#MenToo: Role Reversal

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The curious case of a rape allegation against a celebrity that led to a fledgling MenToo movement

A FEW WEEKS AGO, early one Saturday morning, a woman was out on a morning walk in Mumbai’s Andheri neighbourhood when she noticed, she claimed, a motorbike following her. There were two men atop it, one wearing a helmet and the other a mask. The masked man, riding pillion, had something sharp with him, probably a knife.

She had little time to react. The bike had now stopped right beside her. The masked man slashed at her right arm with the object. Meanwhile, the other revealed a plastic bottle and told her it contained acid. A scrunched up ball of paper was then tossed at her. They wanted her to open it.

Later, once her frayed nerves had soothed, she would tell the policemen how meticulously planned all of this appeared. The duo on the bike seemed to have known her daily routine well. She had stepped out of her house, like always, at 5.40 in the morning, hailed an auto-rickshaw, gotten off at Lokhandwala Circle, then, moving on foot, through a lane at Millat Nagar to reach Joggers Park. The bike had waited for her at one of these points or followed her throughout the journey.

In front of the bike now, she lifted the ball of paper. Inside it, on a page with ruled lines as though torn out from a school notebook, something had been written. The letters were large and bold, across the page, each word taking up several lines in a single deck—‘TAKE BACK THE CASE’.

The case referred to her accusation of rape and extortion against the once popular TV actor and musician Karan Oberoi. She had filed it almost a month ago. And since a celebrity, even though only once- famous, had been involved, the case had been playing out both in the courtroom and the news pages of the city’s tabloids

The woman’s lawyer, Ali Kaashif Khan Deshmukh, when informed of the attack, rushed to the hospital where she had been taken. He claims to have found her there with a bleeding shoulder, but, strangely, without any visible discomfort on her face. Deshmukh directs me to a statement he recently delivered to the police. “... she was talking to me with a smiling face,” his statement reads. “I then and there found it strange and got doubtful about the same.”

If such an encounter in the hospital as the way he narrates it did occur, he made no mention of it to the police then. The news itself became a dramatic moment in the case, with the narrative veering towards how, despite the many legal assurances claimed to be provided for women subjected to violence, powerful men, even when they are behind bars, can pull strings to terrorise their female victims.

But then something strange happened. The police, pulling out footage of the attack from nearby CCTV cameras, found that duo had been careless enough to not hide their bike’s number plate. They traced the owner of the bike to a house in the distant western suburb of Mira Road. It belonged to a 23-year-old named Zeeshan Ahmed. He led them to another 20-something, a friend named Arafat Ahmed, who had borrowed the bike that morning. Ahmed led them to the pillion rider who had slashed the woman’s arm, Jitin Santosh, who in turn led them to Altamash Ansari, the person who had asked them to attack the woman. Rarely do cases get solved so easily, one link so easily leading to the next. For an attack that got so much play in the media, the attackers turned out to be amateurishly clumsy. Yet all four of them, young college students, had no discernible link with Karan Oberoi or any of his friends or family members.

The connection turned out to be on the side of the victim. The last person to be arrested, Altamash Ansari, was found to be a cousin of her lawyer Ali Kaashif Khan Deshmukh. The woman and her current lawyer, Shaikh Ibrahim, when contacted, both refused to speak about the incident. According to media reports, she has claimed that it was Deshmukh who had staged the attack without her knowledge.

Deshmukh offers another version, according to which the woman herself had planned the attack. In this version, he lets himself off without any knowledge of such a plan. He claims that three of them (the woman, a friend of hers and Deshmukh) had planned to organise a rally under the MeToo campaign to garner public support for her case. Deshmukh, tasked to find people who could help facilitate it, introduced his cousin Altamash Ansari to her. During this meeting between the three, Deshmukh claims he momentarily stepped out of the house to purchase cigarettes and coffee. “... [When I] returned to them after almost 10-12 minutes... I witnessed my cousin’s behaviour to be very weird, as he wasn’t replying to any of my statements,” he says.

“The whole thing was a sordid affair. A man has had to suffer for over a month for no fault of his own; his reputation is now completely tarnished,” says Dinesh Tiwari, Karan Oberoi’s lawyer

Oberoi’s lawyer Dinesh Tiwari is certain that both the woman and her lawyer had staged the attack. “They are just very manipulative,” he says. “The whole thing was such a sordid affair. They staged it [the attack] purposely to make it look like the woman was not safe. So that Karan would be denied bail.”

Oberoi’s case comes at an interesting moment in time. There is a larger discussion around sexual harassment of women, like the rest of the world, in India too. Last year’s MeToo movement in India showed how pervasive and constant sexual assault and misdemeanours are in the country with accounts of women suffering constant assaults, sometimes even rapes, at their workplace and homes, their trust often breached by friends and colleagues.

However according to some, like men’s rights activists, there are also several (perhaps far less frequent) instances of women misusing the strong anti-rape and anti-dowry laws in the country, to game the system. It is difficult to determine how frequently this happens. The low rate of convictions filed in rape cases might not necessarily mean that many of these cases were false. It is difficult to collect evidence in rape cases and many could result in acquittals simply for lack of evidence. Then there is also the likelihood that many rapes go unreported because of the stigma attached to it.

Occasionally some have tried to take a deeper look at these data. A New Delhi- based organisation, Swanchetan, which provides aid to survivors of violence, abuse and trauma once carried out a five-year-long study from 2003 onwards, where it examined rape cases lodged in various Delhi police stations. In all, the group studied 113 cases. This was the number the organisation had been called for to provide counsel to rape survivors. Swanchetan found that nearly a fifth (a total of 18.3 per cent) of all cases in the sample were fake. False charges had been filed for various reasons. A fourth (25 per cent) had been made at the behest of family members. An equal number had animosity towards the accused as their motivation. In about a fifth, the complainants had been ‘coached’ so as to settle family disputes. In about 15 per cent of cases, the individual panicked and alleged rape after she had consented to sexual intercourse. The remaining 15 per cent, according to the organisation, defied categorisation.

When I spoke with the director of Swanchetan, the clinical psychologist Rajat Mitra, a few years ago, he admitted that the sample size of his study was small, but he believed that the percentages of false complaints could be the same or in fact larger when it comes to cases in the courts. “One should not look at those who falsely accuse [men] as liars,” he told me then. “In most cases, they are being forced by someone else to file such a case.”

The newspaper Hindu once looked at a larger sample, 583 cases of sexual assault that were filed in Delhi’s six district courts over six months in 2013. According to the article, published in 2014, one-fifth of them (123 cases) wound up because the complainants stopped showing up in court or could not be traced, or they turned hostile, insisting they had never alleged rape or admitting that they had filed a false complaint. Of the 460 cases that were fully argued before the courts, the largest category (189 cases) dealt with cases involving consenting couples, where usually the girl’s parents filed complaints of abduction and rape. In another 109 cases, women had complained that their consent for sex had been obtained under a false promise of marriage. The remaining 162 cases, out of the nearly 600 complainants, dealt with rape as it is most commonly understood.

According to Deshmukh, Oberoi had promised to marry his alleged victim. But an accusation against him, as reported in various media outlets, was also that apart from the promise of marriage, he had spiked her drink and raped her sometime early in 2017. Deshmukh refuses to talk about that charge. Oberoi’s lawyer on the other hand insists that it was a consensual relationship, and there had never been any talk of marriage. “You tell me,” Tiwari asks. “Two people get into a consensual relationship. Both of them are mature, educated people. So it doesn’t work out. And the woman claims it was rape. Which world are we in? Is this India 50 years ago?”

“One should not consider those who falsely accuse men to be liars. In most cases, they are being forced by someone else to file such a case,” says Rajat Mitra, clinical psychologist

The case has now led to a Twitter campaign, MenToo, a rally in Mumbai, which took place last week, and an online petition, started by Oberoi’s friend, the former TV personality Pooja Bedi, which demands that ‘checks and balances’ are instituted in law to give ‘men and their families equal protection.’

THE TWO, OBEROI and the woman, got into a relationship after they first met each other on the dating app Tinder in 2016. Oberoi’s career hadn’t quite flourished as one might have expected in the first half of the 2000s, when he was a member of a music boy band and played central roles in popular TV shows. A decade later, he was doing bit performances in web shows. The woman, a professional astrologer and spiritual healer, someone who also claims to be able to dabble in witchcraft, appears to have worked in and around the TV industry, finding enough superstitious and professionally insecure clients in Mumbai’s film and TV neighbourhood, Andheri.

Oberoi and the woman differ on the duration of their relationships. Tiwari claims it was for a short while. Deshmukh states they were a couple right up till earlier this year. This is understandable. Oberoi’s lawyer wants to argue that the relationship was not particularly serious whereas the woman’s lawyer wants to argue that the two were in a committed relationship and that Oberoi had promised to marry her.

Consensual sexual encounters which occur after a man has promised to marry a woman, and if he later reneges on such a promise, would not be considered rape in many countries. But in India, rape charges are very often filed upon such broken promises.

Once the couple separated, Tiwari claims, the woman began to harass Oberoi into rekindling their relationship. “She would call him frequently. Then once he stopped taking her calls, she would change her number and harass again,” Tiwari says. “Although Oberoi cautioned his building security from allowing her in, she would still show up and create a scene.”

Over the last few weeks, Oberoi’s friends have shared several of the WhatsApp messages between the woman and Oberoi with reporters, in all likelihood after their relationship had been terminated, which show her pursuing Oberoi, requesting him to resume sexual relations, or to meet her or share pictures.

The harassment continued to such an extent, according to Pooja Bedi, that last year in October, Oberoi had to file a non- cognisable police complaint accusing her of harassment. A few days later, the woman retaliated by filing another complaint, for using her financially. “If Karan had raped her as she claims [first] in 2017, why would she not mention rape in her complaint in 2018? Why would she claim rape one more year later, in 2019?” Bedi asks.

The woman, when contacted, refused to talk about these allegations. She claimed she was going through depression and was not in a state to talk. Her new lawyer Ibrahim claimed ignorance of the past status of their relationship.

In 2018, soon after their complaints against one another, the woman had contacted the entertainment supplement Bombay Times to speak against Oberoi. According to her version, after they got in touch on the dating app in 2016, he began to ask her to share pictures. These were often intimate pictures. Soon they were in a consensual relationship. Since he was going through a difficult period financially, she would help him with money, redo his house and buy him expensive gifts. “He would ask me to get expensive things for him whenever I travelled abroad for my work. The demands were covert... knowing that I would buy it for him,” she told the paper. According to Bombay Times, she later requested the paper to not go ahead with the story. They released it only recently, after the accusation of rape came to the fore.

Tiwari dismisses these claims of her having helped him out financially. According to him, she did help him renovate his house, but he always paid for all purchases.

On June 7th, after spending a month in jail, Oberoi was finally granted bail by the Bombay High Court. The judge, Justice Revati Mohite Dere, chastised the police for failing to seize the woman’s phones, where one might find evidence related to the case, and why the woman wasn’t arrested when it is alleged that she staged an attack on herself. “You are expected to do a free, fair and impartial investigation,’’ the judge was quoted as saying in media reports. Ten days later, the police finally arrested her for misleading the authorities and staging her own attack.

“I hope they [the police] look into what she has done closely,” Tiwari says. “A man has had to suffer for over a month for no fault of his, his reputation completely tarnished.” According to Wayne John Fonseca, a close family acquaintance, although he has been released, Oberoi is far from his usual ebullient self. “He’s become really quiet and low. He hasn’t recovered from his ordeal at all.”