It's been a year
- Dr. Arshiya Sethi
October 3, 2021
This month, the Unmute series looks at the trajectory of a very important Sexual Harassment allegation that completed a year this month and looks at elements of law and protections available to the artistes.
The month of September marked a year since the sexual harassment allegations against the Dhrupad musicians - singers Umakant Gundecha and the late Ramakant Gundecha, and percussionist Akhilesh Gundecha. Renowned classical musicians, Ramakant and Umakant received the Padmashri in 2012 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2017. They ran a residential music Gurukul, just outside of Bhopal, called Dhrupad Sansthan, that had both Indian and foreign disciples living and learning there.
Some of these international artistes reached here, through government pathways, via the Indian Council of Cultural Relations for instance, that is managed by the Ministry of External Affairs as its arm of cultural diplomacy. Given the multiple allegations, and several of them from foreign students, I wonder what is the due diligence procedures followed by ICCR before placing their fellows/scholars at Indian centres of learning. Having strict due diligence in such situations is necessary for keeping aloft the image of the nation. I do believe that as long as an institution comes under the laws of the land, irrespective of the fact whether it takes any grant or subsidy from the government, it needs to self-declare that it follows all mandated Rule of Law compliances, as part of its annual reportings.
The Dhrupad Sansthan drew a large number of students from Europe, where Dhrupad is a popular genre, frequently featured in international and global music festivals. The Gundechas had good relations at the Union Ministry of Culture and enjoyed a prominent standing in the Cultural Scene of Madhya Pradesh. Their many international students ensured their rhizomatic presence in several cities in the world. They were for all practical purposes glo-cal citizens - global while being local. As such they must have been aware of the #MeToo campaign. They claimed to be affiliated to the UNESCO and American Institute of Indian Studies, but both organizations denied it. False representation is an example of an unethical mindset.
In November 2019, Ramakant, the younger in the singing duo, passed away suddenly due to a heart attack, and after a while Umakant began singing with Ramakant's son, Anant. When the first allegations surfaced on Facebook in early September on a group titled, 'Dhrupad Family Europe', it highlighted the alleged harassment by the two gurus, which it claimed had been going on for years. Rapidly, through the power of email and social media, almost all students of the musicians received the news. Initially the allegations were made specifically against the late Ramakant and Akhilesh, but as multiple affidavits came forth, it became clear that the allegations were against all three.
Across the music world, there was shock and there was disbelief. The harmonious way in which the Gundechas sang, the spiritual nature of their singing of the oldest form of classical music that the brothers had learnt from their Muslim Ustads- Zia Fariduddin and Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, themselves exemplars of decency, and their own soft-spoken demeanor belied this possibility. But very soon other students began adding their voice to allegations and the incidents became more and graphic. They described a scenario of unethical behaviors that most would see as sexual harassment. These allegations ranged from flirtations, to inappropriate messages, unbecoming behavior, molestation and even rape. The entire range of misdemeanors described is listed in the POSH Act as construing Sexual Harassment.
It appears that despite running such a large institution, the Gundechas, it seemed, had little understand of the POSH Act, or they would have been aware of their specific responsibilities under this Act, or the mandatory compliances expected from them, including putting into place the prevention and training mechanisms. The charges alleged by the survivors were rather serious - charges of criminal nature too - and certainly covered by the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Work places Act 2013. It makes one wonder if dance and music schools that believe in 'catching them young', and have many underage students, have taken the time to familiarize themselves with the POCSO Act, which has even more stringent provisions and strident punishments!
Why had this maverick and dangerous behaviour at the Gurukul gone unnoticed? Or had it? There seem to be many enablers, from silent observers to those more complicit that had made all this possible, and among them were fellow students. The very first post itself alleged that several victims of the two gurus have remained quiet about the harassment due to threats. "We have been prisoners of this silence for fear of reprisals, for fear of your judgments, for believing the threatening words Ramakant and Akhilesh Gundecha would say, to keep us silent.... They would threaten us saying they always get what they want and won't accept 'No' as an answer," the post said.
This is classic predator behaviour - to bully and push your way by tiring out resistance, by encouraging isolation on the one hand and groupism on the other, an example of the divide and rule policy, via the explicit or implicit promise of preferential treatment or threats of detrimental treatment, and of being denied future opportunities. Some male students admitted to knowing that something was amiss, but stayed silent due to the same reason. Some others stayed silent because they were told that they could never hope to have a music career if they did not go along. Some others lived with the harassment and its trauma because they had made big decisions like having invested much time and money in the pursuit of the art, or had taken serious life decisions like giving up jobs to pursue their love for music. And for some, just that was reason enough - that they loved their music.
"Fortunately enough", the post said, "things are starting to change worldwide". Indeed, #MeToo, as BBC reported in an article, has been a topic googled in every country of the world, ever since the Harvey Weinstein case of 2017. When actress Alyssa Milano suggested in a Twitter post that those who had experienced sexual harassment tweet back 'MeToo", the scale of the problem immediately became evident from the fact that within twenty-four hours half a million tweets saying "MeToo" had been received. In the US, a legal fund was launched to help survivors fight legal battles. Called the "Times Up Legal Defence Fund for which many prominent celebrities offered support, it raised 21 million USD in just one month. The world over this issue is being taken very seriously. It is sparing no perpetrators - not Presidents, Playboys, Mayors, Princes, Billionaires or media personalities, as the negative publicity surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, Prince Andrew, the Cuomo brothers and Bill Gates, among so many others, seems to suggest.
Power is the essential factor in sexual harassment - assertion of existing privilege and power and hoping to assert power over another, is the main driver. One of the former students of the Dhrupad Sansthan, who I would not like to name, admitted that sexual harassment does not happen in isolation but in a complex fabric with other gross abuses of power that have gone unchecked for years".
The real root of the power in the scenario of sexual harassment in the arts is the Guru Shishya Parampara. While I subscribe to the beauty of an ideal relationship and the need of the Guru to facet the rough diamond the student is, into a bright and shining gem, it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Any uncritical romanticising, pedestalising and submissiveness are troublesome. Medieval principles of the Guru's privilege, that flows from ascribing godlike qualities to the Guru and surrendering blindly to his whims and fancies, is what lies behind many such stories. In an environment of blatant patriarchy, where the female is considered a lesser being, as we know trends in India, the Guru can assert his position and its imagined privileges in the assurance of the fact that the other men won't object, and would most likely remain quiet. Kamla Bhasin, the iconic feminist, who passed away recently, argued that these power games, ensuing from patriarchal mind set, deprive men of their own humanity. I am sure those men who have remained silent, would identify with what she said, if they could brush away the deeply ingrained bias of patriarchy, for just a while.
What about women, why do they become enablers? Or at least passive enablers by staying silent. The single phrase answer is Power structures; Power structures demand subservience. Such power structures are aligned against women. The women feel that to succeed they need to join the Men's club, and become partners in promoting and perpetuating these power structures. The power structures they inherit in the process, divide people from each other. They make them cling to comfort zones, lazily subscribe to familiar circles and career paths, in which they have invested time and effort and out of which they have created their reputations, building which afresh or independently, would take effort, for which they may be too lazy. Laziness is not strong enough a justification to ignore the human rights violation implicit in sexual harassment, which in effect is a violation of the Fundamental Rights of a woman - to equality as enshrined in Article 14 and 15 and women's right to live with dignity as mentioned in Article 21 of the Constitution.
And yet the solution is so simple for perpetrators and predators. Own what you did. Don't dismiss a 'historic' allegation by citing time gone by. The trauma stays long after. It is a subjective and traumatic experience that gets triggered with the remembering and recounting. That is why the survivor may not be able to muster up the strength to report it immediately and has to find the right moment when she can. If at that moment the statement is unheard, ignored, dismissed or disbelieved, it becomes a second trauma. Once the perpetrator has accepted the act of poor judgement, they need to tell people what you can do, to be better. Trainers and experts who work in the field advise that communication needs to appear sincere. Be mindful of body language, tone of voice and choice of words in this process. The best advice is to be contrite. And finally, accept that it doesn't matter what you intended, which may have been misunderstood. What matters is how your actions and words were perceived. It may appear that with most women shackled in silence, you can get away with misdemeanours, but at the subterranean level there is a ground swell against such misdemeanours, and there is no escaping your own reckoning. It is my prediction that soon there will be a social tipping point against such behaviours.
Unlike many other countries of the world that look at sexual harassment as a criminal act, India, since 2013 when the POSH Act was passed, imaginatively created a holistic mechanism of redressal that is time bound and falls short of expensive and circuitous legal processes. This process is enshrined in the POSH Act and begins by describing the wide-ranging spectrum of actions that come under sexual harassment. The Act has shifted accountability from individuals to institutions, prioritizing prevention and providing for an innovative 'almost' peer handled redressal mechanism. As Asiya Shervani, a diversity consultant and ethics trainer described it, "ghar ki baat ghar mein hi reh kar resolve ho sakti hai." By giving powers to the Internal Committee and the Local Committee, co-equal to a Civil Court under the Code of Civil Procedure (1908), in respect to summoning, the production of documents, enforcing presence, examining under oath the alleged perpetrators, movers of allegations and witnesses, the process is a via media, a short cut between no redressal and an expensive and long drawn court procedure. Of course, the choice to still move court is not overruled.
In this year, ever since the allegation were first made in September 2020, the Dhrupad Sansthan set up an IC that conducted a proper investigation including examining survivors and corroborating events, and sometime in March 2021 came up with a report. Till the IC process was on, the confidentiality clause that the IC operated under prevented the survivors and witnesses from speaking to the press. Amidst the rumblings of the oncoming second wave the matter nearly didn't make it into the public realm. However, an article in Firstpost of March 5th, 2021, announced the finding and recommendations of the IC, including the fact that the institution had failed to create a safe learning space for its women students which led to sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of the Guru. It recommended further a public acknowledgement of the same. And that the institute be closed for six months with the time used to reflect on the shortcomings. Broadly the recommendations fell into three categories - institutional penalties, monitoring mechanisms and reparative governance.
Overall, the IC report acknowledged that the Dhrupad Sansthan had broadly violated the provisions of the POSH Act. Just this statement was validation enough for the brave action the survivors had taken by unmuting. But the recommendations did more and made suggestions on how to streamline governance of the institution by creating a new gender balanced, beyond family, supervisory board. Nepotism can get things done and can equally prevent things from getting done. The IC recommendation tried averting the latter by making this broad stroke recommendation. It recommended distancing between the Gurus and the institution for two years and the need to work with a trained counsellor to undergo therapy and gender sensitization.
But as the brutal second wave of Covid was upon us, in the accompanying chaos, the matter got side-lined and in the meanwhile, the Gundechas moved Madhya Pradesh High Court in Jabalpur, against the IC. Apart from the fact that this act makes the issue sub-judice and hence not something the press can pursue, such a move appears to negate any corrective action that had been taken earlier, and any hope of owning the mistakes. Meanwhile, the survivors have the right to themselves take recourse to the law and file an FIR or a legal joinder, but it is the second harassment that they will face, to say nothing of the fact that many among the multiple survivors live overseas and will find it hard to come and file cases in India, and hang around in uncertainty, till the police follows its procedures at the languorous pace it is known for.
In the ensuing time, the perpetrators seem to be living full lives. At the Tansen Festival organised by the Alauddin Khan Society and the Madhya Pradesh Government, in December 2020, Akhilesh was invited to play the pakhawaj and only a shout out by senior musicians like T.M. Krishna, Shubha Mudgal and Dr. Anish Pradhan stopped this travesty from happening. But a few months later, Umakant Gundecha was invited to light the lamp for a music festival, ironically for Aadya, which is a music festival for women. Frequently, photos of Umakant in close proximity to the local ministers and dispensation leaders are found in the media, making one realise that there is little acceptance of the seriousness of the allegations even in the eyes of those tasked with upholding the law. Umakant was also featured by Doordarshan for a popular programme "My favourite Raga" in a decision taken by Mandi House mandarins in full cognisance of the allegations against them. A documentary made on them was awarded a special mention at the 11th Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival.
When the government, whether state or national, seems to go against the spirit of its own laws, their commitment to governance is open to questioning. In the past the government agencies have dealt with such sexual harassment issues sensitively, as in the case of a Sangeet Natak Awardee for dance scholarship in the year 2017, but the principle of cherry-picking who they distance from, and of privileging some over the others, challenges the ideal of rationality that is believed to underpin government actions. Could their protections come from the fact that despite having to learn it from Muslim masters, the Dhrupad Sansthan is projecting their art in our polarised world as ancient Hindu art? It is best of religion and law are not overlaid.
Recently the Mumbai High Court has passed a judgement in favour of 'No media reporting', anonymising the case, non-disclosures by witnesses and parties, and in camera hearings, for POSH cases, with orders not to be passed in open courts nor uploaded on the website, with contempt of court proceedings following any breach. All this, to protect the identities of parties, it claims. But one wonders whether these precautions would lengthen the time that the court takes, and whether, these supposedly pro women provisions, and I have it from good authority that it is little tweaks like this in the law that will encourage more women to come forward, not allow judgements to go into zones of silence, and not end up benefitting the community they were meant to benefit?
I often wonder how the next generation of family, friends and students of those against whom these allegations have been made, are processing this shock. If we don't have victim support and therapy programmes, how can we even think of the help that others, who witness such abuse of power, need? Many times, the sensitive around abuse are equally traumatised, only differently. We know trauma impacts mental health, especially self-image, self-worth, and induces depression. For the survivors, especially the senior ones who were caught at important cross roads of their life, and are ready to enter their independent careers, I wish that the performances open up, and that the survivors are deliberately introduced on to the stage. Their singing will be their healing. It was their love for music that painted them into a corner. It will be their love for music that will make them fly out of those corners.
But this is the sunshine view. The truth of the matter is that a lot of talent has just slipped out, rejecting these distorted paradigms of power, and is permanently lost to us. There is need for greater monitoring at arts institutes, mandatory following up of all compliances, of all kinds of safety, and for fast tracking and time binding redressal. I would go to the extent of saying that there is need for a large-scale gender sensitization programme as well as a legal literacy programme. Unmute.help is your one stop place for learning more about artiste rights and responsibilities, of the law sections that intersect with the Arts, about the issues that you could be facing with their suggested solutions. It also contains a list of lawyers who can help you probono, a list of councillors who could help you process the crisis and its related traumas and several sets of friendly arms to hold you and support you at a difficult time.
You can contact us via unmute.help; or me on 8130278747and on email firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice through her NGO, Kri Foundation (estd. 2003), and has extended her academic work to Indian dance in the diaspora. She is a Co-Founder, Unmute.help.
Post your comments
Pl provide your name and email id along with your comment. All appropriate comments posted with name & email id in the blog will also be featured in the site.