14 Jul 2023  |   05:01am IST

The politics of sexual harassment

The politics of sexual harassment

Gladstone D’Costa

Sexual harassment is a universal phenomenon, and exhibits common features wherever it occurs. The perpetrator is often a person known to the victim, and wields a certain degree of power over the victim, and/or in society in general. What follows, flows along a number of set pathways. The victim may choose to keep quiet about the harassment, usually out of a sense of shame, fear of stigma, retaliation, or even guilt for having brought about the offense upon herself. The, victim may confide in a close friend, parents or family members, and end up in the same dead end, by keeping quiet, again from a sense of shame and fear of bringing disrepute to the family; made worse if there is a cast element involved. 

In the Bhanwari Devi case, it was held that upper caste men were unlikely to ‘defile’themselves by raping a lower caste woman. Often there is a lack of trust in the judicial system. If in spite of all this, if a complaint is still filed, further hurdles spring up.

The police may refuse to register an FIR as happened with the Indian wrestlers. The powers that be may not believe the victim because of a past history of sexual activity, or, quite ridiculously, ‘did not behave as a victim of harassment should’ (as in the Tejpal case). How a victim should behave, only God and the courts know. Fortunately, we have progressed from such diabolical circumstances. The SC has recognized the rights of the victim to the extent that the conviction of an accused of sexual assault can be sustained on the sole testimony of the victim if the circumstances so indicate. 

We have the “Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice” for victims of such abuse. In 1983, came the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women; in 2012 came the POCSO Act; and in 2013, the law to protect women at the workplace.  All bolstered by the ‘Me Too’ movement. Yet at the same time, between 2009-19 there has been an 850% increase in the number of Lok Sabha MPs with declared cases of crimes against women against them. How ironical! Laws are made by the very same individuals who as a group are the biggest offenders. Is it any wonder then, that whereas one-third of women have suffered abuse, only 14% reported it (NFHS-5; 2019-21). 

 In the current case, the alleged perpetrator is the WFI president and a six-time Lok Sabha M P, a self-confessed murderer, reported to have considerable influence not only in his own constituency, but also in 5 adjacent ones. Hence the dragging of political feet. The accusations came from seven police complaints giving graphic details of the incidents of repeated groping and abuse. The descriptions the victims gave, and corroborated by independent witnesses, like referees coaches and physiotherapists, were too detailed and similar to be concocted. The police demand for photo, audio and video proof for a 12-year-old offence could have reduced this country to a banana republic. Luckily such evidence did emerge in four cases.  On one occasion he is alleged to have stroked the breast and navel of a wrestler to check her breathing! Where did he acquire such medical expertise for this technique, for assessing respiration? The allegations were first made in January 2023, and when they were ignored, the wrestlers resorted to a sit-in demonstration at Jantar Mantar, shaming the sporting world and the country. 

Relief eventually came from the SC.  Curiously, VIPs including the PM and HM, who normally jostle to have tea and photo-ops with such successful sportspersons were strikingly silent; The latter took six months to even meet the protestors and acknowledge there was an issue. Public uproar was muted. Was it because the very concept of medal winning women wrestlers is alien to a male dominated sport? Is that why there was miserably sparse support from the sporting community? Barring a few, all the big guns of the sporting world maintained a deafening silence, when it came to any form of support for the protesting wrestlers. 

  The other striking issue is the determination of the protesters. This has been badly underestimated by those who should have known better. Wrestling requires a special mind-set of determination to win. You don’t get international medals by capitulating easily; you get knocked down, you get up, you fight back, and you fight back to win. Bajrang won his medal in Tokyo, in spite of an injured knee. Sakshi was trailing at 1-5, to bounce back to 8-5, and win at Rio. Nearly all of them have risen from modest backgrounds and succeeded in the face of considerable personal adversity. They are made of sterner stuff than the politicians anticipated. We only hope that like the Gujarat HC they are not advised to read ‘Manusmriti’; or worse still, like the Allahabad HC, referred to the Astrology department of the Lucknow University, to have their horoscopes checked. 

 They have already been through various grinders --the Oversight Committee, (report still not made public), the India Olympic Association Committee, the police, a magistrate and even the SC for a fair hearing and justice. A chargesheet has finally been filed, but curiously the police have recommended a cancellation of the charges under POCSO on the grounds that the minor withdrew the charges (allegedly following threats).  POCSO rules were reduced to so much judicial garbage. Let us hope the court treats this with the contempt it deserves, because if these sporting heroes are denied justice, sports will never recover from the political hypocrisy that brought such a shameful event to pass.

(The writer is a founder member of VHAG)


Iddhar Udhar