Those Little Spaces

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In the spaces
between silence and sleep
Leaning against your bed,

Awake,
Uncomfortable,
Yet somehow content,

I write this,
In this flickering light.

Wondering
if you know that I am here
beside you.

If it’s love,
that makes you hold my hand
when it touches yours.

That makes you move
just that little bit closer
when I curl up next to you.
Or if it’s just too cold tonight.

I brood
I second-guess
I ponder over it
For another few moments,
Till I fall asleep

In the spaces
between darkness and dawn
Restless,
yet somehow at ease,
once again.

Valentine’s Day Does Not Depress People – How The Free Press Journal Had to Eat Crow

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As a helpline coordinator, I strongly believe that print publicity is the lifeline of any helpline. Naturally then, it serves my interests to be on good terms with the media. In fact, I am usually the first one to reach out to the media and inform them about help-seeking trends in the city whenever there is a spike in calls pertaining to a particular issue and there are several instances where such interactions have resulted in print features for my organization, which in turn led to more calls. We also make it a point to ask each caller where they heard of us, so we can determine where to focus our publicity efforts the next time, and often we learn from our callers that our number has been featured in a particular publication. In order to ensure that we don’t miss out on such stories (and to be able to write a thank-you email to the publications for them) we have even set up Google alerts for the helpline’s name and telephone number, and routinely scour the web for any news pieces about us.

This system has served us well so far, and it enables us to spot stories about us soon after they appear online. It was on one such routine Google search on the 15th of February 2014 that I spotted a story in the Free Press Journal titled ‘Helplines Flooded With Desperate Calls Before V-Day’. Given that unlike other times (such as exam result days and mental health week) the helpline had NOT been flooded with calls, and that no media houses had contacted us for a story, this was a surprise. Relationships, in fact are a perennial issue brought forth on calls and V-Day does not really make a difference to this. As I opened the article, I was in for a bigger surprise. Not only was my helpline’s number quoted in the article, but there was a two-paragraph quote describing a call allegedly made by a 14 year old girl to my helpline, which was attributed to me! Here is the excerpt featuring my organization:

“A 14-year old called up iCall- a mental helpline run by Tata Institute of Social Sciences- saying that she loved her friend’s boyfriend and that their Valentine’s Day celebration is making her envious of her.

“She said that her friend and friend’s boyfriend were celebrating each day of Valentine’s week which she can only dream of as she is not that pretty. She said that she can never fall for someone else and will die out of the envy that she has for her friend,” said Paras Sharma, co-coordinator of iCall, which is under Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

“It was shocking for me as this girl couldn’t see that she has all time in world for falling in love and that many Valentines like this will come and pass by,” said Sharma”.

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Apart from the fact that the journalist in question never spoke to me for any article, and that the account of this 14 year old was completely a figment of the reporter – Swati Jha’s overactive imagination, there were several other things which appeared amiss about this quote. For example, we were called a ‘mental helpline’ whatever that meant. Secondly it quotes me as the Co-Coordinator at iCALL whereas no such designation exists at iCALL (I am the Programme Coordinator). Even if this god-awful attempt to impersonate me were true, as a Counselling Psychologist, I am bound by the ethics of confidentiality and anonymity and would never share a case in such lurid details with any publication – be it academic or news. One can refer to iCALL’s annual report to get a taste of how minimally we quote our call transcripts even in an academic publication on our own website.

Fortunately, I was not the only one quoted in this outlandish article. Also quoted prominently, was a fellow mental health professional from a suicide helpline that operates in Mumbai. Given that our field is a small one, the coordinator of this helpline was a phone call away. Unsurprisingly, he too mentioned that he had not been contacted by the FPJ for any article.

Despite the fact that it was a Saturday afternoon, I took my chances and called up the FPJ office and asked to speak either to the reporter or to the editor. The operator at first tried to get rid of me quickly but realized I meant business as soon as I mentioned that I was calling to lodge a complaint regarding a story. I was then put through to Mr TGP Krishnan who identified himself as the Deputy General Manager at FPJ. He was surprised at my claim that I had been quoted without being interviewed and said that this was unheard of. He mentioned that he had been a city editor with the FPJ in the past and that they had a zero tolerance policy for such shenanigans and assured me that I would hear from them soon if I formally wrote him a complaint. I obliged, and sure enough, I got a frantic call from a woman from the FPJ on my helpline number (not my office number or mobile, mind you), asking to speak to ‘Prashant’. A counsellor corrected her and asked her if she wanted to talk to ‘Paras’ and the lady agreed.

It turned out to be the journalist herself, Swati Jha – who put on a brilliant act of being shocked at my ‘denial of having spoken to FPJ’. I asked the lady if she had my personal number or even knew my name correctly. She said she did not have my number and said that she mixed up my name because she speaks to a hundred people in a day. I asked her if she had a telephone log of her conversation with me and she made the outrageous claim that her phone only stores the last dialled number. And of course, she had no audio transcript of the conversation. I asked her if she was sure that it was my voice she heard on the other line the day she claimed to have spoken to me and she said that ‘it could have been someone else at your organization’. Unfortunately for her, I am the only male employee at my organization, and the only one authorized to speak to the media.

I immediately called Mr Krishnan back and informed him about the conversation and he assured me that the story would be taken down and a retraction would be printed if the journalist was not able to prove her story. In the meantime I started tweeting and facebooking about this story so that the readers of FPJ, and the clients and well-wishers of iCALL knew that we had been falsely quoted. A blogger friend was kind enough to write about our side of the story and several journalist friends retweeted my tweets to the official FPJ twitter handle demanding a retraction.

Sometime around the night of the 15th of February, 2014, the article was quietly pulled down from the FPJ website. Even at the time of writing this piece the link throws up ‘Nothing Found’.

I checked my inbox to see if there was any intimation over email by the FPJ team regarding the pulling down of the piece but there was none…until the next day. And that too from none other than Ms. Swati Jha herself. She wrote to me from a personal email which mentioned her name as ‘Swati Priya’ that said (sic) ‘As demanded by you FPJ has taken down my story from its website. I do not have any proof to back my side. Kindly consider this as an apology from my side. My intension was in no way to harm the reputation of your esteemed institution. I apologise if in anyway I have done that’.

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Like any reasonable individual, I interpreted this as an admission of guilt on the part of the reporter. I, however replied to her saying that since my name had been used publicly, nothing short of a printed retraction would suffice. By then, I had been put in touch with Mr Anil Singh, a seasoned journalist and the Metro Editor at FPJ by a friend. I explained the events up until then to Mr Singh and even shared the email by the journalist (which he was not aware of at that point) with him. He assured me that if I did have such an email, as I claimed, the editors would certainly do what is necessary since the FPJ does not tolerate such incidents.

Everything seemed fine up until this point, but then the trail went cold. I did not hear back from Mr Singh for two days, and ramped up the pressure on social media and through my friends in the print media. When I was finally able to get through to Mr Singh again, he told me candidly that the reason he did not return my calls was because the matter had gone to his seniors and that his opinion was no longer relevant since ‘the Supreme Court was now looking into it’. That ‘Supreme Court’ happened to be Mr Shailender Dhawan who as I learned was Editor-in-Chief at FPJ.

In my first conversation, Mr Dhawan sounded polite to a fault. He mentioned several times that he was committed to ‘resolving the matter to my satisfaction’. At the same time, he pleaded with me to ‘look at the matter holistically’ and ‘consider the impact an incident like this could have on a young journalist at the threshold of her career’. He asked me to think back to my early days as a professional and said ‘We all made mistakes when we started off, didn’t we?’ I was in no mood to bargain though and told him in as many words that I did not care what happens to the journalist, and that it is better if she learned a lesson about violating ethics at this point in her career rather than later. I suspect this did not go down too well with Mr Dhawan because his tone changed from thereon and he began to complain how I had been ‘targeting a young journalist on a public platform like Twitter when the matter was being looked into by the editors’. At one point he equated this to cyber-bullying and I had to remind him that it was I who was the aggrieved party here and not his scribe! We finished the conversation with Mr Dhawan promising a final verdict the next day. He asked me to refrain from any criticism on social media until he got back to me.

I was not convinced by this and asked the Chairperson of my Centre – Dr Sujata Sriram to speak to Mr Dhawan and tell him that we meant business, which again did not augur well with him. He rudely said that ‘You need to be patient’ and asked her ‘if she was an office-bearer or an employee’. We had decided enough was enough and that we would have to act against FPJ if a printed retraction in the newspaper was denied.

The next day, I waited until 4.30 PM to call Mr Dhawan for his ‘verdict’. Much to my surprise, he mentioned that he had not called me because there was nothing further to say. He said, “Neither party has provided me clinching evidence”. I asked him what more evidence he needed besides the journalist’s own admission of guilt and an independent claim for a retraction by the coordinator of another helpline. Mr Dhawan at this point made the outrageous demand for the entire call log of the helpline so that he could ascertain whether a call was truly NOT made by his journalist. What Mr Dhawan failed to understand was that as a helpline that promises confidentiality and anonymity to its clients, sharing a call-log with a third party would tantamount to an ethical breach of humongous proportions. I asked him why his journalist should not instead be asked to prove that she made the call and furnish a call log. Mr Dhawan said that she did not have the same but she had some ‘scribbled notes’.

He turned quite unfriendly when I said that it was unethical on his part to stand by his journalist when she admits to not having any proof to back her claim of talking to me or the other helpline. Mr Dhawan, dogged as ever, said that since the other helpline was a 24×7 helpline, he cannot rule out the possibility that his journalist called at an odd-hour and spoke to a volunteer at the other helpline (this despite the fact that the journalist claims to have spoken to the coordinator of that helpline). By the end of the conversation, Mr Dhawan turned outright rude and asked me ‘Not to waste his time and do whatever I deem fit’. I assured him that this would not be the last he heard about this story and that it was an unwise decision on his part not to have retracted this story.

It was rather perplexing that a senior journalist, despite such a weak defence being put up by his reporter, chose to side with her, despite the fact that she had already owned up to having no proof for her story and had asked the paper to remove the story from the website. It was even more ridiculous that the paper put the onus of establishing that a conversation did not take place on us rather than asking the journalist to prove that it did in fact take place. What clinching proof can one give for the ‘non-existence’ of something after all? But the craziest insinuation of them all was that critical comments on social media against the newspaper and the journalist (both of whom were calling us liars) amounted to cyber-bullying!

I approached my friend Vidyut Gore-Kale who had earlier blogged about this incident on her website and she was kind enough to write another scathing account on her website. I also contacted an old college friend who had worked in the media earlier and is now a lawyer and it looked like I had no option but to approach the Press Council of India, send the paper a legal notice and hope for the best. But then something awesome happened. Geeta Seshu, from The Hoot who had been helping me behind the scenes the whole time, decided to run the story on her website. This account in fact was meant to be published on The Hoot. She also took the initiative of contacting FPJ and told them she was doing a story on the incident and that they needed to justify not retracting the story. That is when the tide turned. Because the next morning, I received a call from Geeta informing me that a front page retraction had appeared in the paper. Just like that. The paper informed her, not me, or the other helpline, which tells you a thing or two about who Editors fear. My threat to the Editor of taking up the matter legally and to the Press Council had fallen on deaf ears, but the fear of being shamed further on the internet, especially on a forum like The Hoot clearly got them thinking straight! Here is the apology printed in the paper

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The whole incident shows the lengths to which the media will go to avoid admitting that they were caught with their pants-down. It also shows how some senior journalists never grew out of the 80s where the only avenue for redressal was a ‘Letter to the Editor’ which they could chuck into the waste-bin without a regard. To call the usage of social media by an ordinary individual to defend his/her name as ‘cyber-bullying’ is quite bizarre. But our IT Act can be used by unscrupulous elements to potentially persecute the very people it was meant to protect. Since I did not need to complain to the Press Council of India, I cannot comment on whether that would have achieved the desired result, but it clearly appears that Editors do not fear them. What then, can an ordinary citizen do when a media wrongs them and refuses to do anything about it, besides shaming them on Social Media? In my case, I was fortunate enough to know people on Twitter and online media who could create the kind of noise that finally forced the paper to withdraw the story. But if it were a bigger publication, and there were more vested interests in running a story such as this, I could have ended up having a case lodged against me under the IT Act! While I am glad things did not get that ugly, the incident on one hand has made me more cynical about mainstream media than I already was, but on the other hand it also shows that a clean, honest and approachable online medium can help restore the balance in favor of the little guy, even if it is just by a little bit!

Paras Sharma serves as the Programme Coordinator at iCALL Psychosocial Helpline – A field-action project set up by the Centre for Human Ecology at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

My Top 13 Songs of 2013

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As someone who listens to a considerable amount of music from mostly obscure artists, sharing a year-end wrap of my favorite songs has become a kind of a tradition for the last few years. This is the 2013 edition of my favorite songs from the whole year. I hope you enjoy it!

The Top 5 Social Impact Moments of 2013

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Disclaimer: This post is an edited version of iCALL Psychosocial Helpline’s Newsletter for December 2013 with the same title. To view the complete newsletter click here. To know more about iCALL Psychosocial Helpline, visit their webpage here, or like them on Facebook

The year gone by was one which was dotted with several moments which have changed the fate of several social movements in India. As 2013 draws to a close, here is a recap of 5 of the most prominent social impact moments of the year gone by…

  1. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 and the Announcement of the Nirbhaya Fund: While the women’s movement in India had been demanding stricter rape laws for several years, it was not until the brutal Nirbhaya gang rape in December 2012 that the issue grabbed the collective consciousness of the nation. The spontaneous outburst of the public’s anger, fuelled in good measure by ill-conceived media-bytes by politician and self-styled godmen alike, put the government under pressure like never before leading to the passing of an ordinance by President Pranab Mukherjee in February 2013, which would go on to receive a nod from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha shortly after in March 2013. While the new law is by no means a perfect one (as critiqued magisterially by Madhu Mehra in this post on Kafila), it was a game-changer nonetheless. Most significantly, the new law expanded the definition of rape to include non-peno-vaginal intercourse which was not the case earlier. Under the new law, all forms of non-consensual penetrative sexual acts by men on women, now constitute rape. Furthermore, the new law eloquently defined consent as an ‘unequivocal agreement to engage in a particular sexual act’ rubbishing once and for all the ‘lack of resistance implies consent’ argument. The new law also, for the first time, made note of, and specifically defined, acts such as forced disrobing, stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks, making Sec 354 of the Indian Penal Code much more potent. A year past the Delhi gang rape, the Nirbhaya Fund – a Rs. 1000 crore corpus to support initiatives towards the safety of women, is yet to reach the grassroots. The corpus, nonetheless has the potential to make all the right changes to better the lives of women in India. While time only will tell how well the new law performs and if the Nirbhaya fund sees the light of day, there is no denying that this was a step in the right direction – which shall hopefully be followed by action
  2. The Introduction of the Mental Health Care Bill of 2013 in the Parliament: While the Mental Health Care Bill has not yet been cleared by the Parliament, and is thus not yet into force, the bill promises to do for the mental health movement in India what the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013, did for the women’s movement. Introduced as a replacement for the outdated Mental Health Care Act of 1987, the new bill most famously decriminalises suicide, (both attempted and successful). The bill also aims to safeguard the right to mental health care, protection from cruel and inhuman forms of treatment such as chaining to beds and highly regulates the use of controversial treatments such as Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). Yet another progressive feature of this bill is the provision to file an Advanced Directive regardless of mental health state which allows an individual to appoint a representative who will have a say in case the person falls mentally ill in the future. While the bill was given a miss by the Parliament since its tabling in August 2013, one hopes that the day when it comes into force is not far.
  3. The Supreme Court’s Landmark Ruling in Favour of a Sailor Suffering from Schizophrenia: Edward D’Cunha joined the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) in 1993 as a trainee and over the years worked his way up to the post of Second Officer. In 1997, he fell prey to an episode of acute psychosis and for the next three years kept suffering from bouts of nausea, confusion and hallucinations. He was coerced by his captain in 2000 to resign from his position with a fleeting promise that he would be considered for a shore post which subsequently did not materialize. Edward, with the support of his father and mental health NGO Maitri appealed against this to the Disabilities Commissioner stating that this was in violation of the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995. The commissioner however upheld his resignation in 2006 leaving him no option but to approach the Mumbai High Court, which four years later ruled in his favour and directed SCI to reinstate him on a shore-post. Not willing to bow down, the SCI challenged this verdict in the Supreme Court. Thirteen long years later, the SC bench of Justices Prasad and Khehar once again ruled in Edward’s favour, serving justice once and for all. The precedent set by the Supreme Court is a victory for all those who face discrimination on the basis of their mental health status and is sure to inspire many others like Edward to fight for their rights.
  4. The Tehelka Sexual Assault Case Brings the Vishaka Guidelines Back into the Spotlight: The Tehelka Sexual Assault Case, which is still buzzing in the media, has been sensational for a host of reasons – be it the fact that it happened within a publication best known for being on the right side of most controversies, or that the private email apologies leaked and spread like wild-fire over social media. Many are touting it the first real test of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013. However, the case has brought back into the spotlight, The Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace, which emerged in response to a brutal gang-rape of Bhanwari Devi, a state government grassroots employee in Rajasthan in the 1990s. The guidelines, which were first brought up in this case by the victim herself, define clearly what sexual harassment at the workplace includes and directs every organization to institute a Committee Against Sexual Harassment to attend to complaints of this nature and help the victim pursue criminal action against the same. The guidelines, which until the Tehelka case were merely considered a formality have now become a must-have and several organizations have been reported to be hurrying about to form their own CASH committees in order to avoid a public embarrassment of Tehelka-esque proportions. While what happens after the case enters a court of law remains to be seen, the increased awareness about the Vishaka Guidelines and about Sexual Harassment at the workplace at large, is certainly one of the few silver linings in this case.
  5. Supreme Court Sets Aside the 2009 Delhi High Court Verdict on Sec 377: In what is easily the most heart-breaking story of this year, the Supreme Court ruling on Section 377 which upheld the controversial law once again, set back the LGBT rights movement in India back significantly. Since the landmark Delhi High Court in 2009 which declared Section 377 as unconstitutional, the LGBT rights movement in India had become more prominent and vociferous than ever, with pride marches being not only in large metros such as Mumbai and Delhi, but also smaller cities such as Ahmedabad and Chandigarh. Given that the Govt of India, despite its flip-flopping stance on the issue had mentioned before the Apex Court that it was not opposed to the decriminalization of private, consensual acts of non peno-vaginal sexual intercourse, few had imagined that the Supreme Court in one fell swoop undid the hard work of organizations such as Naz Foundation over the last 13 years, and upheld the law due to which lakhs of individuals belonging to the ‘miniscule’ sexual minorities in India had been subjected to harassment at the hands of the Police. Ironically the verdict on the law, which is a relic of the British rule, has come at a time when the British themselves are set to legalize not just ‘unnatural sex’ but also same-sex marriages. The Apex Court in its ruling left it to the discretion of the Parliament to amend the law if it so wishes. However, in what is already looking like one of the most bitterly-fought Lok Sabha elections in the history of independent India, the two major national political parties in the country – the Congress and the BJP, have taken diametrically opposite stands on the verdict – with the Congress categorically condemning the verdict and the BJP not only welcoming the verdict but also stating that homosexuality is unnatural. While a review petition against the SC ruling has already been filed by the government, and Naz Foundation, which set the ball rolling in the first place, has joined in with the petition as an interested party, there is no denying that this verdict has delivered a telling blow to the LGBT community in India, who now have to pick themselves up and regroup to fight for their rights once again!

Three Seventy Seven Ways to Set a Country Back

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Last night while I was about to wind-up for the day, I received an invite on Facebook from my friends at The Humsafar Trust –  to come watch the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 from 10.30 in the morning – the time I usually catch the first of my three trains to office. I remember thinking to myself on the way back that one way or another, the verdict would make history, as did my friends – straight and gay alike. Given the iconic date (11/12/13) and the fact that one of the judges presiding over the hearing was going to retire tomorrow, the case was sure to be a flashbulb memory in the minds of everyone. I remember thinking on my way back that the verdict would in most likelihood officially endorse the landmark Delhi High Court judgment of 2009 – a judgment that changed so many lives. I wondered,  ‘Would the celebrations be as euphoric as the last time, or would a muted sense of relief prevail?’ The nagging thought about how the judiciary in India has a tendency to deliver complete shockers, seen as recently as the Talwar verdict, remained with me all night. But surely, the Supreme Court would uphold the Right to Liberty over arguments as atrocious as ‘homosexuality will lead to the spread of cancer and AIDS’. It all seemed like an open-and-shut case, a mere formality awaiting the Apex Court’s seal of approval.

For a change, I was at office today much earlier than when I start my journey on a usual day. The tweets had started to trickle in by the morning, some of them mine. And then around 10.30 AM, for the second time in as many months, a tweet popped up on my screen, completely contrary to all that I had hoped for. I sat at my desk, feeling horrible, as the tweets began to flow – most outraged at the verdict, while others (the Blue Virus recruits of the right-wing social media) being completely ecstatic.

Now, why, you may ask is this such a personal issue for me? It’s not the first time I have been asked why I care about gay rights, why I chose to do my voluntary internship at a gay organization, why I say that being gay is not abnormal when I am not gay? And so on and so forth. The point is not my sexual orientation, the point is that of equality. Our right-wing politicians don’t shy away from pointing out the ills of ‘Western influence’. But here they are, rejoicing over a Supreme Court verdict reinstating a law the British instituted, at a time when the British themselves have legalized not only homosexual acts, but also same-sex marriages. The VHP with all its dreams of a Hindu rashtra fails to see that the only country in the world which officially recognizes Hinduism as the state-religion not only considers homosexuality legal, but also held its first gay pageant last month. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board which welcomed the verdict with great fervor, seem to overlook the fact that a country like Kazakhstan with 70% of its population being Muslim considers same-sex sexual activity as legal. And would someone remind the Christian organizations that protested the decriminalization of Sec 377 that Pope Francis himself said “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” I expect nothing from the likes of Baba Ramdev or Subramanian Swamy who chose to ignore what the DSM, for all its flaws, recognized as early as 1973. They would probably consider it a disease no matter who said it.

But the point was never about morality, was it? The point was about consent. And consent, it seems, is a concept our country does not very clearly understand. So while the government ignores the Uniform Civil Code and says that is okay with the fact that a girl under the age of 18 can marry under ‘Personal laws’, it also raises the age for consensual sex to 18. And the same Parliament which passed the POCSO Act – a landmark gender-neutral act that criminalizes sexual offences of any kind against both boys and girls under the age of 18, is likely to not decriminalize consensual sex between two same-sex partners within the privacy of a bedroom for a long long time to come.

India and Russia have had a cordial relationship over the years, with Russia often throwing behind its ‘Superpower’ weight behind us when our neighbours and the United States have tried to outmuscle us. But on this count, I am afraid, Russia was more ‘third-world’ than we were, at least until last night. As of today, we join the revered ranks of Afghanistan, Uganda and Saudi Arabia which punish consensual homosexual acts more strongly than we punish unwelcome sexual advances towards women. Hell even Russia criminalizes gay propaganda not, private gay sex, as farcical as that stand may be.

A day after World Human Rights Day, and the funeral of one of the biggest champions of equality the world has ever seen, which brought together the leaders of the world; and three days after a historical debut by Aam Aadmi Party rekindled people’s faiths in the power of democracy, the Supreme Court has set us back today, by centuries. The fight, most certainly will go on, as it must, but I’ll go to bed today a lot more cynical about this country than I did last night.

Not just Vishaka’s Problem, Sexual Harassment Starts at Schools

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As a male student who chose to study in the ‘Arts’ stream, as opposed to the male-dominated Commerce, Engineering, Science or MBA streams, I have had the opportunity to interact with and observe at close quarters some of the foremost feminist activists in the country, an opportunity, I am sure not even many of my male colleagues in the social sector have had.  I am also usually the only man or one of the few men in most conferences and seminars that I attend as a part of my work as a Counselling Psychologist. I am in fact the only male employee in my own organization. Given that most of my classmates in college, and coworkers over the past 3 years that I have worked in the social sector, have been women, people often look at me as someone who is trying to ‘fit-in’ when I try to speak about ‘feminist’ issues as a man. Female classmates of mine during my post-graduation would often say that I, as a man, can never be considered a feminist because of the male-privilege society affords me.

Most recently, an online feminist community denied admission to me citing a ‘women’s only’ policy. The incident, which was not a first for me, left me annoyed and amused in equal part.  I wondered why, even in the social sector there continues to be a distrust around well-intentioned men who want to be part of the fight against patriarchy. I didn’t really have an answer to it till the Tehelka controversy erupted a few days ago. The way things have played out in this incident have shocked most of us in the social sector to say the least. Tarun Tejpal emerging as a sexual offender, Shoma Chaudhary being as callous and boorish as can be in her interactions with senior journalists, Madhu Kishwar naming the victim and then saying ‘so what, so many others have done it before I did’ have all forced us to look at the people we would usually trust to be on the right side of most issues pertaining to Violence Against Women with a doubtful eye. It’s not surprising to me anymore that men are looked at with suspicion regardless of their purported stance on women’s issues.

As is the case with most media spectacles, certain terms become buzzwords. The buzzword this time around seems to be ‘The Vishaka Guidelines’. For the uninitiated, the Vishaka Guidelines come from a 1997 Supreme Court judgment in the aftermath of a brutal gangrape of a grassroots social activist in Rajasthan – Bhanwari Devi. The guidelines call upon employers to set up a Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH committees as they are usually known in office-culture) in order to protect female employees from sexual harassment. In the wake of the Tehelka controversy, most people today are of the opinion that having a Vishaka compliant CASH is the answer to the problem of sexual harassment, especially since the victim in the Tehelka incident herself asked for a committee as such to be instituted in her organization. While I completely stand for the fact that each organization should have a committee as such, I believe that such committees are not completely sufficient to deal with the issue. Committees against sexual harassment, come into the picture (or into existence as is the case usually) after an incident of  sexual harassment has taken place. Their preventive value, as such, is quite limited.  In reality however, girls start to face sexual harassment much before they’ve even thought of what they want to be when they grow up, and boys routinely harass women who are often older than their mothers.

Now for those of you who haven’t caught my drift, let me provide you with a bit of background.  I completed my schooling, right from kindergarten to SSC , at an overcrowded, all-boys school.  In case you aren’t familiar with how things work at an all-boys school, let’s just say that one would be shocked at the amount of sexual harassment female teachers have to face at the hands of a bunch of 12-year olds. Off the top of my head, I can remember an incident in standard seven where my science teacher approached my class-teacher teary-eyed with a complaint that some back-benchers had been eyeing her top-to-bottom in a most lecherous manner, and when she finally finally confronted them, she saw that the Leonardo DiCaprio inspired twelve year olds were working on a rather detailed nude sketch of her. That apart students ‘accidentally’ bumping into teachers during recess, brushing against them as they walked through the crowded rows of the classrooms, writing love-notes to teachers which put the ‘T’ in TMI were so routine that no one really registered that these were all forms of sexual harassment. The hooting, whistling and name-calling that would happen outside the gate of the all-girls school next to my school was a different matter altogether.

What the above mentioned examples aim to highlight is the fact that boys learn at a very young age that they can get away with this kind of behavior, even when it is aimed at someone who is an authority figure. I am unsure whether there is any redressal mechanism for this kind of sexual harassment for teachers or female students. Worse still, nobody talks to the boys about how such behavior is not acceptable. These very boys, after school step into colleges, most of which are co-ed, most often without an iota of understanding of women are to be treated, and here once again, no one really tells them what is not acceptable. Slut-shaming on confession groups, nicknames based on physical appearance, and gossip about who slept with whom, continue unabated as a consequence.

Somewhere between all of this, we expect these young men to earn a professional degree, become ‘professional’ in their behavior and not harass a woman when they start working. A pretty tall order, if you ask me. I am not saying that it is in the nature of men to be like this. I myself have come from the same background and know several others who are genuine nice-guys despite growing up in such environments. The point I am trying to make is that for boys, there is never a reason to curb such behavior, nor is there an incentive to engage in the feminist conversation. In my opinion therefore, if we want to seriously to do something about sexual harassment, leaving the task to committees constituted as per Vishaka guidelines mean leaving it too late in the day, because by then, the idea that this is just ‘friendly banter’ is set in stone.