IN THE LATE 1990s, Gaurav Sawant became an overnight star. The offspring of a retired brigadier of the Indian army, Sawant joined the Indian Express in 1994, and was soon paradropped into the defence beat.
The Kargil War, which Sawant reported from the battlefront in 1999, was crucial to his success. In his 2000 book about Kargil, the journalist Sankarshan Thakur recalled the “daily whoops” of Sawant from the time: “Guys, guys, I’m so thrilled it’s my thirty-third front page byline in a row, I have never had it so good.”
That same year, Sawant too wrote a celebrated book called Dateline Kargil about his nine-week stay in the conflict zone. “Sawant succinctly details the Kargil operation, sensitively portraying the human side of the conflict, its intensity and the formidable odds ranged against the surprised army,” an India Today review said.
In the academic year of 2002-2003, Sawant was one of the guest lecturers at Amity University. Among the students who attended his lectures was a 20-year-old Vidya Krishnan. Krishnan was a wide-eyed student then, obsessed with the profession she wanted to enter. She had joined the diploma course in journalism against the wishes of her parents, based in Bhopal at the time, who felt that a career in media would not be lucrative. Krishnan was determined to make it in the profession, and a young, successful Sawant seemed like a role model. “We used to get a lot of these boring, old lecturers, and suddenly this young guy came so there was a bit of talk around that,” a batchmate of Krishnan recalled.
Upon graduation, in 2003, Krishnan was hired at The Pioneer. Her first assignment out of the city was a chance to prove her mettle. When she was picked to cover a peacetime drill in a military station at Beas—a riverfront town in Punjab—she was equal parts ecstatic and anxious. It was a routine reporting trip organised by the Indian Army’s representatives, but to Krishnan it was a big deal. “I was really excited about being counted, being sent from Pioneer with all the supposedly senior journalists,” she told me in an interview in January this year.
Krishnan’s excitement, however, was undercut by the worry that this was her first time covering defence. “I have never written about the army before … what am I going to file if I am not able to understand what is going on?” she recalled thinking. When she found out that the group of journalists she was going with included Sawant, it was a huge relief. “I went in thinking, ‘Okay, my teacher’s here,’” she told me. “I can ask him if I have any doubts.”
The Beas trip, however, was not the career breakthrough that Krishnan had imagined it would be. As she recounted, Sawant, the teacher figure that she looked up to, sexually harassed and assaulted her for most part of the journey.
At the time, Krishnan was at the start of her career, and bringing a mighty journalist such as Sawant to justice seemed not only like an unachievable goal, but something that could potentially derail her career. For the next 15 years, Krishnan did not speak about the incident publicly. Today, she is an established journalist, who was until recently the health and science editor at The Hindu. (She is a regular contributor at The Caravan.) In the meantime, Sawant has become one of the most recognisable faces of Indian television news, and is the executive editor of the India Today television channel.
In October 2017, allegations of sexual assault and harassment against the Hollywood magnate Harvey Weinstein set off several conversations across the world. Suddenly, allegations of this nature were being received differently. Powerful men were being outed for sexual offences and losing their careers. Strengthened by the outpour, Krishnan could not help but revisit the incident. She decided that silence was no longer an option.
In December last year, Krishnan sent me a Facebook message. “If you ever decide to interview female journalists about sexual assault in newsrooms, I’ll be willing to go on the record.”
THE REPORTERS and accompanying army personnel left for Beas a day before the event. Krishnan could not recount the names of all the people she travelled with in the military jeep that took them there. She remembered that a representative of the Indian Army sat on the front seat, next to the driver. She was in the middle row facing front, where she sat on the right side of the car. Sawant sat right behind her, occupying one of the bench-like seats that faced each other at the very back.
Soon after the journey began, once all the small-talk and introductions were dispensed with, the men—many of whom knew each other—slipped into easy banter. Krishnan was the only woman in the vehicle. She barely participated in the conversation. In those days, as now, the defence beat predominantly consisted of male journalists. The men discussed the kukkad, or chicken, they would eat for lunch at one of the dhabas on the way. Sawant was going to get married soon, and some of them teased him about the upcoming wedding.
Some time into the journey, while speaking to other men in the jeep, Sawant placed his right hand on Krishnan’s right shoulder. Krishnan was immediately uncomfortable, but questioned her first instinct. “I briefly thought it was an accident,” she said. “I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I am getting this wrong? I’ll just move away.’” She tried to readjust her position a few times but Sawant kept at it.
Krishnan kept trying to guess if this was deliberate. “He knew that I was uncomfortable,” she said. “He knew that I was readjusting my body against him, so he knew. I’ll be very surprised if he said, ‘Mujhe toh pata hi nahi tha ki yeh ho raha tha’”—I didn’t know what was happening.
Then Sawant shifted his hand from Krishnan’s shoulder to her breast. She was shocked. “My body was frozen still,” she said. Krishnan looked around her, and saw men who were unfamiliar to her, but knew each other. The bonhomie was alienating. “I didn’t feel secure enough to tell anybody and say, ‘This is happening, make it stop.’ I didn’t have the confidence to say anything.”
Krishnan anxiously waited for the journey to end. She was also concerned that others in the vehicle would find out what Sawant was doing. “The only thing I do remember about those few hours is constantly readjusting and trying to sit in a way that no one else makes out that this is happening,” Krishnan recalled. “I remember checking constantly, ‘When are we going to reach—are we there yet, are we there yet,’” she told me. At one point, Sawant quipped, “Tumhe pahuchne ki badi jaldi hai”—You seem to be in a hurry to reach. It became a running joke, she recalled, the youngest person and only woman in the vehicle was behaving like a child who feels trapped on long journeys.
Mid afternoon, they made a pit-stop for lunch. The break, Krishnan said, passed for her in a haze of worry about what would follow. To her relief, once they were done, Sawant changed his seat. As he shifted, she recalled him saying loudly, “Oh, I can move, it’s not like anybody is going to miss me here.”
Krishnan remembered squirmed at that remark, thinking that the group could tell that the comment was directed at her. The secret she had been co-opted into had seemingly become a public spectacle. It was dark by the time they reached the accommodation they were staying at. Everyone checked into their rooms and convened for dinner shortly after.
Sawant’s later interactions with everyone, including Krishnan, were flippant. Where there was no acknowledgement, there was no question of an apology either. Krishnan said, “To me, it looked like he was acting like this was not happening.”
That night, back in her room, while she was trying to concentrate on the next day’s assignment, Krishnan received a text message from Sawant. He wanted to come to her room.
Krishnan struggled to recall her exact response. She wanted to turn him down without being rude, given that he was still a powerful man in a profession where she was just a rookie. She could only remember some of the phrases Sawant had used. He had said what he had in mind was “nothing naughty.” He just wanted to get into a bathtub with her.
Krishnan noted the gradual escalation in Sawant’s advances. “Just the groping became something that he said out loud”—a reference to his comment that Krishnan would not miss him in the jeep—“then it became something that he just spelt out that he wanted to get … he wanted to get into the bathtub.”
Within minutes of that message and her negative response to it, there was a knock on Krishnan’s door. “Not for a second did I think he would turn up,” she said.
As soon as Krishnan opened the door, Sawant let himself into the room. He started with polite banter, recalled Krishnan, but her unease had brought her to a point of paralysis. Sawant was taller and stronger than her, and Krishnan feared being physically overpowered. “In my mind, there was a fear that I might have to end up doing what he wanted,” she recalled, “I was not confident that I could stand my ground and say ‘No.’”
Krishnan did not get the chance to say “No” because Sawant never asked for her consent.
Mere minutes after he had entered her room, while he was still talking to her, he unzipped his pants, and began trying to force her hand towards his penis. She tried to push him away, but could not.
“He had not backed off … I had it made it very visible to him that this was an unwelcome advance. He had not backed off,” Krishnan said. “I felt like he was overpowering me, which is why in my panic I started screaming.”
As Krishnan’s voice got “louder and louder,” Sawant relented. “I think there was some sense of decency where he was like, ‘Okay, I can’t rape her,’ so he went away at that point,” Krishnan recalled. “He could have very well decided not to and there’s nothing I could have done, at least that’s how I felt at that point … I totally felt like if he had decided to go the other way, he could have.”
Sawant did not respond to The Caravan’s emails seeking his response to the allegations.
Sitting alone in that room, moments after the violence, Krishnan called her closest confidant at that time, her boyfriend. She called him not only for the comfort only a loved one can provide, but also to “explain to him what happened.” “My conditioning was also this … my worry was ‘what is my boyfriend going to say?’”
Her boyfriend was incensed on her behalf. But he also advised her to stay out of trouble. “His answer also was that, ‘There is no point, you just come back. Maine toh bola hi tha’”—I had told you so, she recalled.
Their conversation threw up only two options: “Do you want to hold on to the job, or do you want to go back to Bhopal?”
They discussed why her most sensible option was silence. She would risk gaining a reputation of being a trouble-maker, an attention-seeker, or a difficult employee. There was the possibility that she would not be sent on outdoor assignments. Underlying these concerns was the fundamental question: would anyone believe her?
When I spoke to her then boyfriend, he confirmed that Krishnan and he talked about the sexual assault that night. “She was very traumatised,” he said. “When she called me, she was howling literally … I think she did kind of look up to him, so it was all quite shocking.”
When Krishnan met Sawant the next day, it was as though the events of the previous night had not occurred. They attended the drill, visited an army school and then went back to the accommodation to check out.
Krishnan’s conversation with her boyfriend the night before had lasted for over two hours. She had made the phone call from the landline in the room she was staying at. “Either my phone was not working or I didn’t have money on my own phone,” she said. The next day, when she was checking out, she was told that the establishment levied a hefty incremental charge on outstation phone calls. As a result, she was asked to pay about Rs 2,000 extra.
The amount was roughly equivalent to what Krishnan was earning at that time. “I was crushed,” she recalled. She was forced to borrow money from the army representative who had accompanied the journalists to Beas. If the officer was surprised, or had registered the distress that Krishnan was sure was evident in her demeanor, he did not show it. It was only a few days after she reached Delhi that she was able to cobble together the sum to pay him back.
ONCE KRISHNAN RETURNED to the Delhi newsroom, she got caught up in its daily rhythms. As she tried to come to terms with the assault, her reasons for not speaking out only solidified. “Before you do something so self-destructive, you need to have a clear answer for ‘What’s my goal,’ and there was no goal,” Krishnan said. “What was I going to do? Get him fired? He was a star reporter. He was in a different organisation.”
In 2003, there were few options before survivors of sexual misconduct at the workplace. It had been six years since the Supreme Court had instituted the Vishakha guidelines, which laid down several directives, including the institution of sexual harassment complaints committees, to address gendered harassment within the workplace. But the guidelines had not translated into a law. Most organisations—and newsrooms were no exception—did not adhere to them. Editors, most of whom were and continue to be male, did not welcome such interventions. (Many continue to flout the directives, even though an act introduced in 2013 legally enforced the guidelines for redressal against and prevention of sexual-harassment.)
I asked Krishnan if there was anyone she had considered complaining to. “To whom?” she responded. As far as she was aware, an internal-complaints committee did not exist. She was reluctant to approach Chandan Mitra, The Pioneer’s editor and currently a Rajya Sabha member of parliament, because of how far down the food chain she was. “I have later heard from people that Chandan Mitra is actually someone who would stick up for [survivors],” Krishnan said. She did not feel approaching the institution would be of much consequence.
It was not just professional considerations that stopped her from naming Sawant, it was also her own social conditioning. “I acted with the maturity of a twenty-year-old,” she said, “who tends to blame themselves rather than look at a 360-degree view of how adults and bosses and people in authority have to be questioned.”
Krishnan internalised sympathy for Sawant and guilt for the consequences he may have to face. “It took me a long time to get to the point where this was something I could say … I owe him nothing to protect his shitty identity,” Krishnan said, “One of the issues was, ‘Ki uski abhi shaadi ho rahi hai’”—that he is about to get married—“I don’t know who put that in my mind. I realise how stupid it sounds.”
At the time, she played down what happened to her. “I remember being told repeatedly and then constantly telling myself, ‘Rape toh nahi hua na, kuch bura nahi hua hai, you go back to your job, mujhe kaunsa usse roz milna hai’”—At least it was not rape, nothing really bad has happened, you go back to your job, not like I have to meet him everyday.
For a long time, she blocked the incident out of her memory. “Why I don’t feel like a victim about this is that I didn’t dwell on it or brood on it for long, because there were way too many bigger problems that were unfolding everyday,” she told me in an interview this summer. “I was told that the best way to deal with it is to shut it out … The last few months is the first time I have thought, actually spent so much time trying to remember.”
Even if Krishnan could distance herself from the memory, she was never too far away from its shadow. “I have been very very conscious to, just never run into [Sawant],” Krishnan told me. “Friends getting married or these journalist parties, that kind of thing. There was a time when I would just check, who’s coming. And if I knew, if his name was on that, I wouldn’t go.”
Krishnan has been perpetually on her guard on the many out-station reporting trips she has been on since. “I am always worried about who my beat colleagues would end up being,” she told me. “Over the years, just when I travel, I am not friendly.” The thought that, “this could happen again,” she said, never allowed her to relax.
The environment in Indian newsrooms, which is largely hostile to women, facilitates sexual misconduct and worsens its impact. The lack of gender sensitivity in these spaces prevents them from airing their concerns. For a majority of women journalists in India, such fears, and even their realisations, are mostly shared in confidence between each other. “As women, we have lesser margin for error at each level,” Krishnan said, “There is a lot of buy-in, of constantly having to overcompensate to prove that I am as ‘tough’ as male reporters, in very many ways, that I am now beginning to understand.”
Through her career, Krishnan has been encountering misogyny in its many forms. One of her first bosses would ridicule her enthusiasm for the job saying, “badi Barkha Dutt banne nikli ho”—setting out to be the next Barkha Dutt, are we. During a recent meeting at the health ministry, Krishnan told me, a male journalist interrupted a conversation she was having with a bureaucrat to say, “Aap inse baat isi liye kar rahe hai kyonki inke blouses deep hai”—You are talking to her because her blouses are deep.
“This is not about outright sexual assault, this is about how we treat women in these workplaces, it’s the everyday sexism” Krishnan said. “It makes me furious that we have very smart, young female reporters—with good talent—whom we don’t groom because we look at them as objects. And no amount of seniority fixes it, because no matter how up you go in the food chain, there are more men higher up on that very food chain at that very level.”
The same culture allows industry leaders to either indulge in, endorse or conveniently ignore discriminatory practices. Each time a woman journalist defies the culture of silence to name a predator everyone knew of, but no one wanted to cross, the industry jumps to his defence. As justification, it harps on the exalted journalistic talent of these men against the dispensable careers of those they traumatise.
Fifteen years later, even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to say if Krishnan’s fears were misplaced. Most of the people she confided in before going on-the-record with her experience advised her against it. She was told that she was doing well in her career, and that there was no need to ruin her reputation now. That the accusation would define her, and nobody would take her reporting seriously.
But Krishnan has stopped paying heed to these voices. She now believes it is her moral responsibility to tell her story. “I am not doing it because I want something done to Sawant,” she said. “I have literally nothing to gain out of this.” She told me she wanted to do it for other women like her, who are either at risk or have faced harassment and assault at the workplace. “There are people who desperately need those jobs and are ambitious and talented and want to prove themselves enough, and so badly that they can look at something so grave and they can say, ‘Okay, I can look past this just so I can have my career,’” she said. “This should not weigh as one of those issues. It should not have to be this difficult.”
Krishnan added: “This is entirely about me being at peace with myself.”
The balance of power was completely skewed when Krishnan was sexually assaulted—Sawant was a famous journalist and she just a cub reporter. But in the years since, Krishnan’s grit and hard work have brought her success—besides The Hindu, she has had fulfilling stints at the Indian Express and Mint. While Sawant may be more powerful than he was at the time, something vital has changed. Krishnan is not afraid anymore.