In the aftermath of the suicide of Khurshid Anwar, friend and comrade to many of us, on December, 18th 2013, there has been a concerted attack by some democratic and secular people on ‘feminists’ who supposedly drove him to take this extreme step. The charge is that feminists did not support him when an accusation of rape was made against him by a young woman, and exacerbated the situation by their irresponsible handling of the issue.

As feminists, we feel it necessary at this trying time to recognize that this pitched battle is after all, taking place amongst allies in a bigger struggle for democracy and secularism, and to think seriously about how we can move ahead. Rather than being a definitive statement of any kind, this collectively written piece is an attempt to think through a very messy situation.

All of us today face two potential scenarios:

being approached for help by someone who says s/he has been raped, and

being approached for help by someone saying he has been accused of rape.

In the first scenario, we need to work with the complainant and empower him or her to lodge a formal complaint at some level – if not immediately with the police, then with the organization the accused works in. But a crucial and unavoidable first step that we cannot emphasize enough is that the complainant must be ready to take the matter forward. This step cannot be short-circuited.

The reluctance of the complainant in this case, to go herself to the police is something we are familiar with from numerous situations of a similar kind, and tells us nothing about the truth or falsity of her complaint. Of course, we do not believe that a false complaint of rape can never be leveled at anyone, but as democratic and feminist forces, we must, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, insist on a fair investigation without pre-judging the issue.

This is why going straight to the social media, print and visual media, with unsubstantiated charges of rape or sexual harassment, speaking on behalf of the complainant, is unethical and unacceptable.

In this respect, there is no doubt that the friends of the Complainant – perhaps, as they claim, with the best of intentions – nevertheless broke this cardinal rule. They were in a hurry and did not do the hard, anonymous work of supporting and strengthening the Complainant till she was ready to take the next step. Instead, they splashed her account all over the social media, representing her voice and taking over.

The Complainant and her friends also approached a public figure for support because one of them had earlier worked with her. This person video-recorded the testimony of the Complainant before the latter left Delhi and went home. This CD was distributed widely to media and individuals in Delhi. It is still not clear as to who was responsible for this.

The questionable decision of the above-mentioned senior and experienced activist to video record an account of rape, rather than work with the Complainant to lodge a police complaint, has acted as a red herring, enabling a campaign from the other side, that the allegation was false, and merely a Hindu right-wing campaign to bring down a secular activist.

Some friends of the Complainant also approached, with the CD recording, a feminist associated with a mass movement, and she advised them to encourage the Complainant to return to Delhi and speak for herself, until which point they should support the Complainant in whatever form she required. In the meanwhile, attempts were also being made by some feminists to contact the Complainant and give her a way to come forward. But the friends of the Complainant did not heed this advice, and decided on the entirely problematic course of action they did take, leading to two television channels (ITV and Jia) sensationalizing the issue and proclaiming the guilt of the accused.

The irresponsibility and lack of accountability of the two television channels in this case must also be addressed by our wider community.

Khurshid himself as well as many of his friends and Facebook contacts, were well aware of the storm of accusations and counter-accusations going on in the social media since September 2013. However, no one seems to have taken any action to address the issue until early November, when the Board of Trustees of Institute of Social Democracy, (of which Khurshid was Executive Director) tried to initiate an enquiry.

Perhaps the media hounding and Khurshid’s suicide could have been averted if everyone concerned  about him had acted responsibly as soon as they came to know about the allegation.

A more general point also needs to be made here about a recent development that makes complaints of sexual harassment and assault more complicated to deal with. That is, the co-existence of two laws enacted during 2013 – namely the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 on rape, sexual assault and sexual offences; and the civil law on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act 2013. Overlapping provisions in these create confusion, as we saw during the Tehelka sexual harassment case, regarding the respective roles and priorities to be accorded to Criminal Law on the one hand and Internal Complaints Committees on the other, and their respective procedures and jurisdiction. However this ambiguity makes it all the more imperative to seek out civil redressal mechanisms (such as internal mechanisms of any of the concerned organizations) even while considering the need to report an alleged crime of rape to the police.

In the second scenario, where a friend is accused of rape, unless there is some evidence to the contrary, we have no option but to ask for a fair investigation. On the part of some friends of Khurshid too, intemperate interventions in the social media have taken place, and the complainant has been branded a liar and widely vilified. Some otherwise progressive voices too, have played a questionable role after the suicide,  quick to pronounce on guilt and innocence in several public meetings, pronouncing the complaint to be a communal conspiracy, and attacking unnamed ‘feminists’ for their responsibility in bringing about the grim outcome.

Of course, when broadly progressive men are accused of sexual harassment, the right wing will expectedly take advantage of it, but that cannot influence the position that democratic and feminist forces take.

The suicide, while heart-breaking, cannot be taken to establish either guilt or innocence, and indeed, is all the more reason why we should all call for an enquiry to bring speculations to a close.

While one person in this story has died, the other continues to live under a cloud of suspicion and intimidation, and the resolution of the issue is necessary for closure, for both the complainant and for the friends and family of Khurshid.

Ajitha Rao (Dalit feminist)

Anjali Sinha (Stree Adhikar Sangathan)

Deepti Sharma (Saheli)

Geetha Nambisan (Feminist activist)

Kalyani Menon-Sen (Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression)

Kavita Krishnan (All India Progressive Women’s Association)

Juhi Jain (Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression)

Mary E John (Senior Fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies)

Nandini Rao (Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression)

Nivedita Menon (Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

Purnima (Women’s rights activist)

Ranjana Padhi (Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression)

Rituparna Bora (Feminist queer activist)

Uma Chakravarti (Feminist Historian, Formerly of Delhi University)


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