Indian media’s #MeToo movement left out its countless women freelancers in hinterland
Makepeace Sitlhou is an independent journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. Winner of Laadli Media Award, 2017, she covers human rights, culture, politics, and governance in India’s northeastern region. She tweets @makesyoucakes
Protections against sexual harassment at workplace available to journalists on official payrolls legally extend to female stringers, too. But are the country’s news corporates willing to do more to protect freelance women journalists?
Direct rule from New Delhi had just been declared in Arunachal Pradesh, one of India’s northeastern states. It was January 2016. The recommendation had come from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Delhi after a power tussle broke out in the Congress-ruled state assembly. Urmi Bhattarcharjee went to cover the political crisis in Itanagar, the state capital.
Bhattacharjee, at the time, was a stringer on contract with New Delhi Television (NDTV)—one of India’s major news channels—in their Guwahati bureau in neighbouring Assam and tasked with covering the country’s northeastern region. On the trip to Itanagar, she was accompanied by her cameraperson and bureau head, Sanjay Chakraborty. On 29 January 2016, they were working along with Mukul Pathak, a journalist with news channel DY 365 who was also an occasional stringer for NDTV.
After a long day’s work, Bhattacharjee recalled, she retired to her hotel room at the Arun Sabansiri while Chakraborty and Pathak sat down for drinks together in Chakraborty’s room that was adjacent to hers. “While I was trying to sleep,” she said, “Mukul started texting me saying he thought of me as a sweet girl but my cameraperson had been talking shit about me.” He then asked if he could come to her room to discuss the shots for the next morning. She agreed.
“We were discussing our stories and suddenly he started repeating what Sanjay had said earlier about me. I was just going to call it a night when suddenly he grabbed and kissed me. Despite my protest, he wouldn’t leave me. I had to wrestle my way out,” she said. She was shivering by now but managed to push him out of her room. “I remember feeling so helpless that I didn’t even scream or call out to Sanjay,” she said.
Since the start of her NDTV contract, Bhattacharjee said she routinely had issues with Pathak and the two never got along professionally. When she confronted Pathak the next day, she said, he responded, ‘Sorry I behaved like that. I was so stressed by the change in government. And you looked so beautiful.’
Many female journalists who had spent careers reporting from the country’s smaller cities, towns, and villages as stringers for powerful media corporations realized that their stories were not heard. Often working for more than one organization, they were not even sure just who was going to address their complaints.In October 2018, journalist Janice Sequira verified actor Tanushree Dutta’s claims of sexual harassment by Nana Patekar—one of India’s top male actors in the 1990s—during a shoot ten years before. It triggered what came to be known as Indian journalism’s MeToo moment. In no time, several journalists and women in the stand-up comedy circuit started detailing their own experiences of harassment and molestation. An outpour of stories followed and some of Indian journalism’s biggest names stood accused. Indian newsrooms were taken by a storm.
But many female journalists who had spent careers reporting from the country’s smaller cities, towns, and villages as stringers for powerful media corporations realized that their stories were not heard. Often working for more than one organization, moreover, they were not even sure just who was going to address any complaints they raised.
Stringers form a crucial part of reporting news from areas that are either too small or too far and isolated for media organisations to set up fullfledged offices. Many stringers work for local newspapers and regional channels and supplement their modest incomes and boost their careers by reporting news for the more established organisations. They are usually well networked with the local community and often have privileged information and contacts the bigger houses can only access through them.
Many stringers are capable women journalists as well. However, their exposure to a hostile work environment where they are vulnerable to sexual harassment or attacks is unconventional. Because they have to travel to report, much of this vulnerability is born in the process of travel. So, if an incident of harassment does occur, it’s often outside the confines of an office space. Often, male stringers have disproportionately more power than female stringers and are better networked.
Here I explore two issues to shed light on the exposure to harassment of female stringers. One, their unconventional relationship with parent media organizations, which often makes it hard to hold an assaulter to account. And, two, often when harassment arises from their colleagues, the male reporters may be in a better position to negotiate the local power structure and quash any complaint before it reaches a consequential level.
Bhattacharjee recalled her case with much pain. She also said that this wasn’t the only one, but just the most verifiable one: through her formal complaint and emails to NDTV. When Dutta’s story resurfaced, Bhattacharjee said she saw a common thread: finding solace in spiritualism as a survivor of sexual harassment. “I also found myself personally relating to her story,” she said, “someone who was rising in the industry but then suddenly disappeared.”
The invisibilization of female stringers
In 2014 Bhattacharjee was thrilled when NDTV offered her a contract to serve as “consultant.” She was paid on a pro-rata basis for her reportage, which varied from a full story to half a day’s work of covering a press conference. It seemed like a lucrative offer at the time but turned out to become the bane of her professional run with the channel. “I was the face of NDTV, writing scripts, doing live coverage and special features. But I didn’t even have an official ID,” she said. She added that Chakraborty used this to his advantage and on several occasions undermined her.
She was thrilled to become a stringer with NDTV. But it turned out to be the bane of her professional run. ‘I was the face of NDTV, writing scripts, doing live coverage and special features. But I didn’t even have an official ID.’ Chakraborty, she said, would constantly rub in the fact that he had been on the company payroll for 17 years. “He would refuse to listen to any of my inputs or follow the script I prepared. He would try to put me down by saying, ‘I have worked with the likes of Barkha Dutt and Maya Mirchandani. Who are you?’” she said. Dutt and Mirchandani are two of India’s best known journalists.
One of the worst incidents she recalled was when the assignment desk called her to cover Bodo militant violence in Sonitpur on the midnight of 24 December 2014 even as her cameraperson was away to do a Christmas special. But NDTV, she said, left her with no choice but to go alone. “I had to take an unknown driver on a night when visibility was zero and land up in a shady hotel in the wee hours during a curfew in the heart of a militant zone.”
A former editor speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “I tried to reason with him [Chakraborty] on her behalf to act more professionally with her. But I would say the problems between them were more interpersonal in nature.” Another employee who worked in the channel’s Guwahati bureau echoed his stance. He said, “Sanjay dada has a terrible temper. He’s known to lash out on people. Yes, they had problems with each other, lekin taali do haath se bajti hai” (it takes both hands to clap).
Bhattacharjee shared her email records with me for this story. She had sent a written complaint detailing the Itanagar molestation incident to NDTV’s editorial director Sonia Singh on 28 March 2016. In her email, she accused Sanjay of being “hand in glove with this guy.” Singh responded on the same day: “Will ask HR to look into this straight away. NDTV has a zero-tolerance policy to any kind of harassment regardless of contract or full-time employees.”
There are two important differences between the account that Bhattacharjee narrated to me and the one given to NDTV in her written complaint. To NDTV, she wrote “the stringer kept banging on the door and when I opened he had nothing to discuss. He said, ‘I just came to hug you, you looked very beautiful today.’” While still credible for a sexual harassment complaint, the omission of the alleged molestation is worth noting.
When this was pointed out, Bhattacharjee said that she had narrated the incident in detail over the phone to Mohit Verma (brother of Singh), who worked at NDTV’s human resources department. “He told me about the Vishakha Guidelines they followed but never got back to me on the next steps.” While Bhattacharjee told me that Verma was the head of NDTV’s human resources department at the time, Singh refuted this claim. A desk editor who was with NDTV at the time, however, confirmed that Verma held a “high-ranking position” in the human resource department.
‘As per IC rules… cannot investigate people who are not with NDTV,’ said editorial director Sonia Singh. In reality, NDTV could have initiated action in Pathak’s organization against him. On 15 June 2016, Bhattacharjee forwarded a formally written letter to Verma but NDTV never wrote back. Instead, she was verbally told that the channel couldn’t take any action against Pathak since he was not an employee. In an email to me, Singh confirmed this saying: “According to the IC [internal complaints committee] rules, it cannot investigate people who are not with NDTV and this was conveyed to Urmi.”
However, as per section 19(h) of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, commonly referred to as POSH, “every employer shall cause to initiate action, under the Indian Penal Code or any other law for time being in force, against the perpetrator, or if the aggrieved woman so desires, where the perpetrator is not an employee, in the workplace at which the incident of sexual harassment took place.” Bhattacharjee was unaware of the provision wherein, upon her specific request, NDTV could have initiated action in Pathak’s organization against him. But neither NDTV nor anyone in her fraternity informed Bhattacharjee that this was a possibility. However, Bhattacharjee said, she had expected a written response detailing the reasons why NDTV couldn’t take action against the accused.
According to Singh, Bhattarcharjee “opted to discontinue her employment as a freelancer and decided to leave the organization, along with all necessary reference letters. At that point, she gave us no indication that she had any pending issues.” Singh also said that Bhattacharjee opted to discontinue with the channel after it denied her a full-time position.
When I first contacted Pathak on WhatsApp in November 2018, he said that he used to contribute stories to NDTV. In his email response sent a week later, he said that he merely provided information to their correspondents and was never a stringer with the channel. Further, he denied the allegations made by Bhattacharjee saying this was the first time the matter was ever brought to his notice. Chakraborty is yet to respond to questions emailed to him.
A source at NDTV told me that they stopped using Pathak’s services after the incident although Singh entirely denied ever using his services. A former employee who wished to remain anonymous confirmed that the channel was using Pathak’s services for a spell. “NDTV can easily disown him since he was not on their payroll and stringers like him, who are only occassionally used, are paid petty cash. So there’s no money trail,” he said.
Another email that Bhattacharjee wrote to NDTV human resources personnel (Verma and Jayati Roy) on 28 July 2016 enquiring about the status of action taken on her complaint was never responded to. The apparent disinterest in her complaint significantly waned her motivation and interest in continuing with the channel. After a serious accident on another reporting assignment for NDTV, she finally quit the channel in 2016.
Yet, Bhattacharjee’s story had worse to bring. While she took up a few freelance assignments post NDTV, she had lost her drive to be a journalist and left the field a year later. She said she couldn’t take the rampant sexism, including an incident of molestation with a now retired chief conservator of forests. “I went into severe depression after leaving NDTV but slowly revived myself through dance and Buddhist spiritual chants,” she told me.
Moreover, in all this, she said, there was insufficient support from some of her own friends in the community. A friend she confided in at the time, and who now wished to remain anonymous, told me that the best recourse then for her would have been to file a police complaint instead of taking the complaint internally through NDTV. Some discouraged her even from speaking to me for this story, Bhattacharjee told me.
Does POSH cover stringers and freelancers?
With no strong organizational backing, the better option, many freelancers and stringers suggest, is to follow the legal route. However, journalists and lawyers I spoke to said that freelancers do fall under the guidelines as mandated by the POSH Act. “Whenever a freelancer enters a contract with a news agency or has a story commissioned by them, they can technically be seen as an employee for the benefit of the POSH Act,” said Raksha Kumar, who has been independently reporting for the last six years.
However, she added that, to her knowledge, none of the 18 publications she had reported for implemented this policy in favour of freelancers. This, she said, could be because of an implicit understanding among freelancers that they couldn’t knock the doors of an IC should anything untoward happen with them in the field. “I don’t know of any freelancer who called up an editor to say this and this happened to me,” Kumar said.
The POSH Act covers harassment by a fellow reporter or editor working in the organization within the jurisdiction of the employing organization. But for freelancers, the harassment is more likely to be committed by an external predator in the wider workplace who does not fall directly under the jurisdiction of the employer.
“This is where the role of the local complaints committee (LC) becomes critical,” said Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy. As per the POSH Act guidelines, a district officer is required to set up an LC in every district. This is especially useful for women working in the unorganized sector or small establishments (having less than 10 employees).
According to Nundy, ICs sometimes tend to be biased in favour of the organization and the accused, who, in many cases, occupies a higher position than the complainant. “When they are looking at the liability of the organization, the tendency is to protect them,” she said. “Though this is changing, many companies are realizing that the surest way to avoid civil and criminal liability is to run a clean outfit,” she added.
NDTV prides itself for having some of the most visible women in its top ranks. But this is hypocrisy, she said. ‘I gave my blood and sweat. But when it came to protecting a woman, they did nothing.’ However, many districts in India are yet to set up an LC, said Amba Salelkar, co-founder of Paarvai Advisors (which works on anti-sexual harassment law compliance). Moreover, the onus of approaching the LC does not rest entirely on the complainant. “As per section 19 of the Act, the company is required to assist the woman in filing a complaint with the IC of the organization that the alleged harasser is employed under,” Salelkar said. This could also extend to helping her in approaching the LC, she added.
NDTV has been one of the few legacy media channels that hosted prime-time debates and panel discussions since the second wave of #MeTooIndia started in 2018. The channel also prides itself for having some of the most visible women in its top ranks, both editorial, and management, an exception in the media industry. Bhattarcharjee said the channel’s USP of “women empowerment” is nothing but hypocrisy when it comes to contributors like her. “I gave my blood and sweat to the organization in doing the work of a correspondent on a stringer’s salary,” she said. “But when it came to protecting a woman who was put in a vulnerable position, they did nothing.”
Access to justice riddled with prejudice
The second case assesses a situation that has widely been seen in the local media in Guwahati as a personal matter between two journalists. Let’s start with the facts of the case referring to the victim/survivor as “S” and not name her since she is a complainant in an active case. On 1 December last year, S, a Guwahati-based journalist, met Aniruddha Bhakat Chutia (pronounced Sutiya) at a lane near her house. Chutia is Republic TV’s northeast correspondent. S said he dragged her to his place with the help of an accomplice unknown to her. As per her police complaint, Chutia physically assaulted her and “tried to rape/molest her in the presence of his mother and friend.” His mother, Lily Chutia, and an “unknown” person are also mentioned as the accused in her complaint.
After he let her go, she was rescued by three of her colleagues who took her to the Dispur police station. Since she wasn’t in a mental state to give a statement, one of them wrote the complaint for the first information report (FIR). The case was registered under sections 354 (assault or use of criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint), 392 (punishment for robbery), 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation), and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.
While sections of the Code of Criminal Procedure were amended in 2013 to address challenges faced by women to report sexual offences, effective implementation of the law still remains an exception to the rule. Despite S’s complaint against Chutia stating that there was an “attempt to rape/molest” her, none of the sections applied reflect it. “They didn’t collect my sweater, which was ripped, or his fingerprint marks on my hand and neck as evidence,” S told me.
Moreover, there were serious violations committed during the examination of witnesses by police (section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) and recording of confessions and statements (section 164). Moreover, wherever a sexual offence is alleged to have been committed or attempted, it has to be recorded by a woman police officer or any woman officer (amendment to section 161). S said that her statement was only recorded after repeated requests were placed to the police. “The day I went to get it recorded (3 December), the investigating officer was not around and my statement was taken by a male constable,” she told me.
Further, the law requires that the statement of the complainant be recorded before a judicial magistrate as soon as the offence is brought to the notice of the police (section 164, CrPC). S’s statement was finally recorded on 17 December.
There are several other procedural anomalies that remain unexplained, such as the medical examination conducted on the night of the incident. “They took me to the nearest hospital where the doctor (male) did not really properly examine me. It was more like an observation,” S said.
A copy of the observation made by the doctor in the hand-written prescription note, accessed by me, said, “physical assault,” “injury in neck and face,” and “chest pain.” It further stated that she should “consult with gynaecologist if chest pain is positive.” After this, however, she was not taken for any other medical examination.
Given the visible injury marks and signs of force on her body, the police detained the accused and his cousin, Kaustubh Gogoi (the “unknown” person), on the same day. But while Chutia was still in custody on 2 December, the accused registered a counter-FIR against S on the same incident under charges of “trespassing,” “obscene acts and songs,” “assault or criminal force,” and “criminal intimidation.” He complained that S had walked in of her own volition and physically assaulted him and his mother. They were granted interim bail by the police on 4 December.
Chutia then obtained an interim pre-arrest bail from the Guwahati high court, which was made absolute (where the court did not find any necessity for custodial interrogation) on 28 January this year.
Advocate Biva Bhuyan, S’s legal counsel, said that the bail was ordered based on a statement (included in the case diary) from the landlord that he saw her willingly walk into the house that night. However, when I spoke to the investigation officer, sub-inspector Bhagya Deka, in February, he said the “house owner was not present at the time of the incident.” So far in his investigation, he shared that he has recorded statements from S, Chutia, Lily, Gogoi, and the colleagues who found S on the night of the incident.
“They had a relationship. The girl was pressuring him (Chutia) to marry her but he told her to wait. The mother has given a good statement,” he said. He, then, dialled Chutia’s number from his cell phone and handed it to me. While initially declining to comment on the grounds that the matter was “subjudice” (it hasn’t gone to trial as yet), Chutia told me that this was all a personal matter. “The entire media in Assam knows we were in a relationship for two years. After differences between us started increasing, I wanted to end the relationship in a cordial manner. But I didn’t take any action,” he said.
Chutia told me that the CCTV footage from the night was available with him as evidence although no such evidence has been submitted to Deka. “He will give it to me,” Deka said.
The narrative of their past relationship was recounted by several police officials from the Dispur police station. S shared with me several screenshots of Chutia’s messages to her on Whatsapp till August, where he’s seen as attempting to contact her. A post on Facebook from May last year has a picture of them (which S says was put up without her consent) where he confesses to cheating on her for a year and begs for her forgiveness. When asked if any of these have been submitted as evidence, she said that Deka evaded all her calls and requests for inquiring about the progress of the investigation. “He was the least interested in collecting any evidence from me. Even today, I have the torn sweater from the night of the incident with me.”
More than six months since the FIR was registered in the case, the chargesheet is yet to be prepared. Deka meanwhile has been transferred to another district. No seizure memo had been filed either, at the time of writing this. Section 53A of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (inserted with the 2013 amendments to the rape laws and CrPC) clearly states, “In a prosecution for an offence under section 354 of the Indian Penal Code or for attempt to commit any such offence, where the question of consent is in issue, evidence of the character of the victim or such person’s previous sexual experience with any person shall not be relevant on the issue of such consent or the quality of consent.” However, this becomes relevant only at the trial stage.
More than six months since the FIR was registered in the case, the chargesheet is yet to be prepared. Deka meanwhile has been transferred to another district. No seizure memo had been filed either, at the time of writing this.
After Chutia was released and seeing the lack of cooperation from the officials at Dispur police station, S registered an FIR in the Panbazaar police station where she detailed the events that led to the night of the incident. In her complaint (a copy of which has been accessed by The Polis Project), she wrote that Chutia told her that night, “You can go to Dispur thana. The police will not do anything to me; they are under my control. Try anything you want but Bijon da (his lawyer) will get me out.” Further, she said he had started stalking her and threatened to throw acid on her face.
The contents of the Panbazaar FIR were referred to in S’s affidavit before the high court opposing his anticipatory bail application. Moreover, she contested a statement in his FIR where he mentions a general diary entry that he filed in the Dispur police station on 5 May last year as proof of his innocence. When asked about the content of this entry, Chutia told me that he had reported to the police as a pre-emptive measure that S threatened to implicate him in a false case of abetment to committing suicide.
When I asked to see the entry in Dispur police station, the station house officer, Biren Baruah, personally went through the diary looking for this entry. There was nothing found under Chutia’s name on the date or any of the dates closely preceding or following it.
S said she only came to know of this general diary after she filed the FIR. In fact, she said, a colleague accompanied her to the Dispur police station in the month of August to lodge a general diary entry when Chutia went missing. “Before he left, he threatened to take his own life and blame me for it,” she said.
However, the colleague who accompanied her told me that she went to the station to lodge a missing person’s report that day. This colleague wished to remain anonymous. But no such report was found on inquiry at the station. In fact, the additional commisioner of police, Himanshu Das, whom she had appealed to file the diary entry, said that S had never approached him.
Such legal maze manifests in the National Crime Records Bureau statistics on crimes against women in Assam which show a lower than national average conviction rate at 7.2 percent and a high percentage of pending cases. Nandita Talukdar, a sessions court advocate who has been practising in Guwahati for the last 12 years, told me that sexual offences cases can easily take up to 10-15 years in court proceedings.
“Often, the delay happens at the investigation stage, where sub inspectors have not been trained or are not even aware of amendments to the rape laws or the CrPC,” she said. Even when the case goes to trial, she added, public prosecutors themselves have been found incompetent to fight these cases. “For one, because these appointments are so prone to being political, we need to have a more standardized system of selecting public prosecutors.”
Salelkar, who earlier practiced criminal trial litigation in Mumbai, agrees that public prosecutors often end up becoming the “mouthpiece of the police” since they are not offered the kind of security to be independent and are often overburdened. However, she adds, sexual offences cases are usually botched up in the earlier stages, which can be difficult for the best of prosecutors to salvage at the trial stage. “Often, the gravity of the offences gets reduced in the writing of the complaint by a thanedar or any other police official, which is why the first account of the complaint needs to be extremely comprehensive,” she said.
With all the amendments in the laws related to sexual offences, Salelkar says that complainants need to familiarise themselves with the process, or company policy, if they hope to see conclusive justice. “Now, the law even mandates complainants to have their statements recorded under oath before a magistrate (section 164 of the CrPC). Taking control of the narrative is of the utmost importance,” she said.
Frat boys of media in Assam
The allegations against Chutia came up at a time when the MeToo movement was abuzz in newsrooms across the country. While the story did get a fair bit of press coverage in select local and national media outlets, Republic TV is yet to release a statement on the issue and has so far declined to give any comments to the media, including The Polis Project. This report will be updated should they respond to the emailed questions.
Lahkar of NWMI said there’s clear political pressure. Chutia works for Republic TV, which operates from the same office space as Himanta Biswa Sarma’s channel News Live. Sarma is health minister in BJP state governmentS said that she hadn’t received much support from the media fraternity in Assam, most of whom had written off the incident as a lovers’ spat. Apart from the Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI), only the Journalists Forum of Assam issued a statement. However, in their statement, they foremost “urged the police to give a fair chance to Anirudha Bhakat Chutia” while demanding the law take its course and justice for the victim.
When I asked Nava Thakuria, a senior journalist with the forum, whether they had any reasons to believe Chutia would not get a fair hearing, he said they wrote the statement since they knew him well. “We know they were in a relationship,” he told me. While S had also shared her side of the story with them, he found that the allegations of an attempt to rape in presence of his mother were “unbelievable.” “This cannot happen in Assamese society,” he added.
While National Herald followed up on the proceedings of the criminal case, Guwahati based newspaper G-Plus reported a “new development” in the story on 10 December: Chutia’s non-existent police diary entry at Dispur. The news report concludes, “It seems something is brewing between the accused and the victim for the past few months and this latest incident is a result of that turmoil and not a one-off thing.”
S believes that the story was planted by Chutia, possibly even written by him. When I contacted Chetan Bhattaria, the journalist who took a byline for the report, he said he was informed of the diary entry by Chutia himself. “My sources told me that the two were in a relationship and our publication primarily covers civic issues. I didn’t follow up on this since it appeared to be a personal matter,” he said.
Assam-based journalist Sabita Lahkar, who is part of the NWMI, said the support in terms of solidarity or coverage for S was dramatically low when compared to when in 2003 she had accused her then editor, journalist and Sahitya Akademi awardee Homen Borgohain, of sexual harassment.
“There’s clear political pressure at play since Chutia works for Republic TV,” she said, adding that the channel operates from the same office space as Himanta Biswa Sarma’s channel News Live and enjoys his patronage. Sarma is health minister in the ruling BJP government in Assam and the man behind the North East Democratic Alliance with regional parties.
Asomiya Pratidin (the print arm of the news channel Pratidin Time) was the only vernacular paper that covered the incident. Senior journalist Prakash Mahant said he ran the story in spite of criticism from the management. “Not only this, there’s immense pressure to not do any stories that hurt the government,” he said. Mahant mentioned another journalist in Assam he knew “had faced sexual harassment on the job. Unable to bear the hostile media environment here, she left and went back to her home town.”
Bhaskar Gogoi, S’s friend who was the first to receive her SOS that night following which he put her on a conference call with her news editor, says that after the incident, rumours were spread about an alleged relationship between the two. “This whole case isn’t about whether Chutia and she were in a relationship but that’s what everyone is focusing on,” he said.
On 6 December, S approached the Assam State Commission for Women, an autonomous body affiliated to the National Commission for Women, for help. Every first and third Saturday, a bench composing of lawyers, retired judges, and members of the commission arbirate on civil complaints, where both the accused and the complainant are summoned and the evidence examined. While the commission has all powers of the civil courts trying a suit, it has no executive powers, particularly not in criminal cases.
After hearing her case on 15 December, the commission bench concluded that since the matter was a criminal case and a counter FIR had been filed against her, it was best for her to trust the police authorities to do their duty. Chutia, who was also present at the hearing, submitted a statement in which he said that since “the Gauhati High Court had called for the case diary in the matter and the matter was subjudice now, it would be inappropriate for me to pursue this with you separately.”
While others in the bench were keen to keep the case open until the matter went to court, S told me that the chairperson of the commission, Chikimiki Talukdar, was keen on closing the case. She claims that after the hearing was over, Talukdar openly told her that “you are an educated girl. I’m sure you can resolve this matter amicably.” S later found out that Talukdar was a member of the Assam unit of the BJP and one of the shortlisted candidates for Guwahati in the 2019 general elections. When I requested to see the minutes of the meeting, officials at the commission said that they did not have a stenographer recording the proceedings.
Having received no response or assistance from the Assam Human Rights Commission or the commissioner of police (The Polis Project is in possession of their “received” copies) so far, S said she’s given up hope for justice. Morover, the incident took a considerable toll on her passion for journalism, she said.
“I used to host a discussion on crimes against women and how to address the issue but I have stopped now. What’s the point of me preaching to someone when I couldn’t get anything moving in my own case?” she said. In spite of this, the young journalist has soldiered on. Giving up is exactly what the perpetrator would want, she said.
Her worst regret, however, is not calling her friends or family that night since they would have “genuinely” helped. “I wasn’t thinking at the time and Bhaskar just happened to call then so I took whatever help I got.” However, later that month, she saw a photo on Facebook of a party in which her rescuers (her cameraperson and the reporter) were seen with Chutia. Her colleague who accompanied her to the station in August was also seen in the photograph.
Tyranny of distance
The MeToo movement sparked some curiosity on the challenges for women reporting in small towns, especially when it was critiqued for being restricted to urban English media journalists. However, direct callouts or formal complaints are still rarely seen or heard of in places outside the national capital and metropolitan cities.
Since Tehelka’s editor in chief Tarun Tejpal was accused of rape by his colleague in 2013, this was the second time that Lahkar’s story came up in the media again. However, nothing happened with her police complaint beyond the case diary being sent to the lower court, as police officials told me in October. Although she felt hopeful for justice after her story was widely circulated on social media, neither Borgohain nor his media company put out a statement.
How many cases receive any attention after all? Under Indian constitution’s sixth schedule, effective in Mizoram and Meghalaya and parts of Tripura and Assam, sexual offences committed by locals are often resolved by tribal bodies. “When my story first came out, the Assam Sahitya Akademi had quietly excluded him from some of their meetings. Then again, when the Tejpal episode happened, I was invited for a discussion on this topic by DY365 and Pratidin Time,” she told me. But despite all this, today he is protected by the most powerful minister in the state, she added, so nothing would happen to him. When asked if pursuing the legal route was still an option, Lahkar said that she wasn’t even sure if her case was still open. “I don’t have much faith in the judicial system. But if someone were to approach me to take up my case again, I’d be willing to fight.”
Beyond Guwahati, the gateway city to the region, the MeToo movement has simply not made any big landfall. Bano Haralu, a former NDTV correspondent and now editor of a daily in Nagaland, blames it on the tyranny of distance. “We are still very disconnected with what’s going on in Delhi or Mumbai. Wherever such instances might have occurred, they remain confined to the clan or community,” she said.
How many cases receive any attention after all, let alone a hearing from the big media? Under the Indian constitution’s sixth schedule—effective in parts of Tripura and Assam and the entire states of Mizoram and Meghalaya—sexual offences committed by locals are often resolved by tribal apex bodies. In her essay, “Memories of rape: the banality of violence and impunity in Naga society,” Dolly Kikon wrote of this parallel justice system: “In a state like Nagaland, legal institutions, quasi-legal units like the insurgent justice system, and the political system that includes the tribal customary courts and state machineries all coexist within their respective constituencies. The boundaries of jurisdiction between these organs are often hazy and complicated.”
But forget the region’s big towns like Dimapur, Shillong, or Imphal, the movement saw no signficant turn of events even in the country’s so called mainland tier-two cities. Saloni Pandey, the lone television reporter in Agra in Uttar Pradesh, told DW channel that while harassment on the job was real, she could not afford to make enemies of the men harassing her. Khabar Lahariya, a group of women journalists reporting in neighbouring Bundelkhand, in an open letter poignantly addressed what the movement had done for them:
“We feel relief that there is a platform and a movement that promises to expose the abuse that keeps us tied down … But there is a dark place in our minds where this relief refuses to reach—those of us who continue to fight, or those who have been defeated—the memory of a friend and colleague, a single woman trying to make it in the world of small-town journalism and who was pushed into despair and lonely death only earlier this year, with no resonating cries off or online.”