How Sandhya Menon turned from being a woman who outed the sexual predators in her life, to being one of the strongest voices of India's #MeToo movement
What triggered it, she says, was the "terrible, terrible, terrible apology that [stand-up comic] Utsav Chakraborty put out." On October 4, Chakraborty was outed by colleague Mahima Kukreja for soliciting nude images and sending unsolicited d#$k pictures of himself. Chakraborty's apology, says Menon, was "the most ridiculous, self pitying piece of cr#@". It had nothing, she argues, to do with feeling remorseful or recognising that he had harmed someone. One line from his apology tweet, she says, is forever emblazoned in her mind: "To me, getting nudes from a person was an instant rush. I was not in pain for that brief moment..."
"Utsav was using women like medicine, his apology was bereft of seeing women as human beings. It just tripped me up. At that time I felt, 'now, I don't give a damn'."
What followed then was a sh$#storm that the Indian media, for once, found itself at the centre of. Menon mentioned incidents in which KR Sreenivas (at that time resident editor at Times of India, Hyderabad, who has since resigned), with whom she'd worked in Bangalore Mirror, and then Gautam Adhikari (the editor at DNA, Mumbai, when she was working there).
Bengaluru Journalist Sandhya Menon. Pic/Ajeesh F Rawther
The voice of others
Even as Menon started tweeting against "Manoj, KRS and Gautam", she says someone tweeted to her saying, 'Hey! I have a Sreenivas story' and they DMed her the details. She says she asked this woman if she could add this story to her Twitter thread and the woman responded saying, 'yeah, do it anonymously'.
Around this time, says Menon, Kukreja was sharing stories of others who had been abused by Utsav. Reaching out to Menon and Anoo Bhuyan, Delhi-based journalist who outed Business Standard journalist Mayank Jain, other women - crossing boundaries of age, industries and cities - started sharing their stories via direct messages with these three.
Menon points out that she, Bhuyan and Rituparna Chatterjee, a Delhi-based journalist, all have verified accounts on Twitter, where much of the country's #MeToo activity is currently centred. "It signalled to others who wanted to approach us that we are not random people. We have a loud, clear voice, and some credibility as far as our work is concerned."
The first battle cry: In September, while speaking to television channel, actor Tanushree Dutta accused veteran actor Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her on the sets of the 2009 film Horn 'Ok' Pleassss. Her allegations set off a chain reaction with others sharing their stories. Pic/Getty Images
For Menon, getting herself verified on Twitter was just another bet to show how easy it was. She says that her Twitter status lending credibility to her story is sad, "because non-verified accounts are not any less truer".
She laughs almost sardonically when we discuss how a woman's professional position seems to affect credibility. "If it's an out-of-work actress [who is accusing], the critics will say she wants publicity. If a senior actress came out, they'll say 'she's getting old and wants to stay relevant'. There's no way a woman can speak out and come out smelling of roses."
Making it a movement
Menon's process of deciding whose accounts she will post is a fairly simple one: No anonymous handles, no handles that have been created in October. "If I get DMs from such accounts, I respond saying, Tweet from your original handles, I will keep your name safe. Or send me a mail from a legit email ID, not a girl with glass head. If you are comfortable, add a phone number." She's been surprised at the number of women who have gone on to share emails and texts.
It has helped, she says, not just to keep herself safe from allegations of defamation, but also help investigators from Internal Complaints Committee of firms seek information when they approach asking to get in touch with the person who made the allegations so that a proper probe can be conducted.
Since October 5, Menon says she has got 200 DMs. Not just does she have to go through these, she has also needed help with questions regarding how to file complaints with the National Commission of Women (NCW). "I am fielding this, and I am fielding my life," says Menon. In fact, even as she speaks to us, she is busy catching lunch. She is also in the middle of shifting homes. "I have not done any work for the last one week," she admits.
Having graduated from Chennai's Asian College of Journalism, Menon started work at The Hindu. She is currently freelancing on a three-month contract. She has soft deadlines, but she admits she hasn't got anything concrete done recently. She hopes she's able to in the coming week.
People have been tweeting in with offers of help. "I took all the questions regarding NCW and put it in one document and reached out to the 15 or more people who volunteered and asked them to get the answers." We are speaking to her on a Friday afternoon. She says since the previous night alone, she has received 35 DMs. "All [the other women who have been helping share stories of harassment on Twitter] have similar numbers."
At some point last week she realised that she hadn't created an invoice for the previous month's freelance work. Help poured in, asking her to share her PAN number. Friends have offered to assist her set up the new home. A journalist from The Hindustan Times is helping her create a template for NCW complaints. Lawyers have stepped forward offering to work pro bono for the cause.
And while this remains a silver lining, the anguish that sits in her inbox, still looms large. "It's going to sound terrible, but my only coping mechanism is that I read the introduction and quickly scan for what happened. I skim over the explicit details. Not because I am a prude, because I can't."
She talks about the latest person against whom allegations have been made. "The story I posted today was about a woman who said Sachin Garg, an author and publisher, had masturbated into her palm. If I read these stories with attention, it would feel like it happened to me." She says she is going to file her NCW complaint on the day we are speaking i.e. Friday. "At the risk of sounding dumb, I didn't know this sort of thing could be taken to the state commission or NCW." Having faced issues with the Bangalore police where they didn't file an FIR when an auto driver hit her, she lost faith in the FIR process. Also, she says, the NCW has an informed team that will help with the filing of complaints.
"To be honest, till the day I heard that Sreeni [KR Sreenivas] was suing me for defamation, all I wanted was to change the way Times of India and other newspapers handled complaints. My ambitions were small. But when I heard he was suing me, I decided to march on. Also, if I am telling other women to take it to NCW, I have to do it."
It lingers in our mind, what happens when the person who is being accused is someone you know. Someone you didn't think would or could behave in a certain way. "When Raya's [Sarkar, India law student] list came out," she says, referring to the 2017 list of sexual predators in Indian academia, "I had three friends, preemptively get in touch. 'Dude if there's a media list, I hope you know I have not done any of this and that I hope I can count on your support.' These were senior journalists from Mumbai and Chennai. I only responded with 'well, if the account seems true, I am likely to believe the survivor... If your past is not clean, don't count on me for support. Two people I personally know have been called out. I have chosen to side with the survivor and have unfollowed them."
Menon has also received messages and DMs from men being harassed by female bosses. "They are saying, 'I don't mean to take away from this movement and what the women are sharing but this is my story'. I want to say to them, 'You are not. This is for you also'."
And if we are afraid that young women are being harassed, a young man, 19 years old, has messaged her with his story. But she wants him to think more about if he really wants to do this. She is asking all survivors to spend a few hours, if not days, to come out with their story. Tweeting and then having to recall it, comes with its own set of issues.
Urban, elitist issue
Is #MeToo an elitist, urban occupation? Menon admits it is. And adds that there's also a caste angle to it. While not wanting to mix this with caste and identity politics, she adds, that when Sarkar's list came out, it was panned by uppercaste feminists for "not following due process". "Raya, in fact, is the reason we are here. What we are doing is similar to her due process, but we are not being criticised. In fact, we owe Dalit women a huge debt. They have always supported Savarna women in struggles that mattered."
She refers to the @dalitwomenfight handle on Twitter, which on October 10 came out unequivocally in support of the #MeToo movement. "I don't think a single one of us did that for Raya's list. We let them down." She says she wants to bring in that change. Sit with the Dalit women voices to understand how this can be done.
Taking it forward
Asked categorically, what she hopes will come of the movement and the complaints, Menon says, "Yes, I hope they lose their jobs. Sreeni went on to become the resident editor of two editions. These are not small positions. Rehabilitating perpetrators is easy. I hope that we have made enough noise for firms to decide they wont touch these men with a barge pole."
On her own role in the movement - she's being hailed as the Rose McGowan of India's #MeToo movement - she says she is humbled, and in equal parts embarrassed. That women across age groups - from the early 20s to 50s - are sharing their stories with her, trusting her, makes her keenly aware of the responsibility that she is carrying.
"Twenty-four-year-olds who won't accept a lot of sh#$ in other areas of their lives feel their hands are tied. They need that job or the growth in their career. They are terrified of the men they are up against. We [women] go to college with dreams. Our jobs are an integral part of our identity. I don't think I have felt this responsible even with my own kids."
Letting the movement die, she says, is no longer an option. "I am here at the front with the other three. And all of us share the commitment. How we do that, we are still trying to organise." Menon has been known to use her Twitter power for good.
Journalist Prem Panicker recalls how she tweeted and rewteeted messages for help during the Kerala floods earlier this year. "At one point, she was desperately trying to source some urgently needed funds. Her work was tireless and on point," says the veteran journalist of Menon who raised R8.9 lakh in less than two days' time. The young woman, who turns 39 this week, confesses to a thought that's been building inside her for two days. She admits to having being disillusioned with journalism. Questions raged about where her career was headed. "Not that I want to make this my career. But, I feel like I have found a purpose."
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