Last October, the #MeToo movement — spurred by high-profile success in the United States — arrived in India. Women across the South Asian country flooded social media with confessional tweets, posts, and photo captions exposing decades of rampant sexual misconduct.
But activists suffered a setback earlier this month when local artist Subodh Gupta advanced a lawsuit against Scene and Herd, an anonymous Instagram account that accused the artist-curator of sexual malpractice. On the heels of Gupta’s litigation comes a related suit leveled by a painter and filmmaker, Pravin Mishra, at his accuser. Pravin Mishra filed civil defamation charges last week against Surabhi Vaya, an independent journalist who alleges Mishra assaulted her.
Throughout the movement’s lifespan, social media has arguably functioned as #MeToo’s loudest megaphone.
In 2018, one of two Scene and Herd posts about Gupta — which have since been deleted — said: “I have personally received multiple inappropriate advances and unwanted touching from him, even after clearly saying no.”
The post continued, alleging that Gupta, “grabbed the hand, touched the stomach, breasts, shoulders, pulled at bra straps, rubbed the thighs” of several women, and “loudly asked a senior gallerist, pointing at a new assistant he had hired, ‘do you think I should fuck her tonight?’”
Gupta publicly dismissed the accusations as “entirely false and fabricated.”
Following Gupta’s first trial in Dehli’s High Court, a group of artists issued a statement in support of Scene and Herd, and condemned the court’s decision.
“This is exactly what survivors have feared when choosing anonymity,” the statement read, in part. “This is an attempt to dissuade others from sharing further experiences of harassment and violence, and to perpetuate a culture of fear.”
According to Vidisha S, an author of the statement, taking an accuser to court is “a way of asserting power. It’s a way to clear your name among your global businesses,” the artist-organizer told Hyperallergic by email.
Gupta’s Rs 5 crore suit, which cited sizable damages — the equivalent of $700,000 — and gagged the Scene and Herd post, has serious implications for a cause that burgeoned on Facebook and its sister company, Instagram. Gupta’s action, a milestone since #MeToo’s emergence in India, may have set a disquieting precedent for advocates — and paved the way for Mishra’s suit, which is seeking higher damages.
Mishra’s lawsuit involves a similar allegation posted on social media. In a 2018 post on Facebook, Vaya, Mishra’s accuser, wrote: “Two years ago, Pravin Mishra assaulted me in his home. I have spent every day since wondering if I should speak up, if I should’ve filed a complaint, if there are others, and if my speaking could’ve prevented them from suffering pain and trauma at the hands of this predator.”
In addition to his work as an artist, Mishra teaches at MICA, a business university in Ahmedabad. According to the Huffington Post, the university conducted an internal review after the allegations against Mishra surfaced last year.
MICA has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
“Prima facie, it appears that the allegations as made in the allegedly defamatory contents, cannot be permitted to be made in public domain/published without being backed by legal recourse. The same if permitted, is capable of mischief,” the court said of Scene and Herd’s post — a precedent that may prove crippling to #MeToo’s momentum in India.
As part of Gupta’s case, the judge in Dehli’s High Court has ordered Facebook to reveal the author of the anonymous Scene and Herd post in a sealed envelope at the next hearing. The judge, Rajiv Sahai Endlaw, also directed Google to scrub its search engine of all content related to the Scene and Herd account’s allegations against Gupta.
This element — revealing the identity of anonymous posters — is perhaps the case’s most sweeping development. Advocates were initially encouraged in 2018 by a surge in local misconduct reporting, but several women reportedly found themselves in danger after publicly accusing powerful Indian men — including a Deputy Minister, comedy troupe leader, and an auto industry exec — of inappropriate sexual behavior. (Some in the media called the advances in India “groundbreaking,” while others dismissed the progress as flimsy and insufficient.)
But according to Vidisha, Gupta’s case is far from closed.
“Subodh Gupta has not won the suit,” she said. “It was only the second hearing in the case and there has not been a proper defence, since the case is still against an anonymous instagram account,” she said. “The feminist movement continues to struggle through these new actions of the power structures which come up in response to a question of a respectable space in the society.”
While Hollywood and the US media largely embraced #MeToo — arguably for certain publicity or economic reasons, in part — India’s movement has been comparatively checkered. (Hollywood pinned “Times Up” to its lapel, but Bollywood has reportedly been more forgiving of its accused, many of whom are still working in their industries).
“The state and the institutions meant to protect women have failed them,” Rituparna Chatterjee, a women’s rights activist who launched the popular @IndiaMeToo Twitter account, told NPR.
Since #MeToo has declared it intends to remain in the public consciousness, some of the accused around the globe are eyeing the courtroom for recourse. Just last month, Sandra Muller, a founder of the French iteration of #MeToo, was ordered to pay thousands in damages after accusing her former employer of misconduct online.
“This will happen,” Vidisha said. “It really just empowers the movement more because it proves that the law has been built to support such patriarchy and never the precarious bodies in the society, and therefore “due process” is not always the option for those whose boundaries have been violated.”
The next hearing in Mishra’s case is scheduled for November 30.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.