to confide in their parents of any wrongdoing. It’d do well for Carnatic music to dispense with the exceeding reverences to gurus. This is a materialistic world and these teachers are material mortals.

A long overdue social correction is happening let’s nurture it, guide its discourse, question it too but let’s not extinguish it, by any means. 


  1. Raya Sarkar List
  2. Kavita Krishnan Statement
  3. Raya Sarkar interview
  6. Partha CHatterjee
  7. Aziz Ansari
  8. MeToo backlash
  9. Bhuvana Seshan corroborates Chinmayi on Vairamuthu
  10. Misogyny at press meet
  11. A.R. Raihanah interview
  12. Chinmayi press meet
  13. Shaming of Chinmayi dress
  14. Harvey Weinstein
  15. Margaret Atwood's column
  16. Louis C.K. apology and acceptance
  17. Charlie Rose
  18. Mark Halperin
  19. Elaine Pagels' Book Review NYT
  20. Steve Wynn
  21. Uma Thurman
  22. Masturbation as harassment
  23. ICC not enough
  24. Leena Manimekalai on Susi Ganesan
  26. Smarter people and sex and drugs Esquire article
  27. Hope Jahren article
  28. Lawrence Kraus doc dump
  29. Lawrence Krauss
  30. MeToo in the world of Carnatic Music and Bharathanatyam
  32. Cleveland Thyagaraja festival accusations
  33. Andrew Sullivan, MeToo and Nature
  34. Andrew Sullivan and the excess of MeToo
  35. Rebuttal to Sullivan
  37. Chitraveena Ravikiran accused
  38. Ravikiran's article that detailed him being abused
Carnatic Music List and FB Posts by Swarnamalya and Radhika Ganesh:

  1. Oct 8th Vairamuthu
  2. Oct 9th CM list
  3. Oct 9th Pappu Venugopal Rao and silence of Padma Subrahmanyan 
  4. Oct 10th B.M. Sundaram 
  5. Oct 10th Ramesh Prabha 
  6. Oct 11th Letter by Swarnamalya…introduces Ek Potlee Ret Ki 
  7. Oct 11th TAMBRAHM president
  8. Oct 11th Mandolin Rajesh    Appears scurrilous
  9. Oct 11th Sashikiran 
  10. Oct 12th Sethumadhavan 
  11. Oct 12th Proof against OST 
  12. Oct 13th Singer Karthik 
  13. Oct 13th Ramesh Prabha 
  14. Oct 14th Dance world silent 
  15. Oct 14th Mannargudi Easwaran  
  16. Oct 14th Karthik TMK 
  17. Oct 15th Kumbakonam Swaminathan 
  18. Oct 15th Karthik TMK again 
  19. Oct 16th Ramnarayan Venkatraman 
  20. Oct 17th Karthikeyan Ramanathan 
  21. Oct 17th Cleveland Aradhana and Rebuttal Rajna 
  22. Oct 22nd Sri Mushnam Raja Rao 
  23. Oct 22nd second girl says Sri Mushnam molested her 
  24. Oct 24th Ravi Kiran 
  25. Oct 27th article on Ravi Kiran 
  26. Radhika Ganesh Varadu Kutty list 
  27. CHinmayi Tweet on Sashikiran 
  28. Chinmayi tweet on Ravi and others 
  29. Chinmayi on OST and Nagai SRiram