NEW DELHI – India is considering tightening sexual harassment laws, government officials said Thursday, after an avalanche of allegations of abuse lodged by women in recent weeks thrust the issue to the forefront of politics.
Changes to the laws are being considered as the government weighs different proposals to tackle harassment, one of the officials said.
“The official announcement could come next week,” said the official, who works in the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The officials declined to give any details about possible changes.
The government focus on the law has come after women’s rights groups complained that the existing laws do not go far enough to address the widespread problem of sexual harassment.
A junior government minister resigned Wednesday after he faced sexual harassment accusations from more than a dozen women. The allegations related to the time when the minister, M.J. Akbar, was a top newspaper editor. He is the biggest casualty since the #MeToo movement in India gained traction in recent weeks.
Akbar, who founded and edited several newspapers before joining politics, has been accused of inappropriate behavior by at least a dozen women who had worked with him.
He has denied wrongdoing and said he is stepping down so that he can fight the allegations in court.
A Delhi court began proceedings Thursday in a defamation suit filed by Akbar against one of the women who leveled accusations against him.
That and a similar defamation suit, filed by veteran actor Alok Nath, have sparked warnings from women’s rights activists and legal experts that prolonged court battles could put the brakes on the country’s nascent #MeToo movement.
Nath was recently accused by writer and producer Vinta Nanda of raping her in 1999.
The movement, which began in the United States just over a year ago in response to accusations of sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry, gained traction in India over the past two weeks after a Bollywood actress complained about inappropriate behavior on film sets and complaints of improper conduct roiled India’s biggest comedy group.
Since then, more than a dozen men in politics, media, entertainment and the arts have been accused of a range of offenses, with several prominent figures either resigning or being suspended as a result.
The cases have transfixed India, published on newspaper front pages and becoming a key talking point on prime-time television news shows in a conservative country where discussions about sex are still taboo for many.
But lawyers and women’s groups said the suits by Akbar and Nath could act as a deterrent to more victims coming forward.
Unlike in many countries, where defamation is a civil offense, Indian law also has provisions that classify it as a criminal offense, punishable with a prison term of up to two years.
Cases typically drag on for years in India’s overstretched legal system. Legal experts say defamation lawsuits, in particular, are sometimes used as a tool to stall opponents, especially against those who won’t have the wherewithal to respond effectively to such cases.
“Criminal defamation is usually an arm-twisting tactic and works as a deterrent because nobody wants to be potentially embroiled in court for years or face a jail term,” said Samudra Sarangi, a partner at a law firm which represents clients in defamation lawsuits.
“Sometimes this law is used to suppress a victim’s voice. Not all victims have the emotional fortitude to withstand the rigors of a criminal trial in India.”
More than 100 female authors, journalists and media figures signed a letter to Modi on Monday, calling for Akbar’s resignation and a government probe into the allegations.
“A criminal defamation charge is a clear attempt to bully, intimidate and silence those who are bringing to light systemic abuse of women by men in powerful positions,” said the letter, written by the Network of Women in Media, the Foundation of Media Professionals and the Brihan Mumbai Union of Journalists.
“By ignoring this defining moment, and watching silently while a government minister sues a woman who has spoken out, your government is giving a regressive message: that the fundamental right to life, safety and dignity of a sizable section of the workforce does not matter,” it said.
The opposition Congress party is piling pressure on Modi, who faces a series of big state elections later this year and a national election that is due by May.
“We want to ask the prime minister on which side he stands. Is he with the women or against them?” Congress spokesman R.P.N. Singh told reporters Tuesday.
The previous government passed a workplace harassment act and an act to amend criminal law in 2013. The latter made sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism crimes.
But women’s groups say a requirement that accusations be made to a workplace complaints committee within three months is unfair because some women cannot quickly muster the courage to take that step.
The government should review certain provisions of the sexual harassment prevention law, said Rebecca John, a lawyer who is defending the woman against whom Akbar has filed a defamation suit. “The provision of filing a complaint within three months should be made more flexible,” she said.
In the case of many of the recent complaints against journalists, actors and other public figures, several of which were made under the #MeToo hashtag on social media, the accusations related to incidents that happened years ago.
Women’s groups also say that the law doesn’t make clear who in a workplace is in charge of ensuring compliance and is therefore responsible if its provisions are not followed.
The workplace law also only requires an organization employing more than 10 people to set up an internal complaints committee to hear and redress sexual harassment grievances, but critics say many companies don’t do that.
For now, the focus of public attention is the Akbar case. He has filed a criminal defamation suit against journalist Priya Ramani, who has accused him of harassment.
One of Akbar’s lawyers, Geeta Luthra, said Ramani had caused irreparable damage to Akbar’s reputation built up over four decades.
Ramani sparked a storm when she tweeted last week that an article she wrote for Vogue India in October 2017 concerning sexual harassment by an unidentified editor was about Akbar.
In the article, she described him as “an expert on obscene phone calls, texts, inappropriate compliments and not taking no for an answer.” She added, “You know how to pinch, pat, rub, grab and assault.”
Ramani’s husband, journalist Samar Halarnkar, wrote a column Tuesday saying the lawsuit is being used to “intimidate her, and through her to intimidate the others who have spoken up and silence others who have not.”
Ramani was not in court Monday. She said on Twitter on Wednesday she looks forward to the day she would “get justice in court.”
The next hearing is set for Oct. 31.
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