Where was #MeToo three decades ago?

Senior journalist Rajashri Dasgupta describes the prolonged sexual harassment she was subjected to by the News Editor of the respected newspaper she joined at the beginning of her career.  

MeToo logo by Manjula PI was sexually harassed almost 35 years ago, in the mid-1980s, when many of my colleagues in the media who today are protesting against sexual harassment were perhaps not even born. Nor did we have a name for ‘it’... though we were as disgusted and traumatised by the perpetrators’ lewd gaze and groping as women are today.  As #MeToo explodes in the social media, I remember how such harassment, like other forms of violence against women, was almost normalised as routine, how there was scant recognition or acknowledgement of the problem until recently. It was most often brushed aside as “eve teasing” or harmless joking, trivialising the harrowing experience that it was for many women, including me.

My News Editor (NE) sexually harassed me when I was a sub-editor in the Business Standard (BS), Ananda Bazar Patrika Group (ABP), Kolkata. He was an alcoholic. Initially, I was in awe of this man, and grateful as well. After all, he had given me my first job in the newspaper even though I did not even have an economics background.  I also had a long gap in my education, having left college for Left politics, been jailed in the 1970s during the Naxalite movement and released only in 1977, when India’s Internal Emergency was lifted. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had suffered an ignominious defeat and there was a strong demand for the release of thousands of political prisoners across the country. 

I admired my new boss greatly because I had heard that he had taken a strong position, along with some other journalists, during the Emergency to defy the State on press censorship at a time when a major section of the media “crawled,” as LK Advani put it, when asked to merely “bend.”  I appreciated the fact he allowed me to write my first feature article and that, too, a piece in a business paper on the observation of March 8/International Women’s Day in the city, when even general newspapers barely covered news on women.  A few women colleagues and I were, in fact, among the first batch of women to join BS.

The harassment started unexpectedly and at first I brushed his overtures aside, not giving them much attention. Yes, I was familiar with sexual harassment on the streets or in the city’s public transport – who wasn’t?! Moreover, people in what was then Calcutta came forward to help when one protested.  But at the workplace, presumably a safe haven, where young people would hardly expect to be harassed? And that too in an office packed with journalists whom I had visualised as a serious, educated group of bright intellectuals shaping and changing the world?

I had joined journalism for employment, yes, but also for the idealistic notions we had in those days about the media as a profession. Though business as a subject was never my choice, I was not going to throw away an opportunity to learn and interact with great minds. Also, wasn’t there an unspoken hands-off message connected with my marital status and also with my being a young mother?  Instead, I learnt hard, hands-on lessons on sexual politics, and how even so-called decent, liberal men can misuse the power of their position.

It began with commands like: sit at my desk and work; which changed later to, come and sit at my desk. I felt uncomfortable and confused. It became more obvious when he started to pester me: why don’t you smile at me, you talk and laugh with everyone in the office, why do you ignore me? It became persistent: look at me, now smile at me, tell me about yourself. He would call me on the office intercom and pour out his troubles and ask me to step out for coffee with him. “Don’t tell anyone,” he would then add. One night, during a night shift, I was extremely frightened when he blocked the narrow corridor with his two hands outstretched and refused to budge until I had smiled and talked to him.   

He had a major drinking problem. If his speech was slurred during the morning shift, by the night shift he would be staggering around and almost incomprehensible. One day, he completely lost control, and stripped and defecated in a heavily air-conditioned room meant for expensive machinery. Many of us were repelled by his behaviour; we were even more shocked by the management allowing such drunkenness on their premises. I was also deeply disappointed by the silence of my colleagues, considering that Calcutta was well known for the way even strangers on the streets would help women.

Despite the swell of the #MeToo movement and the deeper understanding of sexual harassment today, a senior former colleague who was a close witness to what went on in the BS newsroom in those days, told me recently, “It was not harassment; he had an alcohol problem.”  Such self-denial can be construed in two ways:  an attempt to cover their backs for their inaction when they could have intervened or, to be more charitable, their continued obliviousness to what women go through in workplaces.  One senior, popularly called Jaggi (Jaganathan), did reach out; he would often ask me quietly to sit next to him at the desk – a gesture I still remember with gratitude.

 In those days, the offices of Business Standard and the Bengali newspaper of the same media group, Ananda Bazar, were in one big hall without cubicles and partitions. In my naiveté, I had thought that the collective disapproval of my colleagues would put a stop to such offensive behaviour. I eventually realised that he was too important in the hierarchy for the newspaper and that, although the management may have been uncomfortable with his nuisance quotient, they would not rock the boat for the sake of a minor sub-editor.  

I was not one to keep quiet. My first instinct was to appeal to a senior editor in BS who had avuncular affection for me. He said he was aware of what was going on in the office.  Ignore him, he said, just avoid him.  Avoid? I wished the NE would disappear from my life! I was dismayed; I had expected more support, although I was not sure what. 

I then reported the NE to the union, which did immediately try to reach out to me, however inadequately. They asked whether he had kissed me or hugged me. No, I said. There was confusion: then what was the problem? But they assured me that they would keep an eye on the situation and “take necessary action.” I was skeptical because I realised that they had never confronted such an issue before and were familiar only with traditional labour issues. I suspected their approach would be an anti-management move, something they were adept at.

To my dismay, I also sensed a parochial feeling against the NE among some colleagues because he happened to be from a different part of the country and was harassing a Bengali woman.  For me that was hardly the issue.

The shroud of silence around violence against women was ripped apart by the women’s movement in India in the 1980s. Angry countrywide protests exploded across major cities against the rape of a minor tribal girl inside a police station, literally dragging the issue of sexual violence into the public sphere. Despite the absence of social media, emails and phones, women mobilised quickly in large numbers on the streets, old newspapers used for writing hand-painted slogans for posters.

It has been a long journey to get sexual harassment viewed and understood as violence. It was in 1988 that the term “sexual harassment” entered public discourse in India, when IAS officer Rupan Bajaj filed a case against the “Lion of Punjab,” police officer KPS Gill, for pinching her bottom at a party. But it took a few more years for a national campaign for workplace safety, especially in terms of sexual harassment and violence, to emerge.  In 1992, when Bhanwari Devi, a sathin (literally soulmate), a village-level social worker, was gang-raped by upper caste men while campaigning against child marriage in rural Rajasthan, women’s organisations filed a case in the Supreme Court, seeking a legal framework for protection from sexual harassment and abuse in workplaces.

The rest is history.  In 1997 the Court acknowledged that sexual harassment violates women’s equality, issued guidelines on what constitutes such harassment and placed the onus on employers to constitute to act on complaints by, among other things, instituting a committee for the purpose.  The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, Redressal) Act, 2013 followed. Yet women found that while many universities and public sector companies complied with the law, it was the private sector – even big, mainstream media houses—that tended to ignore their responsibility to abide by the law.  The #MeToo movement is not an isolated outburst, it is part of a continuum of activism, even on the streets, that began decades ago

I had joined Sachetana, a women’s rights group – among the first of such organisations in the city – in the early 1980s.  I received spirited support from its members even though it was a fledgling group. Sachetana members immediately wrote a letter of protest to Aveek Sarkar, the owner and editor of the ABP group. One of our members, Ela Datta, volunteered to hand the letter over to Mr. Sarkar. Ela di stands out in my mind for her courage and deep sense of fairness.  She had a lot to lose, both personally and professionally: she was not only a close friend of the NE, but also the art critic of Business Standard. But she readily went with the letter to the editor.

From what I remember, he said something along these lines to her:  he was aware of the “problem” but I had “misinterpreted” the situation. The issue at hand was not sexual, it was alcoholism. Mr. Sarkar was bhadralok enough to acknowledge that there was a problem, but it required 35 years more, following the surge of the #MeToo movement, for editors and owners – at least some of them – to accept their responsibility to make the workplace safe for women.  

The harassment did not stop with the NE. His drinking partner, a senior colleague at the desk, was deeply frustrated that he had been bypassed as editor for the Sunday magazine. After the night shifts it was customary for staff to be driven home in an office car. During one such night he vented his frustration by trying to molest me in the back of the car. My appeal for help to another colleague who was sitting in the front seat went in vain. He neither turned around nor attempted to stop him. It was perhaps my mistake not to turn to the driver for help – I had reposed more faith in my colleague.  

The next morning I shot off an angry letter of resignation to Mr. Sarkar, citing the incident. Mr. Sarkar refused to accept my resignation and said he would take action. The Drinking Partner was eventually shifted to Business World, another ABP publication. “Don’t you dare spoil his career,” hissed the NE. It is ironic that such predators do not bat an eyelid while ruining women’s lives or careers but always protect their friends.

A few days later, Drinking Partner offered a lame apology and Front Seat Rider wrote a long, convoluted letter to explain his inaction. He said that Drinking Partner had misbehaved with his wife in his home in a similar fashion but he had not protested. He was apparently waiting for me to lash out at him to exact his revenge! Both the men were moved to more responsible positions – Drinking Partner became the editor of Business World and Front Seat Rider moved to another publication in a senior position. Even today, I wonder which one among my two colleagues was the greater jerk.   

The situation reached a climax one night. The big hall was packed with journalists readying for night shift when all hell broke loose.  I was heavy with my second child. As I reached for my chair to sit down, the NE snapped his fingers at me and called out loudly, “Hey, come here.” Something in me snapped. I was burning with rage. At first I ignored him and then, when he called out a second time, I slowly walked towards him and stopped.  I shouted back, “What do you think the office is, a bar?”

I vaguely remember I picked up a paperweight to hurl at him while my colleague held on to my hand, imploring me to stop. Another friend rushed towards me shoving Juliet Mitchell’s book at me to calm me down. Many years later, when I joined The Telegraph, I was told by my colleagues that they had heard I had hurled the paperweight at the NE. I had not, though I confess that at that moment I had very much wanted to.  For the second time, I handed in my resignation letter and, for the second time, I listened to Mr. Sarkar and stayed on. He said he had seen what had happened and promised action. The NE was sent off for detoxification.  

In the four years I was in BS I was deeply disturbed, angry and obsessed with thoughts of revenge. I was insecure at the prospect of being unemployed, yet at the same time I would be miserable every time I got ready for work, dreading what lay in store for me that day. I could barely recognise myself. Seeing my misery, my husband repeatedly told me to resign, assuring me that he would be able to take care of the growing family. I finally left for my maternity leave and never returned to the organisation.  I mumbled excuses about childcare, but the truth is that I felt hounded and miserable.  One memory from that period that lingers with me are the words of the deputy news editor, Satya Sain, as I left BS for the last time, never to look back: “Forgive me, I could not protect you. I failed.” Thank you, Satya da.  

I never sought formal employment for years after that for fear of being similarly harassed and was initially reluctant to accept the offer made by The Telegraph, another publication from the same media group. However, the editor, Sumir Lal, one of the finest men I have known in the media, assured me personally that TT was “different” and I would never have to face “anything of that sort.” He kept his promise.

Even before I joined TT I was moving on. I realised what a mistake I was making letting the likes of the NE and his cohorts ruin my life. I had to set myself free from the grip of rage that bound me to the NE even after I had left my job. If the institution, my office, could not give me justice, I had to seek justice for myself – and heal myself.   I had won my freedom a few years before joining BS, when the situation had  seemed so bleak and hopeless, through the days of torture and hunger in police custody.  How could I break down now when I had not yielded in prison, did not allow the cops to break my spirit? On my release, I had found a new lease of life, a loving partner, delightful children and a huge circle of comrades, friends and family who believed in me.  What also gave me strength and a fresh perspective was my growing involvement with the women’s movement. I realised that sexual harassment was part of the continuum of violence against women; when abused and battered women sought help in Sachetana, reaching out to them helped my own healing, shifting attention away from the confines of office politics to larger social issues

One day, when I was in TT, the BS NE walked into the office. I looked at his face and was surprised that I felt nothing, no revulsion for the man whose behaviour had driven me out of that office.  To my colleagues’ shock, I chatted with him – and even laughed with him. I had exorcised the fear and loathing that I associated with him. The victory was mine.   

PS  The NE of BS and Editor of BW have passed away. I am not naming them.

October 2018

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