After my ordeal, I realised that the Indian NGO network is a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours place.
Indian #MeToo is here and it’s time we turned our attention to the NGO world.
Most NGOs, like their founders, are decades old. They preach social justice and freedom. But often NGO employees talk in hushed whispers about what happens behind closed doors. Our NGO heroes often have a strange mismatch between their personal lives and public work. I am not doing the naming and shaming exercise that I could do. That’s up to the women who have been victimised.
I’m revisiting one experience I had 18-years ago. I was not traumatised, just livid and seething with rage. My daughter had said, “You should write about it. It’s important.” I didn’t. I’m doing so now, because I owe it to all those young women who need this issue to be spoken about, so they will not have to fight the battles we older ones fought.
I discovered that when I began writing about Adivasis, Dalits and oppressed people, men from NGOs were no different when it came to abuse of power. Many became megalomaniacs. I could write a novel based on the stories I’ve heard, but I will limit myself to one incident. And I have witnesses to back me up.
I had boarded a South African Airways Mumbai-Johannesburg flight to cover the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban. I noticed a man in front stretching his leg into the aisle almost tripping the air hostess. Deliberately, twice. A common ploy with creepy male passengers. I contemplated telling him to behave. But exhaustion won. I couldn’t summon the energy.
The lights went out. I was almost asleep. Suddenly, I felt a hand massaging my thigh. I sat up with a jolt. Was I dreaming? A nightmare? But no, the passenger in the seat in front of me had stretched his hand behind to rub my thigh. I screamed involuntarily. I pressed the
button for attendance. The crew arrived, pulled him to the back of the plane. I slapped him hard. Not satisfactory enough. Took off my slipper, Kolkata-style, and hit him with it. Manjula Pradeep, an activist joined me. The crew made a note of the incident. The man,
Mazher Hussain whom I’d never seen before, was the head honcho of COVA, a Hyderabad NGO and a regular on the national circuit. He has collaborated with Oxfam, Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and Ford Foundation in the past. Totally drunk, he stayed silent.
Cut to our destination, Durban. I wrote several articles for The Hindu on the Dalit demands for justice. Manjula, a feisty feminist and respected Dalit activist, demanded that Mazher Hussain be sent back to India forthwith. None of the men from the campaign agreed. Manjula reported that an old, close friend had said, “Even if he’d raped someone. I wouldn’t agree to send him back. He’s important and influential. The cause is everything. Making a noise about this would detract from our Dalit issue.” So Mazher Hussain stayed.
Many of my male colleagues avoided eye contact. I was not really surprised. This is why it’s so hard to fight sexual abuse. Because the old boys’ network always comes together to shut you out. They make you feel that there’s something wrong with you for blowing up a “trivial” incident out of proportion.
Fast forward to a few years later. I was vice-president of NCAS (National Centre for Advocacy Studies) Pune. Brilliant playwright, Vijay Tendulkar was the president. Someone proposed Mazher Hussain’s name to the board. I objected. An uncomfortable silence ensued. Some of the men looked at each other. A woman I counted as a friend, a famous human rights advocate, said, “You know I sympathise with you, but it’s just your word against his. You can’t prove anything.” I was shocked into silence. Some mumbled about “the great work” Mazher Hussain has done through COVA and that the NCAS had no other prominent Muslim leader.
Vijay Tendulkar, bless him, then said, “I’m shocked that the vice-president’s word is not enough for you. She is a respected name in the NGO circles and as a writer. We have known her for over a decade. If she is disbelieved here in our very own organisation, which
woman can be believed?” Tendulkar’s stature was such, no one raised a peep. End of story.
It struck me then, I was an established woman in my forties. Unafraid and willing to fight. Yet in a close circle of friends(?) and colleagues, I would have been demolished if Vijay Tendulkar had not defended me. What earthly chance did young, vulnerable women stand?
I repeated the story in Delhi and in NGO circles, to the country’s best-known feminists. Everyone tut-tutted. But not one person lifted a finger to take it further, although I had heard that there had been similar allegations of vulnerable Muslim girls being molested by Mazhar Hussain.
Why? Because it’s hard to denounce friends. Because the NGO network is a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours place. Invitations from Vienna, Beijing, Geneva, Lahore and New York will come your way if you acquiesce. And so the game goes on.
Men in Indian NGOs must understand that even consensual sex is off the board. Because a boss has undue influence and power over employees. To reach a safe place, these rules are mandatory. In fact, the #MeToo movement only further proves NGOs, government and corporate organisations need a gender policy to spell out explicitly that people in senior positions cannot use their power to exploit women.
Caribbean women sing a song I love, “Woman-time is Come.”
The author is an independent writer and focuses on social issues of Adivasis, Dalits and women.