NEW DELHI — In August 2013, a 21-year-old woman moved from Kolkata to Bangalore to work at the Deccan Chronicle, a national daily read by millions. It was her first time away from home and she was determined to make a success of her new life.
Yet in August 2014, one year after she joined Deccan Chronicle, the woman resigned. As she served out her month-long notice period, she sent an email to Neena Gopal, resident editor of the newspaper’s Bengaluru edition, accusing her immediate boss of making sexual remarks, physical advances, and humiliating her in public.
Her boss, who was 40-years-old at the time, denied these allegations and sent Gopal a rebuttal of his own. Yet rather than set up an Internal Complaints Committee, as mandated by law for all private companies with more than 10 employees, Gopal put together an informal panel of three women journalists who absolved the boss of all allegations without interviewing either the accuser or the accused.
The Deccan Chronicle, as an institution, did nothing — to the extent that the paper did not even treat the woman’s email to Gopal as a complaint of sexual harassment, despite nearly two decades of legal precedent, ranging from the Vishaka judgement of the Supreme Court in 1997 to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, passed in 2013.
“I don’t know about Vishaka guidelines, but we set up a panel of three women. Actually, I don’t know if one could call it a panel. It was not a formal thing,” Gopal, who is still the newspaper’s resident editor in Bengaluru, told INB India, when asked how she dealt with the complaint. “Three women journalists checked out the story, chatted about it, and found the allegations to be completely bogus.”
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The group of three women, assembled by Gopal, did not produce any written account of their findings or observations. Gopal said she did not remember the names of the women on the panel. Neither the accuser nor the accused were questioned by the panel. Instead, the panel weighed the woman’s brief email, against an exhaustive 10 page reply sent by her boss — to which the woman was never given a chance to respond.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 requires the complainant and the respondent be given all documents submitted by both parties.
Instead, Gopal told INB India, the panel spoke with the woman’s colleagues and the dean of the institute where she had studied before she joined the Deccan Chronicle.
Gopal made clear that she wasn’t a neutral party in this dispute, describing the complainant a “nuisance,” and a “dangerous woman who gives women journalists a bad name” in her comments to INB India.
Despite assembling this “panel”, there is no institutional record that this entire process — however flawed — ever took place.
“There is nothing on record,” admitted Mohammed Sikander, Deccan Chronicle’s publisher in Bengaluru, who told INB India that he knew about the allegations at the time they were made.
Sikander said that the Deccan Chronicle did not have an ICC in 2014.
“Upon verification, we found no complaint of any harassment given by the said employee till her resignation on 4th August, 2014, and even in the resignation letter, there was nothing mentioned about any harassment,” Sai Srinivas, the head of Human Resources for the Deccan Chronicle, said in an email to INB India.
While the woman left in September, 2014, her boss was told to take leave for two weeks — and upon his return, was told by Gopal to “be careful in the future”, he said in an interview with INB India.
“This tends to happen a lot, but this is not how it works,” said Nirmala Menon, CEO of Interweave Consulting, who has been part of several inquiry committees over the years.
Menon said that a manager like Neena Gopal cannot deal with a complaint of sexual harassment on her own. “It has to be the ICC. We need to educate people about the law and how to handle complaints of sexual harassment,” she said.
MeToo in India
Last year, several women prompted a national reckoning when they spontaneously shared their experiences on social media of widespread sexual harassment in Indian workplaces including several newsrooms. India’s MeToo moment was widely reported by the press, including the Deccan Chronicle.
Yet the case of the Deccan Chronicle suggests that while media houses have celebrated women speaking out against their abusers, the same organisations are loathed to institutionalise the legally-mandated Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) that serve as the bedrock of any serious attempt to make workplaces safer for women journalists.
While this particular case dates back to 2014, even earlier this week, the Deccan Chronicle’s head of Human Resources, Sai Srinivas, declined to confirm, over email, if the paper had a functioning ICC.
The absence of an ICC, as this case illustrates, hurts both — the accuser, whose complaints are not taken seriously, and the accused, who is denied an opportunity to either conclusively clear his name or admit to an error, accept corrective action, and move on with his life. For this reason, INB India is withholding the name of the woman — as required by law — and also her boss, to focus on the broader systemic implications of this case.
When companies refuse to take complaints of sexual harassment seriously, lawyers and human resources professionals say, they make the workspace unsafe for all employees. The fact that the woman made her complaint after she submitted her resignation, they say, is not relevant.
“There is a responsibility to take it up,” said Menon of Interweave Consulting. “A perpetrator could still be in your system.”
Vishnu Shriram, an advocate practicing in the Mumbai High Court, said that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 does not require a woman to be employed at the company to file a complaint against one of its employees.
“What is relevant is whether the harassment occurred at his (accused) workplace,” he said, adding that “workplace” is defined broadly.
The Deccan Chronicle, as revealed by a review of emails, text messages and interviews with the accuser, the accused and senior newspaper executives, chose to resolve these serious allegations of harassment by simply wishing them away — an all-too-common decision that, many young women say, is the reason why they don’t trust companies to follow so-called “due process”.
A flawed response
Shortly after she had sent the email accusing her boss of sexual harassment, the woman said, Gopal told her that her boss had also sent an email refuting the allegations.
The resident editor, the woman said, insisted that she meet with her boss outside the office and resolve the matter. Gopal, the woman told INB India, said that in his email, the man had disclosed private information about her past which she had shared with him.
“I was devastated,” she said. “I started crying. I did not want to meet him outside the office. I said, ‘call him right now to your office, let’s do this in front of everyone, let’s do this right now.’”
Newsrooms, unlike many other workspaces, are high-pressure spaces where journalists put in long hours, in small isolated teams, that often work late into the night.
Yet, it is precisely this overlap between the personal and professional that underscores the need for robust rules and guidelines on sexual harassment and workplace conduct. Like in other workspaces, newsroom are governed by hierarchies — granting editors significant power over those who report to them.
Gopal, the woman said, promised that a “committee” would be set up to look into allegations of sexual harassment.
When she did not hear from Gopal, the woman said that she started texting and calling the resident editor, who avoided her for over a month. The woman said, “She would dodge my texts. She would text, ‘next week’….’or traveling’… ‘I’ll let you know after a week’… It went on like that for a month.”
A month after she had left the newspaper, the woman said, Gopal called her home and told her that there was no evidence against her boss, only her word against his, and insisted she drop the matter. Gopal, the woman said, told her that journalism was a tough field for women.
“Her reaction to my complaint of sexual harassment was its okay, it happens, and I had to be stronger. But even if she was okay with it, I wasn’t,” she said.
Calling the woman a “liar,” Gopal said she did not dissuade her in any manner. “I’m not that kind of person,” she said. “That girl is a nightmare.”
The resident editor did not respond to a set of detailed questions sent by INB India, but in a brief phone conversation, she characterized the woman as someone who entrapped men and then accused them of harassment. Both Gopal and the boss urged INB India to speak with persons who knew the complainant before she worked at the Deccan Chronicle and after she left the newspaper.
INB India pointed out that the woman’s past and whether her allegations against her boss were true or not are irrelevant. The main issue was that the Deccan Chronicle had failed to formally process the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against its employee in 2014.
“If I said something, and he said something else, it was for the company to conduct a probe and establish the truth,” the woman said.
No one is happy
Today, both the woman who made the complaint and the man she accused feel short-changed by the Deccan Chronicle.
“It’s one of the biggest English dailies in the country. This is what an internal management works like. A guy comes and sexually harasses the girl, the girl goes ahead and complaints, but is always the fault of the girl,” said the woman, adding that, five years on, she is angrier at the management of the Deccan Chronicle than the man she accused of sexual harassment.
Her former boss, who continued at Deccan Chronicle till 2016, said that he never received any formal communication from the newspaper clearing his name, despite being absolved of all charges.
A formal letter, the boss said, would have proved useful if anyone dug into his past and raised the allegations. “I regret leaving without it, but we barely had a functioning HR,” he said.
“My complaint email is still unanswered,” the woman said.