In the guise of ensuring the privacy of victims, the government has been accused of protecting the interest of the perpetrators.

Pinarayi Vijayan poses with members of the WCC in Kerala and a picture of Justice Hema is in the collage
Delve Mollywood Friday, July 02, 2021 - 16:12

In the year 2018, a young actor from the Malayalam film industry appeared before the Justice K Hema Committee. For almost seven hours that day, the young woman spoke to three members of the Hema Committee gathered at the Mascot Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram about the discrimination she faced in the industry. Having been assured that her name would be kept confidential, she also spoke of the sexual harassment she faced. The young woman says she knew her peers were also going to be talking about discrimination and harassment, and that some of the names in their experiences would be the same. It's been almost three years and she says she feels cheated. The Hema Committee’s report has not seen the light of the day, and no action has been taken based on the report.

“I believed that after having spoken to many members of the film industry, largely women, the Committee would understand the patterns of discrimination and harassment and they would find some solutions to it. I also thought that there would be some effort to ensure that there is better pay structures, protection from discrimination and harassment and that when certain policies are laid down, bodies like the WCC would be a part of the dicussion. But nothing happened. We invested time and energy and it was not easy recounting bitter experiences, one had to relive the trauma,” she says.

It was a moment of jubilation for the then newly formed Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) when the Department of Cultural Affairs announced on July 1, 2017, a committee with retired justice K Hema as chairperson to study and submit a report on the issues faced by women in the Malayalam film industry. When the three-member committee – yesteryear actor Sharada and former bureaucrat KB Valsalakumari were the other two members – finally submitted the report on the last day of 2019, it was seen as a milestone in efforts to bring gender justice to an industry which has a notorious history of silencing women. To everyone’s surprise, the report soon attained an ‘extra-confidential’ status and has been kept out of the public domain since then.

During the initial sessions of the Legislative Assembly this month, former minister of Cinema and MLA Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan questioned the government over the delay in tabling the Hema Committee report, which has to be done within six months as per the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. “The Hema Committee does not come under the Commission of Inquiry Act,” was the reply from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

“Why was a panel constituted without any legal powers? Even if the government cites technicalities, the report should be submitted at the Cabinet. Whether the Cabinet approves or not, it has to be then tabled at the Assembly,” said Thiruvanchoor.

Incidentally, Thiruvanchoor was not the first MLA to raise the issue of non-availability of the report in the Assembly. On a query by former MLA Shanimol Usman in February 2020, the then Culture Minister AK Balan shared a set of recommendations, while refraining from tabling the full report. That too, only an abridged version of the recommendations, revealing nothing on the findings of the committee.

Balan informed the Assembly that Rs 46.55 lakh was spent on the Committee and that it was under review. Apart from MLAs, information activists in the state too attempted to get access to the report. Nearly half a dozen RTI applications and their appeals were filed by activists and journalists requesting the copy of the report, which were turned down, citing the issue of victims’ privacy by the Kerala Information Commission. The WCC has written twice to the government, in May 2020 and August 2020, but was not given the report. This despite almost 25 WCC members having appeared before the Committee.

According to documents available under RTI, the government took a decision to keep the report confidential based on a letter submitted by Committee Chairperson K Hema on February 19, 2020. This happened two weeks after the government gave assurance in the Assembly that it would soon table the Hema Committee report. In the letter sent to the Secretary to the Department of Culture, Justice Hema cited Supreme Court rulings to ensure the privacy of sexual harassment victims to reason that the report should be kept confidential “since it contains details of sexual assault, harassment and abuse which were disclosed to the Committee by various women in privacy during in camera proceedings”.

During submission of the report, Justice Hema had informed the media that names of individuals were not mentioned to prevent any backlash from the industry. 

Advocate Harish Vasudevan says the government has cheated women in the film industry and WCC in particular. “I would say that CM Pinarayi Vijayan has betrayed the trust of the women from the film industry, including the WCC. He tactfully bought some time to settle down the anger, formed a committee even not under the Commission of Inquiry Act, and then sat on their report without taking any action,” he says.

Violation of RTI norms?

Turning down an appeal to RTI seeking the report, an order by former Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Vinson M Paul, cited a Supreme Court order in the Central Board of Secondary Education v/s Aditya Bandopadhyay case to deny information citing the privacy issues of sexual harassment victims. A request to access the report after hiding certain portions that raise privacy concerns too was denied. “People who work or are connected to the film industry can identify the victims even if their names are removed from the report,” the CIC observed.

However, RTI activist and advocate DB Binu said that the order was a violation of section 10 (1) of the RTI Act, which says that “access may be provided to that part of the record which does not contain any information which is exempt from disclosure under this Act and which can reasonably be severed from any part that contains exempt information”.

“It is true that merely hiding the names won’t be enough to protect privacy. Mention of incidents or the place might help in identifying the victim. However, denying the report citing privacy is a violation of section 10 (1), which permits access to other parts of the report,” said Binu who was instrumental in bringing the Marad report into public domain through a legal battle.

Issue of privacy

Film director Anjali Menon opined that it was unproductive to keep the report and its findings confidential citing the privacy of sexual harassment survivors since the Committee has given full assurance to the survivors that their identities would not be revealed in the report. "The survivors have silently suffered for the longest time, and they re-lived their trauma to reveal the incidents to the Committee. They did so because they wanted to ensure that such exploitation does not keep happening to women. Unless the summary of the study findings by the committee is published, the survivors' efforts are wasted." she said.

Asha Jomis, who was one of the RTI applicants on the issue, said that the government's refusal to disclose the content of the Hema Committee report would send wrong signals. “In the guise of ensuring the privacy of victims, the government is clearly protecting the interest of the perpetrators. I found the argument of privacy highly irrational. If a woman approaches the police with a complaint against a powerful person, can they say it cannot be entertained because of the safety concerns of the victim? State has the responsibility to give women confidence in the system,” she said.

Harish points out that the government’s reluctance to act on the report raises questions on who was being protected. 

“I seriously believe that the government is trying to protect some of the abusers, I think they are walking around smiling. A government can always say that things cannot be done at a pace that citizens expect, but this act of the Kerala government shows that at least for now, the government is on the side of the abusers. The film industry has not been notified as a workplace and no efforts have been made to constitute Internal Complaint Committees. The government’s duty is twofold- there is a constitutional duty and a statutory one. Here, they are violating the Supreme Court ruling asking for internal committees, and it also goes against the LDF’s declaration that it will stop atrocities against women.”

Terribly disappointing: WCC

Though the Committee was constituted on the request of Women in Cinema Collective, it has been kept in the dark since the submission of the report. “Even after all the efforts, resources and time that went into it, it is terribly disappointing that even the findings have not been published in 1.5 years. It defeats the purpose of conducting the study then. Any recommendations and their implementation can only make sense if the findings are published,” the WCC said.

The WCC also said that keeping the report under wraps was grossly unfair to the survivors who were urged to share their painful stories in good faith before the Committee.

The WCC is unable to fathom the idea of keeping the report inaccessible citing privacy concerns. “The Justice Hema Committee has repeatedly assured all the survivors that their identities would be protected and not revealed in the report. Based on this assurance the survivors have spoken up. If that is how it has been done, then how would this matter become an issue? The practice world over is to redact sensitive information to protect the privacy of those who have spoken up, and at the same time, make it very clear the kind of atrocities/harassment women have to go through. It is upto members of the Justice Hema Committee to clarify any ambiguity in this matter,” the WCC told TNM.

Explanation given to the government: Justice Hema

When contacted, Justice Hema said that she was fed up with the questions related to the Committee report. When asked about the issue of confidentiality of the report, Justice Hema said that she had sent a letter to the Culture Department explaining the privacy issues. She refused to be quoted for the article and disconnected the phone.

Industry bodies respond

In a meeting convened by Culture Minister Saji Cherian to discuss a comprehensive film policy, the WCC had raised its concerns over the delay in releasing the report. Representatives of other industry bodies like Association of Malayalam Movie Actors (AMMA), Malayalam Cine Technicians Association (MACTA) and Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) too were part of the meeting.

Director Jayaraj, who is also Chairman of MACTA, said that it will strongly stand with the WCC for the implementation of the suggestions in the Committee report. “I haven't studied the contents of the report. However, as Malayalam cinema is on the path of formulating a policy to upgrade as a world class industry, we cannot ignore the concerns of women. We stand with all efforts of the WCC to bring gender justice to the industry,” he said.

FEFKA General Secretary B Unnikrishnan said that the minister responded proactively to the suggestions of the WCC. “From the meeting, we understand that the government will make proper legislation based on the suggestions of the Committee. But now our immediate concern is about our members who lost their lives and income due to COVID-19,” he said.

Issues galore

While the discussions are focused primarily on sexual harassment, the women in the film industry pointed out that several other issues too remain unaddressed.

"Now discussions on the report loop around the issue of sexual harassment alone. The WCC has sent several emails to the government regarding the status of the report and continues to raise the issue," Anjali Menon said.

The WCC said that gender based issues in the industry like basic workplace rights available to employees, pay parity, need for contracts, lack of safety, security and equal opportunity, high attrition rates, lack of gender representation at decision-making levels, and professional grievance redressal too deserve attention. “Beyond these, there are systemic issues which stem from a traditional work culture —  inclusivity is still not as it should be. The progressiveness we see in Malayalam films needs to be brought into the industry workings as well. We look forward to the Kerala Cinema Policy that is being initiated, and hope that many of these matters will be addressed in it,” the WCC said.

Read other detailed reports on TNM:

Once confined to some communities, dowry is now all pervasive in Kerala

Let's talk sex: Malayali women are using Clubhouse to break taboos

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