On a flight from Dubai to Toronto in Air Canada’s premium economy, a young boy was seated next to me. He had the window seat while I had the aisle seat. As I walked from the toilet to my seat, I noticed something odd on the handrest between him and the aircraft window. It was a large shoe. On close inspection I realized that the old lady sitting behind him was sleeping and had stretched her foot on to the handrest in front of her.
It reminded me of the 2017 incident involving retired actress Zaira Wasim. If you don’t already know about it, Zaira (then just 17 years old) and her mother were travelling business class on Air Vistara from Delhi to Mumbai. A man named Vikas Sachdeva, who was sitting behind her, stretched his leg out on to her handrest. The incident led to a domino of events that continues to this day.
At the time I thought to myself, who on earth puts a leg on the handrest of the front passenger?
Deep down most people from the Indian subcontinent know that we are extremely capable of doing something like this. It’s just that economy class does not have the space to do so and therefore it’s tough to picture it. If it were a train or an intercity bus, you could probably visualize it vividly.
Canada’s long-haul premium economy seats have legroom and space similar to Air Vistara’s business class on domestic routes. I know this because I flew Air Vistara’s business class from Goa to Mumbai. On seeing the old lady stretched out this way I realised that yes, even people flying an expensive class can behave in an uncouth manner.
In the case of Zaira Wasim, her version is this:
“He kept nudging my shoulder and continued to move his foot up and down my back and neck.”
She told the BBC that he molested her.
Vikas Sachdeva’s version is this: “I hadn’t slept in a long time.” Apparently returning from a funeral. “I asked the crew not to be disturbed and slept through the flight. My foot was on the armrest, but not with an intention to harass.”
While both parties agree that his foot did touch her (the word ‘inappropriately’ is clearly redundant here), it is the intent that’s being called into question. The man was convicted earlier this year by a lower court for molesting an underage girl and sentenced to three years in prison. He is out on bail pending a high court trial.
According to a report in the Economic Times newspaper: Vistara said the crew did not observe any misbehaviour by the male passenger during the flight in a two-page letter to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the aviation ministry and the National Commission of Women.
Excerpts from their letter:
“During the flight, until the touchdown, the Vistara crew did not observe any misbehaviour, and was not informed by any person,” the airline said.
“At one point during the final descent of the flight into Mumbai airport, when the aircraft was in ‘sterile mode’ where crew cannot leave their seats as per required safety procedures, the crew hears (the teenager) speak loudly to the person seated behind her, but the crew was not aware of the subject matter of this discussion.”
According to ET, Vistara said the teenager didn’t respond when a crew member asked if she was alright as the plane was taxiing after landing. The airline said it asked the actress and her mother whether they wanted to file a complaint or first information report (FIR) but they refused. The letter points out that, as the girl is a minor, “we complied with the guidance/instruction of her parent with regard the FIR.”
It is the sequence of events here that caused many to question Zaira. She turned to social media to air her grievance in detail, but neither she nor her mother request an official complaint with the crew onboard.
She was not lying or was trying to gain publicity.
Vikas Sachdeva could very well have intentionally touched her back and neck with his foot after waking up from his sleep. She could have been in shock and just wanted to leave the aircraft before documenting her harassment on social media.
But for me, I have just seen with my own eyes a tired person stretch her leg out on to the seat in front while sleeping. And I know that Zaira and her mom did not find the incident worthy of placing an official complaint until much later when social activists got involved.
These facts put together makes me feel the man deserves the benefit of doubt.
In my opinion, a befitting punishment would be to sentence him to community service, where all he has to do is clean handrests of aircraft for 150 hours.