The Papon Imbroglio

Once again as ever so often, social media went on a tizzy on Friday (21st February) as a live footage of singer Angarag Mahanta, better known by his stage name ‘Papon’, appeared on Facebook which caught him grab the face of one of the minor participants of a reality show in which he appears as a ‘mentor’, kissing her squarely on the mouth.

The unsettling video soon went viral drawing outrage from all quarters at the unseemly act. In the video, the 41-year old singer is seen applying Holi colour on some of the participants, among them an 11-year old girl, whose face he grabbed practically smothering her, and then in a shocking move caught her chin turning her face towards him and kissed her on the mouth. Carefully studying the unblurred versions of the video, it is possible to see clearly from the girl’s flummoxed expression that she was highly uneasy and aghast.

A complaint against the singer was filed with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights by Supreme Court advocate, Runa Bhuyan, under POSCO act (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) for ‘inappropriately kissing a minor girl’, and as sharp reactions started pouring in from all over at the unsavoury video sequence, the singer hurriedly issued a justification from his Facebook account trying to clear himself.

If it was not his sheer indiscretion, the wording of this justification has a most disquieting effect. The singer seems to bring the consequence of his wrongdoing upon the child by saying that her reputation was somehow at stake, and not just his own. There is something fundamentally wrong in this manner of thinking that the victim bears/shares the shame of the perpetrator’s act. This should not be, neither in this case, nor any other. Moreover, the phrase “…in today’s environment, to touch a girl child, however innocent your thoughts are…” is the classic ad misericordiam sleight, garnering sympathy by an appeal to the ‘male victimhood’ story in order to extricate himself from blame for his obnoxious conduct. Ideas of propriety in our social interactions do not have limited timeframes. What is wrong today, was and will be wrong on any other day. It was never acceptable for an adolescent child to be kissed on the lips as show of “affection”, under no circumstance, leave alone a child not your own. And this is what the stunned expression of the child gave way, as also that it was certainly not “unintentional”, “accidental” nor “faulty camera angles” as is being claimed variously. This degree of physical contact in handling a grown child not your own, for that matter any person not intimately related, was never appropriate, whether “spontaneous” or with design. (In other videos of the same shoot he is seen again indulging in uncomfortable levels of physical contact with his mentees, hugging and falling over them as if drunk and/or drugged.) It would not have been alright even if it had been some female celebrity instead of Papon. It’s impossible to believe that a man of his age has not acquired this basic sense in social association. And if this is the case, his incidental intention does not exonerate him as his bearing is not in line with conventional norms of decency.

Our shared sensibilities about what constitutes correctitude in mutual interactions is an unimposed intrinsic feeling, evolved through our experiences of human interrelationships over the ages and hardwired within us as instinct. And this is the reason a subsequent footage released by the TV channel is even more disturbing where the child in question is interviewed, in which she issues a statement saying she saw nothing wrong in Papon’s actions caught in the previous video and that he was merely acting in fatherly affection, in complete denial of her visibly shocked initial reaction. The child had clearly been tutored and one can hear that she was simultaneously being prompted by someone in the background to speak the intended words of the carefully formulated statement to defend Papon. This amounts to a violation of the child’s integrity by coaxing her to disregard her inner sense which is a child’s strongest safeguard in case of potential situation of abuse. On the contrary, children should be taught to heed these signals about what kind of contact or touch makes them ‘uncomfortable’ in order to protect themselves instead of inhibiting their natural instinctual selves on account of thoughts about possible ‘intention’ of a perpetrator. So many child abuses happen in the garb of such “friendly affection” or “innocent playing” by people who are known to the child/ family members.

Still more appalling are the statements issuing from various quarters, typically the singer’s fans and MRA demagogues, defending the singer on the point of ‘intent’, that he by their estimate did not mean to molest the child. Apart from the fact that this excuse can become the escape route for almost any kind of wrong-doing, sexual or non-sexual misdemeanour is not determined by speculation on the intention of the doer, but by absence of clear consent of the receiver. In the present case, the receiver, a minor child, was neither in an equitable power situation nor in age of discretion to be capable of giving assent. She was constrained in a circumstance unable to avert the unwelcome physical gesture and was clearly taken aback. It simply cannot be equated to common means of expressing affection as a peck or pat on the cheek. So what Papon ‘intended’ or how he saw his action is simply not relevant. That he attempted to block the footage once he realised that it had leaked out belies his claim that he was not aware of any wrong-doing on his part. What is more likely is that he got carried away and tried to recover the damage using this excuse. He cannot be absolved of the consequences of his misconduct, which is physical violation of a child and only a matter of degree of severity in which it differs from other forms of culpable molestation. This should be the standard guiding principle in deciding any case of sexual violation.

The fact that her father issued a statement repeating the TV channel’s official line that no wrong-doing was made out on the singer’s part towards his daughter and that he was merely expressing “paternal love”, is not a sign that all was well about the scene under discussion (to all others who saw it, it had an unholy feel), but an indication of a deep-seated sickness that ails our society: that of a self-effacing, grovelling complaisance towards celebrities, so much so that a father who should be the foremost protector of his child keeping him/her safe from any manner of transgression, actually surrendered his judgement and natural volition, compromising his child’s well-being for the starlet’s reputation. The one question I would ask this father is: does he too kiss his daughter on the lips to express his fatherly affection? Heck, does the child’s mother do so? If it is all about “paternal feelings”, would those defending Papon be comfortable with say a grandfather, male relative, a teacher, any close or distant male acquaintance kissing their adolescent daughter or son on the lips (or anywhere else, for that matter) to express “affection”? Would it be acceptable even if an adult female did so? Would they be ok if their own father kissed them on their lips to express affection? If any/all of these are unacceptable, I’m afraid, the defence of Papon’s action simply doesn’t hold.

Another kind of propaganda doing rounds to justify Papon caught my eye which I bring up here: a ‘celebrated’ MRA activist (the selfsame who avouched the singer’s ‘innocence of intent’ in a TV discussion on the issue) put up a post with a clip of a lady (who I do not recognise) with a ca. year old baby on a show. In the video, the young lady, probably the anchor who holds the baby, points all over her face and the baby adorably responds by planting kisses whichever spot she points, and finally she rests her finger on her lips at which the baby promptly plants a sweet little smack right on her lips, this followed by laughter and cheers from the crowd. First and foremost, the very reaction of the viewers should be an indication of how off mark the equalisation of this episode is to the Papon incident. The child’s behaviour showed trust. There’s a difference between 11-year olds and children not even gender or sex aware. A grown up son wouldn’t kiss his mother on the lips. But little kids do such innocent stuff all the time. They may kiss now-n-then an unrelated lady/teacher they’re fond of because they feel safe with her, see her in the Mother’s image. However, instinctively they do not get so close to unrelated males. It is a hard-wired, evolutionary inner sense of preservation, which even animals demonstrate. And therefore the onlookers too found nothing amiss about a lady receiving the child’s affection. Had the baby’s parents been present, they too would have laughed without any sense of discomfort. And this is not because the world is unfair and out to “get ’em” poor, victimised males, but that unlike the ill-conceived MRA equality memes, our ideas of normative behaviour follow from our deepest feelings acquired through the entire length of human interrelationships and gender interactions over time, both inherited and observed directly.

A simple commonsense rule to go by would be to apply the test to oneself: would this activist, for the sake of faithfulness to her weird ideal of ‘equality’ be willing to let a male servant change her baby’s diaper? Alternatively, going by her logic, would it be wrong to put a child in the care of a female household help or nurse or any female other than the mother? On the one hand we acknowledge that there are hardwired biological and neuropsychological differences between males and females, and on the other an unrealistic equalisation between the genders is insisted upon. Each of our social conventions and discretionary ideas (e.g., not allowing single males to adopt, or physically tend children other than their own) are drawn from our collective experiential wisdom, which in other words is referred to as ‘common sense’.

To see the baby as a ‘male’ kissing a female is sexualisation of a being in its most innocent and sacred state, when they are free of gender awareness and sexual awareness, and a perversion to regard it so. It is akin to putting a burka on a female baby assigning sexuality to a baby’s body. We all realise the formation of the child’s gender identity as the child grows, independence and the gradual distancing from first the male parent and then the female parent. The child develops an intimate, individual boundary which is inviolable. No matter how bad MRAs feel bad about being deprived of ‘equality’ it cannot become ok for a father to barge into a teenage daughter’s room, or sleep in the same bed with her. Had the anchor beckoned an 11-year old child (male or female irrespective) to kiss her on the lips (or forced it the way Papon did), then we could assign wrong-doing to her in the nature of what Papon did. But the sly insinuation by the person who put out this post against the female anchor in order to defend Papon’s grossly inappropriate act only goes on to show the extent to which these activists will go with their mindless, blind prejudices to push myopic, unilateral agendas.

As if the MRA demagoguery was not enough, the lawyer who filed the suit against the singer has now come under attack from a section of the singer’s followers, trolled and abused on social media, especially on Facebook, where her identity has been maligned and her images shared with sexually explicit comments. This demonstration of malecentric hero-worship in our culture that will not stop short at compromising the dignity of women if it came in the way of blind adulation for their idol, or put questions on ethical grounds, is symptomatic of deep-seated misogyny in our society which a section among us likes to deny. We must acknowledge that, irrespective of reverence of women and the female form in our foundational belief system, aberrations have crept in in our attitudes which must be tackled firmly to retain a standard of moral rectitude in society. It is disturbing enough that not a consideration of right and wrong but stardom that drives the sentiments of these social media goons.

To sum up the issue, to say that Papon sexually molested his minor protégé would be too harsh an implication to bring upon him. This however does not mean that there isn’t a significant case of wrong-doing against him. In his clarification from his Facebook account, the singer asks the readers to consider his background of a respectable married man with children, and not assign mala fide intention to him. But he does not live up to the basic expectation from a person at such a station in life: that one cannot get away doing anything one likes in the name of “spontaneity” and is expected to demonstrate responsible behaviour and accountability for their actions

Author: Smita Mukerji

Published: Mar 01, 2018

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