Chivalry in the Times of #MeToo

It was in Kanpur, some time in the early 1990s. Two of my men approached me to preside over and settle their dispute. Warrant Officer Mishra alleged, “Warrant Officer Tiwari (both names changed) is jealous of me because my son has graduated as a commissioned officer of the Indian Air Force.”

“So what?” I wondered.

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “Sir, he says that officers are characterless people. During their mess parties they go around hugging each other’s wives and even dance with them. It offends me because (now) my son is an officer.” Mishra added.

A little scratching of the surface was enough to reveal what was in Tiwari’s mind. Years ago, when Tiwari was a corporal, he used to be deputed to install and operate the PA and the music systems for formal parties in the Officers’ Mess. Because he came from a modest rural background, where women stayed indoors and performed household chores, he found the behaviour of the officers and the ladies inappropriate.

It wasn’t his fault.

It being a stricture against the officer-community, I felt ineligible to preside over the dispute. I brushed aside the case saying, “I expect you warrant officers to be mature. Now, get going and mind your personal businesses.” I felt educating Tiwari at that point in time could be counter-productive. Such an action would not guarantee success in moulding his concretised perception.

All through my service since that day, I have consciously devoted time and effort to educating my men on gender issues.

The #MeToo movement and the issues of gender equality that have inundated the media (social media included) have served as a recall of the Mishra-Tiwari dispute for me. Here is a peep into officer-lady relations in the armed forces.

Chivalry IMG_1695An officer, and a gentleman, stands up to greet a lady on her arrival. He does not address her by her first name unless she approves of it. A gentle hug or a peck on the cheek is purely a personal matter between two individuals. The ladies––young and very young, girls and even children) have a sixth sense. They know when a touch is inappropriate––they can distinguish well between a friendly gesture and a predatory move. This sixth sense is not unique to the ladies in the Armed Forces. That sense is universal. Besides, a lady is not obliged to display uniform level of familiarity with everyone she meets. The officers respect the freedom of the ladies to draw lines selectively for different people depending on their level of comfort.Chivalry 44

Don’t go by the optics. There’s a lot more to how men must carry themselves in the presence of ladies than mere opening the door, leading the way and talking softly in a their presence. Chivalrous is one word that summarises an officer’s behaviour in the presence of a lady. It is not the fear of punishment, which is severe for offences against women but the upbringing in the Armed Forces that spells the difference.

If the prevailing noise and din in the country confuses the youth, perhaps flipping the pages of the Customs and Traditions of the Armed Forces or meeting a gentleman and an officer will help.

The Akbar I Don’t Know

I have hardly known Mr MJ Akbar who is making news for the wrong reasons lately. I spoke to him once on the telephone, in the late nineties. He was with The Asian Age then. I gave him ten on ten for his manners and politeness. Then, for over a dozen and moreMJ Akbar years I have feasted on his articles in the print media––his analysis of the current national and international affairs is remarkable. I find his diction good, better than most others. Then, on two occasions, I have heard him live and found him to be a very eloquent speaker. My cognition has created a certain image of him––that of an intellectual. Period.

I think I still don’t know Mr Akbar. Do I need to know him? Well, I don’t think, I do. But what I am interested in is a discourse, which leads to improvement in the prevailing environment for women in the country in general, and the workplaces, in particular. I owe that approach to many I care for.

Something that started as a ripple a few days ago is metamorphosing into a tsunami of sorts. In its spate it has taken many big names, the likes of Nana Patekar, Alok Nath and of course, Mr MJ Akbar. Trial by the media has begun; verdicts on the basis of loud debates are already being splashed on the walls.

The lifestyles and work ethos of the people who are making the headlines are like closed books of Greek literature to many in the stands. The impression is that people involved, either do not understand the meaning of a clear ‘NO’, or blatantly exploit their power and position. One can only be a spectator until a designated court pronounces a verdict. Not really! Media reports of the last few days raise a valid question: “There is smoke; where is the fire?”

Beyond applause for daring to speak up against the treatment meted out to them in their workplaces these courageous women deserve the support due to them; a cheer less, for those who jumped on the bandwagon as an after thought. At the moment, some of the people who are speaking up appear to have axes to grind. Many others, who can, or must speak, and more importantly, whose voices matter, are silent. Are there skeletons that might tumble out of the cupboards if they broke their silence?

It is time for well-meaning people, people who are in the know of the working in those domains, to speak up. Dante has said, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” That said, there is no reason to speak in favour or against an individual. People can speak on the issue of harassment in workplaces and how it needs to be addressed.

One last thought: Some in the media are using the epithet––Battle of the Sexes––while discussing these issues, which incite passions. Other expressions doing the rounds are picking up cudgels and, in similar context, demolishing the male bastion. People would do well to coin and use terms that bring the people (of the two sexes) to see in the same direction rather than be adversaries working for the same cause. There are enough people on both sides of the imaginary line who think alike. Their solidarity needs to be consolidated for whatever it is worth.