Perceptions of history seem to favour a narrative form, one that is punctuated with events like watersheds. The gang rape in a Delhi bus on December 16, 2012 is, for many reasons, often seen as one such incident. Has there been some kind of a change since then, however subtle and gradual? Now, when the highest among the keepers of society’s conscience stand accused of sexual harassment at the workplace, it is necessary to acknowledge that times are perhaps really changing. That two young women, a lawyer and a journalist, have made official complaints of harassment and assault against their high-profile superiors belonging to institutions that represent the highest forms of power is a situation that needs close examination.
Women have known, probably since time immemorial, that some protectors can turn into predators. That laws are slowly being made against such trespass is an indication of society’s comparatively recent evolution; by daring power structures, material loss and social damage to make use of the laws, women are demonstrating, as one of the two complainants has said, that they can take decisions about themselves for themselves. She has also expressed her awareness of how hard the fight is going to be. The other complainant, too, has mentioned the pain and fear of not being heard or not being believed, but she has additionally made another important point. She is very conscious that sexual harassment in the workplace is a complicated issue. Both the courage and the remarkably mature approach of the two complainants suggest that the long campaigns and new laws have not gone in vain.
But complications can be of many kinds. The first question in such situations would be, who is lying? For women lie, too. The mess is made worse by the fact that the very institutions that are expected to take an impartial, judicious view are being pushed to a corner: their members have been accused. It is the uprightness and desire for truth of responsible women and men that have to be relied upon in such cases. Another common question is, who put them up to it? With remarkable clarity, one of the complainants has requested political parties not to turn this into a conversation about themselves. The Indian sensibility is too politicized to heed this, but she has at least articulated the problem. Change is slow, but is now visible.
Yet it has to be remembered that the two complainants were themselves highly educated and accomplished, or they would not have been where they were. Their context is not entirely irrelevant to their courage. Society will be seen to have truly evolved when sexual harassment is fought in all workplaces, be they the fields, construction sites, quarries, small factories. There is a huge chasm yet to be bridged.