Bollywood actress Zaira Wasim, 17, had alleged on Saturday night that she was molested by a passenger seated behind her on an Air Vistara flight to Mumbai. She said a middle-aged man sitting behind her had repeatedly moved his foot up and down her neck and back while she was “half-asleep”.
The news quickly went viral, and not surprisingly, was picked up by Western media outlets as well –
The accused was promptly identified as Vishal Sachdeva (39), a senior executive, married and father to a 9-year-old. Sachdeva, who was returning from a close relative’s funeral, has said that his foot accidentally touched Zaira Wasim’s shoulder while he was sleeping, and that he apologized to her when she objected loudly as the flight was landing.
Now, a co-passenger has validated his version and told police, “I was seated in the same..class in which the actor and the accused (Sachdeva) flew from Delhi. The suspect did not seem to have done anything apart from his act of keeping his legs on the armrest of the seat where the actor was seated.”
Wasim was travelling with her mother, and according to reports she started yelling at the accused passenger, Vikas Sachdeva (39), during the descent of the flight, due to which the cabin crew couldn’t move because it’s mandatory to have no movement during the final phase of the flight as seat belts are on.
The actress shared a video of herself after the flight, in which she was visibly upset. But she and her mother did not lodge any complaint and left the airport. However, the news soon became the main topic of the day, and National Commission of Women (NCW), the Delhi Commission of Women (DCW), Mumbai police, Ministry of Civil Aviation (MOCA) and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) all jumped into action.
Sachdeva, who was returning from his mama’s (mother’s brother) funeral in Delhi and was asleep through the flight due to tiredness, said that his foot had accidentally touched the actor’s shoulder and he apologized to her. “Once my leg touched her shoulder, it was completely unintentional and I even apologised to her,” he said.
It is reported that the actor shouted at him and said ‘this is not your lounge; put your leg down’. He apologised to her and said it had happened inadvertently, said a friend of Vikas.
Breaking from practise (where victims approach police), police reached out to Zaira Wasim and recorded her statement on Sunday, and arrested Sachdeva the very same night.
On Monday, a special court remanded him to two days police custody. He has been charged with ‘sexual assault’ under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, punishable with 3-5 years’ imprisonment, and ‘sexual harassment’ under IPC 354.
Sachdeva stood quietly in court on Monday and was taken out barefoot by cops. Outside the Dindoshi court, his wife Divya, fighting tears, and other family members stressed that he was “innocent; a family man”.
Arguing for Sachdeva, advocate Harminder Anand said, “His economy class ticket was upgraded to business class…he was returning to Mumbai the same day he went to Delhi where an uncle had died. He told the crew to not disturb him for water or food as he wanted to sleep. He asked for a blanket and slept. He was in mental agony. He has no criminal record… Is his dignity not important? If a sleeping man puts his leg on an armrest, it’s not sexual assault.“
Vistara in its statement to DGCA and MOCA (Ministry of Civil Aviation) stated the following:
- Accused Passenger had asked the cabin crew not to disturb him and did not want to be served food as he was going to sleep. He was asleep all through the flight and he had a blanket on him
- The actress started to shout at the accused when Cabin crew were seated on their jump seat for landing. Crew did not realize it was an alleged incident of harassment and thought she was shouting as she found the accused leg on her arm rest
- After landing, the crew spoke to the actress and she moved away as she was in a state of shock
- Crew then spoke to the mother about the incident. Mother narrated the incident, and crew asked the mother why she didn’t alert them earlier. She responded that she also learnt about the incident only in the final stage of the flight
- Cabin crew went looking for the actress but couldn’t find her. Crew asked her mother if she wants to file a complaint, Mother didn’t react at the moment as she was in a state of shock
- Crew asked the mother if accused needs to be stopped from going away from the terminal and didn’t get a response as the Mother also was looking for the actress.
- Vistara has shared the name, number and address of the accused with Mumbai Police
From a neutral standpoint, it will be fair to say that Vikas Sachdeva has been massively over-prosecuted for what was a social fau pax – putting your feet up on the arm rest in front of you. Air travellers, especially those in economy, will know how irritating movement by the person seated behind you can sometimes be – in this case, it was a late night flight and both parties were asleep/half-asleep by their own accounts and as corroborated by the crew.
It is possible that Wasim reacted to Sachdeva’s foot touching her shoulder the first time it happened, but he did not take cognizance in his drowsy state and his foot might have touched her again, giving her the impression of deliberate intent. She did the right thing in yelling out and objecting to Sachdeva’s unwarranted posture as the flight was descending.
Bu once Vikas Sachdeva apologized, and after Zaira Wasim and her mother decided not to lodge a complaint despite the airlines offer to detain him and take formal action, the matter should have ended there.
Wasim was upset and poured out her angst on social media via an Instagram video as any 17-year-old might be wont to do. This is when the skewed public discourse peculiar to Bharat took over. In a country where far more serious cases of gruesome sexual abuse and exploitation are just callously ignored as they don’t fit the politically correct prism used to view everything, this case got our state & social machinery rolling.
It was the perfect storm – a minor Bollywood actress, a Muslim from Kashmir who has been ‘trolled’ (a catch-all term used by media to describe any scrutiny of liberal-secular public figures) in the past for not standing up for the national anthem and other controversial social media posts, the ‘suspect’ a well-to-do Hindu male (category painted as most bigoted by left-liberals), and the ‘crime’ taking place in a BJP-ruled state….Sachdeva never had a chance.
Media and Delhi-based NGOs/Womens Commission were swift with their condemnation almost immediately after Wasim’s video went live, at lightning speed Mumbai police approached the ‘victim’ & recorded her statement, and Sachdeva was arrested and produced in court the very next day.
What wouldn’t girls & women from less privileged backgrounds, especially those who fall victim to religiously-motivated serial molesters & sexual abusers, give for such responsiveness.
By now it is probably too late for Wasim also to take a step back and review the whole incident objectively – maybe a part of her troubled mind also believes that people like Vikas Sachdeva ‘deserve it’? Ironically, she herself was asking Kashmiri Muslims not to ‘blow things out of proportion’ few months back when she faced a torrent of abuse from Islamists for meeting with J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti, and was forced to apologize.
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