‘Even if journalists want to be objective, at least they can make a survivor feel heard’
The survivor of the Chennai hospital molestation case on her experiences with the media
With inputs from Spurthi Venkatesh
On August 18 this year, 23-year-old Anitha (name changed) was admitted to the High Dependency Unit (HDU) of Vijaya Hospital in Chennai with high fever. What followed, she says, seemed almost unthinkable. As she lay weakened and drowsy in her cot at 2.30 am, a duty doctor arrived to examine her. According to a legal notice issued to the hospital, the doctor’s examination turned into a violation of her body. There was no nurse or attendant present (which is mandated by the government), and the doctor molested her in “pretense of examining” her (read also ‘Woman alleges doctor molested her in the guise of physical exam’).
Anitha decided to complain to the hospital authorities the next day, but it proved to be the start of another ordeal. An oral complaint to the Chief Medical Officer and a written one to Human Resources went unheeded, which led Anitha and her family to send a legal notice on advice of lawyers who said the police would be more of a hindrance than of help. It was when the hospital refused to take action against the doctor that Anitha and her family approached the media. The story gained some traction and the hospital responded with a reply to the legal notice from Anitha’s family, but nearly four months on there is no indication that any action has been taken against the doctor.
NewsTracker spoke to Anitha about the incident and its aftermath, as well as her experience with the media as a survivor. She told us why she approached the media rather than the police and explained that though the news coverage did exert pressure on the hospital, some of it placed her under greater strain as well. Excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for clarity.
Several medical guidelines seem to have been violated in your case. Did the doctor take your consent before he examined you?
No, that didn’t happen. I had already been examined by two other doctors and both of them were men too. They took my consent and they made sure there was another woman present in the room when they examined me. But this guy came in and asked me if I felt any pain, and then he started touching me. I don’t remember any explicit permission being asked. He didn’t explain what the examination was for either.
No one else was present?
It was a huge hall and every patient had their own screen around them. How I remember the nurse not being in the room was because during his examination, one of the screens slightly opened up, and he called the nurse back in to close the gap. That was when I noticed that the nurse had left and was no longer in the room.
I KNOW THAT I’M NOT GOING TO GET ANYTHING OUT OF THIS… I JUST WANT TO CREATE ENOUGH DISTURBANCE SO THAT HE KNOWS HE CAN’T GET AWAY WITH IT EASILY
You’ve been quoted as saying that at first you couldn’t “accept” what had happened and couldn’t react…you wanted to “forget” about the incident.
I’ve been going through therapy for six months now, even before the incident because of severe anxiety issues and they were getting worse. I’ve faced sexual abuse as a child, and what came up in therapy is that I tend to freeze when something of a sexual nature happens, as a kind of defence mechanism that I picked up when I was younger. It could be because of that that I never learnt to raise an alarm. I was also in terrible pain. I literally thought I was going to die that day. I had just flown in from Delhi and I was extremely exhausted. And I honestly believed that I wouldn’t remember any of it the next day. And honestly, I didn’t believe any of it the next day, but then I woke up shaking and it was like my body was telling me what happened to me the previous night had actually happened.
What propelled you to speak out?
His behaviour felt choreographed… he knew what to do, he did it with ease. It seemed so obvious that this was not the first time he was doing it and that was what was haunting me. I know that I’m not going to get anything out of this. He was counting on me not making a scene, right? So I just want to create enough disturbance so that he knows he can’t get away with it easily, because people are speaking up.
What was the hospital’s initial response when you complained?
Their response was very passive-aggressive. Initially, I had given them a handwritten letter in which my mom wrote “physical harassment”, instead of “sexual harassment”. So they said, it is very strange that she initially claimed that she was physically assaulted, and then that she was sexually assaulted. And it’s very odd that she chose to stay in the hospital even after her so-called attack.
At what point did you approach a lawyer?
Even when I raised my complaint, I had a lawyer with me. He was my father’s friend. He was very young and he was really intimidated by the hospital! So it wasn’t great. But my hospital bills were really high, so we couldn’t really afford a lawyer then. I was still in the hospital, so we had to make do with him. He was really scared about the whole case and kept asking, “Should I drop it?” If any of us freaked out even a little bit, he was like, “Your mom’s not comfortable. Shall I drop the case?” I told him to not do that and to stay away from my case. I found another lawyer. This lawyer reached out to my boss after she tweeted that I was in need of a lawyer.
When did you first talk to the media about your experience?
I work on a digital platform and my boss tweeted, “Someone I know in Chennai is going through this, what can she do?” So someone from The New Indian Express (TNIE) contacted her and said that she was willing to cover the story if I was up for it.
ONLY AFTER THE MEDIA GOT INVOLVED DID THE HOSPITAL REPLY TO MY LEGAL NOTICE — ALMOST A MONTH AND A HALF AFTER I HAD FILED IT
Initially, I didn’t want any media attention; I wanted to solve this problem internally, which is why I complained to the hospital first. So initially I didn’t respond to her but after a month, when the hospital refused to even reply to our legal notice, I thought that maybe they needed that external push. The New Indian Express said they wouldn’t be able to name the doctor or even the hospital. I didn’t see the point of the story being out if the hospital wasn’t going to be named because the very reason for doing it was so that there would be pressure on them. Speaking to her again took a few weeks, where I had to keep calling her and asking her about my options. And then there was The Hindu (English) newspaper, who said they wouldn’t cover it because I had not filed an FIR [First Information Report].
What was your experience with the various media outlets that covered the story?
The New Indian Express covered it all right but then there was The Hindu (Tamil) newspaper. I had my worst experience with them. The father of one of my closest friends is a Tamil writer and he had contacts in the newspaper. So they couldn’t tell me “no” even though they so obviously wanted to. They didn’t even listen to the entire story, and they kept saying, “We’re doing YOU a huge favour by even covering this story.” They also said they wouldn’t name the hospital. So I told them to tell me what I could do legally, apart from an FIR, that would make it okay for them to at least name the hospital. Then they started saying, “Don’t make us regret trying to help you,” and “If you go to any other platform, they will assassinate your character, we won’t do anything like that and still this is the gratitude you show us,” and things like that. It was quite bad.
THEY [THE HINDU, TAMIL] DIDN’T EVEN LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE STORY, AND THEY KEPT SAYING, “WE’RE DOING YOU A HUGE FAVOUR BY EVEN COVERING THIS STORY”
Even after the story came out, it was very badly reported, and inaccurately so. It was written in the first person, “I went to the hospital, the doctor did this.” They got the facts all wrong: they said that I had complained after I was discharged and in the end, it went like, “So what I’m trying to say is, if something like this happens, don’t be like me, report it on time.” But I didn’t do anything about their report because I had already given up. My mental health was already severely affected and at that point, I just didn’t give a damn.
My best experience was with The News Minute. They were really supportive. I went to their office in Chennai. My interviewer made me feel at ease and she was very considerate. There was no “Why should we believe you?” attitude, which previously other reporters had. She was talking to me as if she already believed me and I could feel that empathy from her.
She told me, “First of all, I’m sorry this happened to you.” And then she told me about something called “professional abuse”, saying that some sexual predators put themselves in a place of power so that they could get access to vulnerable women — this is something they strategically do so that they can get away with it. She made me feel like I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time and that I didn’t cause it to happen. Hearing that made me feel so much better because the focus was on that predator. I had kept beating myself up over not reacting that day because I’m supposed to be a feminist and empowered.
She also told me about other cases. She made it seem like this wasn’t something that had only happened to me. She made me feel better about coming out and doing something about it, unlike the other journalists who made me feel as if they were doing me a favour, like, “Oh my god, I have to sit and listen to you?” This, for me, was a huge thing.
Even her article was really well reported. It starts with what happened and then it goes on to talk about what professional abuse is and why it happens. The focus was not just on what happened but why it happened. So if you read it, it is less likely that you would say, “I wonder what the victim did to bring this upon her/himself”.
TV channels covered the story too…
All of the people who refused to cover my story initially — like Mirror Now — changed their minds after TNM reported it. They called and said they’d like to cover it too. Mirror Now didn’t ask me too many questions. The interviewer was very nice. I just asked them to refer to the TNM article. He told me, “You don’t even have to tell me your name because I can call you Anitha” — the name TNM used in their article.
Did any of the newspapers or networks speak to the hospital?
Yeah, that was my one request. I wanted the hospital to know that people were picking up on the story. All of them — The New Indian Express, The News Minute, Mirror Now — called the hospital asking for a statement. The hospital said that because I had chosen to do this legally, they could only answer on their legal terms.
Did the media coverage impact the case?
Yeah, only because the media got involved did the hospital reply to my legal notice. And because they did reply, they admitted to a lot of things about not doing it internally, about not setting up an ICC [Internal Complaints Committee]. That is why my case is now stronger. That’s a good thing.
IT WOULD REALLY HELP IF [JOURNALISTS] COULD TAKE THE TIME TO TELL [SURVIVORS], “WE HAVE SEEN CASES LIKE THIS, THERE’S A PATTERN HERE, YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM”
Still, the hospital hasn’t done anything really, except that they finally replied to my legal notice. They were indifferent in the beginning and now they think they have solved it by sending me a reply.
What message do you think that the hospital is trying to send you?
As soon as we got the legal response, my mom got super-scared because the hospital implied, “Stop bothering us, obviously we didn’t harm you enough otherwise you wouldn’t have continued treatment and you’re lying about everything”. My parents were absolutely freaked, but I expected it from [the hospital]. I didn’t think that they were going to be all, “We were at fault, sorry,” especially in writing and that soon. I think they were just trying to scare us off because they are such a huge organisation.
It didn’t feel great reading it. It was indirectly victim-blaming. The first time I broke down over this whole thing was a week after the incident, and the next time was after the notice was sent to us. Even though logically I know what they’re trying to do, it still scars you, traumatises you. That rational part of your brain doesn’t protect you from all the social conditioning crap that you’ve been fed. So it felt horrible and as if I was reliving everything and as if I deserved what happened. But thankfully, I had gone to therapy and I could reason to myself in the therapist’s voice. So that helped.
How do you think journalists should go about talking to a survivor?
You make them feel believed. Don’t put them in the position where they have to convince you of what happened. That should be number one. And two, no matter how woke they claim to be, [survivors] are going to think that it’s their fault. You [journalists] come from the position of having seen the world. So it would really help if you could take the time to tell them, “We have seen cases like this, there’s a pattern here, you are not the problem.” I think both of these are really important.
Even if journalists want to be “objective”, the least they can do is make the person feel heard and safe. That’s what I think is lacking: sensitivity. Recently, a singer [who came out with a #MeToo story about the poet Vairamuthu] was being interviewed about her experience. The anchor was horrible. He was like, “Why did you wait these 10 days? Singer Chinmayi Sripaada spoke out then. What were you doing these 10 days?” And then I commented on the YouTube video saying, “What an insensitive interviewer. At least try to be objective. Why are you interviewing her on the assumption that she’s wrongly accusing Vairamuthu?” And [the interviewee] commented on this saying, “Thank you for this, God bless you.” Out of thousands of comments, she saw mine and commented. So how many other bad comments had she read to reply to a good comment from me? That broke my heart. Survivors are really desperate for support.
Did it make a difference if men or women interviewed you?
Men are more scared because they feel that because they are male, I will by default be… they were more careful about their words and they were more reassuring that they were supporting me, whereas women took it for granted. But otherwise, I didn’t really feel the difference. I felt that there were good journalists and bad journalists because when The Hindu (Tamil) spoke to me, it was a woman and a man and both of them were quite inconsiderate. But the TNM and Mirror Now interviewers were extremely considerate.
Did you find out what happened to the accused doctor?
Initially, the HR told us that the doctor had absconded. She told me once they found him, they would fire him and make sure that he got a bad recommendation, so he would never get employed anywhere else. And then after I was discharged, when my dad and my then-lawyer went to talk to her, she said that they asked around and nothing wrong had happened. The doctor had gone on leave and he had informed them already.
NOW THE LAWYERS ARE SAYING THAT THE POLITICAL CLIMATE IS BETTER, SO IF YOU WANT TO FILE AN FIR, THIS IS YOUR TIME. BECAUSE OF #METOO, PEOPLE WANT TO COME OFF AS SUPPORTERS.
The legal notice says something else. It says that they had suspended the doctor immediately and they conducted an investigation, and finding out nothing was wrong, he got back to his job. According to him, there were nurses present with him and he had used gloves when he examined me. None of it is true.
They’d also said things like I had refused to disclose any of the details to the HR, which is ridiculous because my friends were all in the room when the HR spoke to me. They were all eye-witnesses.
According to the protocol, there should be an Internal Complaints Committee. The ICC must hold a hearing with both parties and then take necessary action. Did that happen?
That did happen but it was not like, “Come let’s listen to both sides of the story.” It was more like, “Meet the doctor, let him talk to you, what he did was okay.” I was like, no way am I meeting my assaulter and letting him convince me that what he did was okay. I didn’t want to put myself through that obviously, so I said no.
Do you plan to take further steps against the hospital?
I had written to the state and the national medical councils but then my new lawyer told me that the MCI was dissolved and that I should write to the registrar instead. I was intending on doing that but kept postponing it because my mental health was really bad but apparently it was internally diverted to the registrar.
A few weeks ago, he responded saying that he’d sent a letter to the hospital saying, “Look into this and do the needful.” And a copy of that letter was sent to us. After that, the hospital did nothing. I don’t know if they responded to the registrar. I’m sending them another legal notice pointing out everything they did wrong soon. If they don’t respond to that, I am thinking of taking this case forward legally to the criminal court, which would require an FIR.
What concerns you most about filing an FIR? What do you think will happen when you do file it?
I didn’t file it initially because all the lawyers I went to told me not to. They said that the police would harass me and that because Vijaya Hospital is a huge deal, nobody would take my side. “So you’re only going to traumatise yourself.” That’s why I didn’t file it then. Then, only a month after the incident, the #MeToo movement happened, so now the lawyers are saying that the political climate is better, so to file an FIR as this is the best time. Because of #MeToo, people want to come off as supporters.The lawyers still want an FIR to be a last resort, though.
What do you think the ideal outcome to such a case should be?
The ideal outcome would be the hospital apologising. Acknowledging that this happened and what they did was wrong. Firing the doctor, the medical council blacklisting him… I don’t know how the procedure works. And forming an ICC and making all the employees go through sexual harassment training. My lawyer was saying that when an ICC is formed, the organisation is supposed to put up posters everywhere saying that there is an ICC here, any grievances, address them here. So that would be ideal because I honestly don’t see what else could happen. I only want the hospital to be held accountable… for them to have an ounce of accountability within themselves.
I ONLY WANT THE HOSPITAL TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE… FOR THEM TO HAVE AN OUNCE OF ACCOUNTABILITY WITHIN THEMSELVES.
How do you think journalists can help you get this justice?
I was wary of going to journalists. It’s just that I was out of options and I had to do this. Honestly, just like there’s an apprehension about being harassed by the police, there are misgivings about journalists, especially the regional (Tamil) ones. I was sceptical that they would only want a story out of this and not actually help. Thankfully, at least as far as TNM and Mirror Now were concerned, that didn’t happen. TNM’s reporter messaged me a few days ago following up on the case and she asked me if I needed anything and Mirror Now’s reporter also did the same. He told me that he knew people who could help me and that I could reach out to him anytime.
Ideally, a journalist would use their resources and help survivors to go through what we’re going through because they know people and they’ve seen things we haven’t. Also, we’re pretty clueless about what to do, so it would be great if instead of focusing on what story could come out of this, they could look at us as somebody who’s gone through something traumatic and help us.
This is one in a series of articles that NewsTracker published from 25 November to 10 December as part of the #16Days activism, aligned with the UN’s International Day for Ending Violence Against Women. This piece appeared on Day 16.