In Mumbai, Navbharat Times (Hindi organ of Times of India) journalist Anita Shukla had filed a complaint of sexual harassment against one of the senior editors, and three others. The Internal Complaints Committee of Navbharat Times conducted a disputed enquiry, where according to the complainant, the Visakha Guidelines against Harassment at Workplace were blatantly violated. The sexual harassment charge was struck down by the committee. Anita went on to file court cases on the accused after this. After relentless fights for two years now, the cases are still running. As on date, Anita is illegally terminated from her services and the accused still continues to work in their usual capacity. GroundXero talks to Anita Shukla about her case, and the struggles of a woman journalist in a media industry controlled by men.
Anita shares her experience in detail here for the first time, as a part of the ongoing #MeToo campaign, aiming at bringing down gendered harassment in workplaces.
GX: Tell us about your work in journalism.
A: I began journalism 7-8 years back, with Dainik Bhaskar. In 2014, I joined Navbharat Times, on the BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation) beat, on a contract basis. Many newspapers and channels have carried my stories, many times on the front page. There have been many days when I had more than one story published. I worked hard, and within 6 months I also got an appraisal from the company. But from the early days, I was advised by some of my colleagues, including women, to “be nice” to the Editor, since he is “everything” there and that he can “make or break your career”. But I didn’t take their advice very seriously, and focused only on my work. This went on for sometime. When I still did not take their “suggestions” seriously, the harassment begun.
GX: Ok …
A: The editor hired a woman employee for the desk. When I would send her my story for news editing, she would keep me waiting for hours, without in fact even editing anything. And she would also not let me work on any other news, till she edits the one pending with her. She would ask me to stand behind her, until she finishes editing my story. She would also shout at me for things like punctuation marks. Then I did not understand why this was happening, but now after I left, people have told me that this has happened to women in this office earlier as well. This is the kind of harassment that is mounted upon them, pushing them into a corner, and then their precarious situation in a hostile workplace would be used to demand “favours” from them. These favours are asked both directly or in tacit ways. Things are made so difficult that you have only two options – either you quit the job, or you succumb to their pressures and give in.
When I complained about this abuse from the desk editor, to my editor, I was told that this is normal, and this is what her job description is. All of it was projected like a particular efficient work culture, and I went on with it somehow. Later on I realised that all this was mainly to force me into having to make repeated appeals to the particular Editor, if I wanted a sane workplace, where I could work peacefully on my profession. But at that point the “expectations” from me were all unspoken, and unwritten. The pressure was built up mainly through the collective work environment.
GX: Were you a permanent employee of the Navbharat Times at any point?
A: No, I was on a 3-year contract. There are only 7-8 people in the Mumbai office with permanent jobs. Everyone else is on contract.
GX: So every time you have to react to these kinds of insults, you have to rethink about you contract renewal down the line…
A: Yes, exactly.
GX: Please go on…
A: So this is how things were within a year and a half my joining. I joined in September 2014, now we are in 2016. The next thing they came up with, after I seemed to have made peace with whatever had been going on, was to change my beat to MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority) – the body that governs the urban slums in Mumbai.
GX: Was this a kind of punishment, this change of beat?
A: When you have worked on a beat for years, you build your contacts and sources, which is a lot of work. Sudden change of beat means you have to leave all that investment you made for years in terms of building news sources and channels, and shift to a completely unknown terrain, where you have to rebuild such connections all over again. You tend to become prone to mistakes in reporting, and therefore more vulnerable to the pressures the Editor has meanwhile piled up on you.
Also, it is not a normal thing in this office to change beats like that. I was singled out for this. It is not a form of punishment, but a pressurizing tactic.
But then I took up the challenge, and began working in the MMRDA beat, and I was grasping it gradually. But one day the Editor called me to his cabin, and pointed out an error in my story that had been published 2-3 days back. It was the full-form of MMRDA I had used. I had used the Hindi version, but the Editor said he wanted the English full-form. I told him that the story had passed through the desk editors, and technically it was the desk’s responsibility to fix such errors. Why was I being singled out for this? I also told him however that I will not repeat such things in future. But he still went on about it for days.
Once again, he called me to his cabin. As I went in I saw another lady. Later I learned that she was the Human Resource person from the Delhi office, although I did not know it then, and no one introduced her to me. She told me because of a complaint my Editor has filed regarding the MMRDA “error”. She was there to talk to me about work ethics, etc. I was horrified to know later that the Delhi HR had to be brought down all the way to talk to me on something like this, when they already have a huge HR team in Mumbai itself for such things presumably! Neither was this under the jurisdiction of the Delhi HR, nor was I even informed that the Delhi HR was coming to meet with me.
GX: Was this the only time they could find an “error” in your stories?
A: Yes. They could in fact never show me one factual or technical error in anything I wrote. This type of editing or grammatical corrections are the tasks of the desk editors, not the reporter. And it is also not the case as if there are no errors in the general published reports. Even in recent times, there were serious errors reported in some of the published content. They have even published the same news twice by mistake. How many people were sacked for those errors?
Anyway, I told the HR the same thing that I had told the Editor about the error. Later, I found out they had put a review committee on me, based on my interaction with the HR. The review process was supposed to have hearings, where the HR should be there. But she never came for any of the meetings after that. At times she would say she’ll be on skype, but on the day of the meeting she won’t show up on Skype. So there would be times during these meetings that I would have to be alone in the Editor’s cabin. It was during one of these meetings that he verbally harassed me, using lewd sexually coloured remarks. That’s when all of this — the regular harassment that has been going on for more than a year, insult and pressure tactic –started making sense in my head. Now I knew he had problematic intentions.
I don’t want to go into the details of what happened that day here, because the matter is pending at the court. I want to wait to see what the court decides.
It began with roundabout, “benign” insinuations by co-workers asking me to spend more time in the Editor’s cabin. Then it changed to open insults and verbal abuse during work hours, and then eventually it took the explicit form of verbal sexual harassment.
GX: Would you say, based on your experience, that specifically sexual harassment forms a particular, extreme but particular, aspect of an overall array of gendered harassment at the workplace traditionally under the control of men?
A: Absolutely. If you look at my example, I was served with the full array. It began with roundabout, “benign” insinuations by co-workers asking me to spend more time in the Editor’s cabin. Then it changed to open insults and verbal abuse during work hours, and then eventually it took the explicit form of verbal sexual harassment. All of these are different strategies for the ultimate goal of forcing submission of the woman subordinate. And then finally when nothing seems to work, then just snatch the job away and give it to a new contract worker, and try the same things on her in turn.
GX: Plus there would be other nuanced, subtle instruments that are used.
A: Yes, for example, entrusting another woman employee the ugly job of shouting at me for no reason. Or the assigning of fellow women co-workers to “prepare me” for the patriarchal hostility I was expected to work under. It is the male dominated management ultimately who assigns these specific roles to the women employees they have control over.
GX: Have you seen other female co-workers’ careers getting destroyed through such processes?
A: There are many such people. I myself know a couple of women journalists who had to leave because of similar issues. Some of them might join some other company, but most give up on the profession itself, and do something else. Whereas these are all trained journalists. They studied because they wanted to do sincere journalism. A similar case happened recently at one of the news agencies, where a woman employee had filed a complaint, and she also was forced out of her job. But since then, she has been freelancing, including for BBC. Another similar case I know of is of another woman journalist in Dakshin Mumbai, who had a filed a complaint with the police, and not surprisingly, was removed from the job. In this case, however, the editor had to be jailed for a few days. She is also doing freelancing now, while her case is still going on. But then, many such people do not get the option of freelancing, and they are simply forced to quit journalism altogether.
The funny things, the careers of the men involved in all this, go in the completely opposite direction. The editor I talked about, has no professional qualification in journalism. He was involved with the security system of ToI Delhi, and for reasons I am not privy to, he got appointed suddenly as an Editor and was posted to the Mumbai office!
GX: So after that you went to the ICC? Does the M/s Benett & Coleman have an ICC in Mumbai Office ?
A: After he made those remarks that day, I got extremely disturbed, and I wanted to quit the job. I asked my friends for suggestions. My friends asked me not to quit, and asked me what about the new woman journalist who will replace me after I quit. After talking to my friends, I went and spent a few months at home with my family, and made up my mind that I wanted to fight this.
I came back and immediately filed a complaint before the ICC (Internal Complaint Committee). But even after I filed the complaint, once I walked into the office, sat at my desk, and had bent down forwards to keep my bag under the desk. When I looked up I saw the Editor sitting on my table, staring down at me. When I asked him what is he doing there, he asked “file kab layegi?”, regarding some file I was asked to bring. But he kept staring at me sitting there, with a smile that felt humiliating, for minutes after I told him I will prepare and bring the file in some time. I think it was around this time that the management had come to know that I had filed a complaint. After this, the ICC called me for a hearing where I said what I had to say, and that’s it. The same day I had a Review hearing in the office as well. After that I took leave from work for a few days.
While preparing to resume work, I suddenly received a termination letter by post and I was shocked. The letter cited no reason for termination.I was removed from my job while the ICC hearings were still going on.
There are in fact many loopholes in the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act. These weaknesses in the law, together with the fact that even the existing law is not implemented with full force means ultimately the woman is left to suffer and the accused goes scot-free.
GX: Yes, could you elaborate a bit on the role of ICC in your case?
A: The ICC completely violated the Visakha Guidelines. They did not conduct the minimum number of hearings that they are supposed to, according to the guidelines. The defense is supposed to happen in my presence as the complainant, but that did not take place. They did not even file my termination report with the ICC, although I was terminated while the hearings were going on.
Moreover, the guidelines themselves don’t make it clear what to do in order to appeal against the ICC decision. It just says one could appeal to a “tribunal”. But it does not specify which tribunal. We looked a lot for an answer to this, but there is none. So then I had to ultimately approach the Hon’ble High Court. There are in fact many loopholes in the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act. These weaknesses in the law, together with the fact that even the existing law is not implemented with full force means ultimately the woman is left to suffer and the accused goes scot-free.
The whole system has been gutted. They flout the laws regularly. No gender sensitization program, or awareness drive about sexual harassment in work place, are conducted, in open violation of the guidelines. The ICCs are supposed to forward their annual records of how many cases they had to deal with, and what were the outcomes in each, to the higher district authorities. We filed an RTI and found out that the district officers do not have any such reports. These reports never get sent, and no one cares. It is not just that the ICCs have been subverted. The same holds for laws in general.
The special thing about the ICC however is that, its members are appointed by the Company. So it is unlikely that they will ever be okay with holding anyone in the management responsible for anything like this. In my case, the Chairperson of the committee for instance is also the Vice-President of Bennett-Coleman, This is a clear conflict of interest. After I narrated my complaint in the hearing, she remarked, “Itna toh chalta hai”. They brought in other persons as an external member in the committee, whose name was not even there in the declared list of committee members. No one knows on what basis was the external member decided, without informing anyone else. I was sent no report of the proceedings of the committee, the persons who were interviewed, the testimonies collected, again in violation of the law. In fact I came to know that the Company has filed a counter-case against me after I filed my complaint, though that case hasn’t really moved forward yet.
GX: Would you say that if the loopholes in the law are plugged, the situation will improve significantly?
A: It is not a question of just the law. Given how powerful these media houses are, they have the option of flouting any law, no matter how strong it might be. These companies are run as dictatorships, and they have no regard for the law.
GX: What is the current status of the cases? Has any action been taken against anyone of the accused?
A: I came to know that the woman reporter was removed after I had filed the complaint. Of course being a woman, she was the first to be sacrificed. One of the accused was supposed to retire within a year, and they had plans to extend his tenure. But now after the cases, I heard they that have decided against such an extension. The Delhi HR person, who is also personally close to the prime accused, is another party we named because of her role in ensuring that I had to be alone in the cabin with the prime accused in the name of “review meetings”. We never heard anything about her anymore after that one meeting that she came for. I don’t even know if she is still in the job.
But the main accused, the editor who harassed me and is the main person responsible for everything, has still not been punished. The court hearings are still going on, and we hope for positive outcome from the Court proceedings.
GX: What kind of reactions did you get from your colleagues, after you filed the complaints?
A: There are a few who have been supportive. But most of the people have remained either complicit, or silent the whole time. There have also been people who tried demoralizing me by describing how powerful these people are, against whom I filed complaints.
Contractualization of jobs is a key aspect of this culture of harassment at work places. It makes us extremely vulnerable. It is much more easier for the powerful management to get away with such things as long as the employee is a contract worker.
GX: What do you think is the reason for such overwhelming silence and support for such a workplace culture?
A: There are multiple reasons. First of all, everyone is scared of losing their jobs, if they speak up. I have heard about earlier women journalists having to quit their jobs because of similar reasons, because they refused to give in. But they also had no way to fight, because no one came in support even when everyone knows that this goes on. I was the first person to file a case like this. Some people will tell you in person that the thing that happened was wrong, but they would also tell you that they can’t say this openly.
Also the fact that most of these employees are themselves on contract, they are genuinely worried about their jobs and careers. Contractualization of jobs is a key aspect of this culture of harassment at work places. It makes us extremely vulnerable. It is much more easier for the powerful management to get away with such things as long as the employee is a contract worker.
GX: But then what about the permanent employees? They are not in immediate fear of losing their jobs, are they?
A: Even the permanent ones stay silent. And that tells you it is not just about preserving one’s job, but more than that. We also should remember that there is a significant set of people who are not just silent, but in fact complicit in such systemic harassment in an active way. And these people would be the first to defend the accused openly, many of them are also culpable in such acts, and know that they might also face charges some day. They are not defending the accused, they are in fact defending themselves one way or the other. This is how patriarchy works and protects itself.
GX: You said earlier that only 6-7 of the employees are permanent employees. How many of them are women?
A: None. There are only 3-4 women employees, and all of them are on contract. All the others, both permanent and temporary, are men.
GX: Given that it is an open secret that the media industry is rampant with workplace harassment, how is it that the perpetrators carry on doing this year after year you think? Where are they getting such impunity from? Or that kind of power from?
A: Partly they draw their power from the fact that the women who face such violence are often not aware enough about sexual harassment, or they are too scared about speaking up, or they are in denial. But the chief source of power for the perpetrators is the shelter they get from the companies they work for. And the shelter they get from fellow men in general.
In my case for instance, it is the company which has been providing shelter to the accused. If the company conducts a proper enquiry, they can easily find out the truth, and his general track record. But in fact the company knows everything, and they are consciously protecting him and people like him.
The denial mainly comes from the question of “proving” what you are saying. Most times women who have faced such incidents are not in a position to prove them, because such kinds of perpetrators don’t do what they do with witnesses or leave evidences behind. The woman then thinks of the consequences she would have to bear, such as destruction of career, character assassination, etc.
GX: You mentioned denial, can you talk a little about why people are in denial often in such situations?
A: The denial mainly comes from the question of “proving” what you are saying. Most times women who have faced such incidents are not in a position to prove them, because such kinds of perpetrators don’t do what they do with witnesses or leave evidences behind. The woman then thinks of the consequences she would have to bear, such as destruction of career, character assassination, etc., in case she does not have enough hard evidence to “prove” her claims, and then often the only refuge is to pass into denial.
However, we should take the legal battles in these things very seriously. I think more and more women who are facing such things should come out and file complaints. That’s what I did, against a lot of odds. There was no “Indian #metoo” when I filed my complaints. I did not go on to social media as well. Even afterwards, I didn’t talk in public much about my case, because I thought it is a sub-judiced matter. But now after #metoo, people who know me told me to share my experience, since I am not fighting for myself only, but for every other women employee in the media industry today. Which is why I decided to give this interview as well.
GX: How do you look at the #metoo movement?
A: I think it is an extremely important movement. Finally, women seem to have broken the silence on a lot of things, and a new kind of social space of talking about sexual harassment is being formed. We are hearing the experiences of a large number of women for the first time, and some of it is chilling. But I am very happy to see the collective show of courage by so many women. I feel really thankful to Tanushree Dutta for being the first person to take that step and come out and speak, and now look how it has caught on. We should remember that it took Rina Mukherjee 10 years to get justice. This woman and her struggle over decades is what has fed into the #metoo upsurge we are seeing today, largely led by social media.
Many people are saying “Why did you stay silent for so and so time? Why now?” They must understand that this society does not allow women the courage to speak, that is why harassment and gendered violence is so pervasive in the first place. But you can’t expect them to therefore stay silent forever, because harassment doesn’t happen with a time limit. It must be ok for a woman to speak about her experience when she has managed to gather the courage to do so. Also, a lot of the accounts are not with the aim of necessarily invoking law. A lot of women are also sharing their own stories for other fellow women, to create awareness about the nature and the extent of harassment in society and workplace. Why should men have a problem with that? Many of them have not even asked for any action on the perpetrator perhaps, however they have been attacked by the alleged harasser with defamation, as a bullying tactic. Given that we are seeing how tough it is on the women who are actually coming out with names and experiences, I don’t see why any reasonable woman would want to face all of such attacks to falsely implicate someone. Why would anyone want that kind of “publicity”? In any case, the ICC has the provision of filing a complaint with the police in case of a false allegation of workplace harassment. Then why do people think that women are filing false allegations at will?
Take MJ Akbar for instance. There is no one who has really said that the allegations against him are baseless. Everyone seems to be saying that they are not surprised that this had to happen someday. But then it is only now that people are talking about it, and everyone had been silent so far. That does not therefore make the allegations false.
What is not clear however is what is the recourse for the complainant, if she feels that the ICC has denied justice?
Many people are saying “Why did you stay silent for so and so time? Why now?” They must understand that this society does not allow women the courage to speak, that is why harassment and gendered violence is so pervasive in the first place.
GX: You filed your complaint in 2016, and the case was silently dismissed off, you were removed from the job, and the accused continue to work in their earlier capacities. But today, we are seeing at least a few examples of big media personalities resigning because of the allegations people have brought against them. What do you think has changed in these two years?
A: I think it is mostly because of the role social media has played this time. I also think over the last two years, the coming up of the new alternative media portals where journalists can work as freelancers has increased to an extent, which is probably giving people more confidence to speak out, because there is a bigger chance that you can still continue journalism in some form even if you lose your current job.
No established media agency will report anything against another media agency, because their business interests are intimately connected. Social media and alternative media do not have such pressures.
GX: So do you see promise in the #metoo movement?
A: Absolutely. I think it has stricken fear at the hearts of some of the most powerful men in the media industry, and it definitely has the potential to create a space for future generations of women professionals to defend themselves.
GX: Would it be right to say you are more hopeful now than you were two years back, regarding justice in such matters?
A: Yes, I am definitely more hopeful now than I was earlier.
GX: What about support from the family?
A: Yes, my family has been very supportive. But then that also depends on the economic question. I had to spend a substantial amount so far as legal costs, for pursuing the cases that I filed, and I could afford it because my family is economically sound. It is impossible for women who come from poor families, to fight legally like this.
Also I am from Mumbai, so I know the local people and systems. But those women who come from outside, without any local support, are in further distress.
GX: In what form have you been working, after you were forced to leave Navbharat Times?
A: I have been working as a freelance journalist since then.
As per media’s role in bringing truth, it is business interests that come in the way of truth. We must remember that these media houses are also big businesses. Times of India is not just the newspaper, it is part of the multinational giant Bennett & Coleman, and making profits is one of its main interests.
GX: As a journalist, you would think that media’s role is to bring the truth to the people. But when the media itself is so busy in hiding its own truth of gender discrimination and violence, what confidence would the reader have in such media when it comes to any news? As a journalist, how much does this pain you?
A: Yes, I am extremely saddened every time I think about this. We journalists are those people who are tasked with writing about others’ realities. Even Supreme Court judges seem to need journalists to talk about issues they are facing. But when the journalist herself has to write her own story, who does she go to or depend on?
As per media’s role in bringing truth, it is business interests that come in the way of truth. We must remember that these media houses are also big businesses. Times of India is not just the newspaper, it is part of the multinational giant Bennett & Coleman, and making profits is one of its main interests. We are seeing how the faith of public on media is constantly eroding. Recently in one of the sting operations, the cloud over the Times Of India was cleared and it was exposed.
GX: As a journalist, what do you think should be done to correct this?
A: What we are doing now, as journalists, we are required to report facts and truth. That is exactly what we need to keep doing in this case also. More people should report about harassment in workplace.
Through the course of my battle, I have seen too much now, and they know that, which is why now they are scared. They are also scared because I am not just fighting my own fight, I am fighting on behalf of every woman employee in the media industry.
GX: Do you want to say anything more to conclude?
A: Ultimately they do not want women to work successfully. They want to control the productivity of women. They want to retain control over the roles that women should be playing, in any workplace or any industry. A lot of what is going on through harassment, is to prevent women from becoming successful in their professions, because they are scared that women who have seen success, will stop obeying them. They are against the productivity of women. They ideally want women to be excluded from such professions, except for certain specified roles within which they want women to fit in. The same people, those who work inside, know, are known to send women journalists for “Specific” tasks, such as when it’s a big business deal in question, or when the paper needs advertisement money, etc.
That was their main problem with me. They knew I knew my work, and so I would not succumb easily to their pressure tactic. That’s what unnerved them. And they did not ultimately let me work. They did everything they could to destroy my career, and they are successful in that.
But they did not expect me, or anyone in my place to fight back. I knew nothing about any of this even two years back. But through the course of my battle, I have seen too much now, and they know that, which is why now they are scared. They are also scared because I am not just fighting my own fight, I am fighting on behalf of every woman employee in the media industry. We are fighting for the truth, and we have a lot of support as well, from different quarters. As far as my case in particular, it is a very strong case, and I am definitely going to win.
GX: Last question, what would be your suggestion for the new young woman journalist student or pass-out, who is aspiring to join professional media?
A: There are many opportunities for women, but they should be very cautious in selecting the jobs and the workplace.
GX: So you don’t think it is possible to fight this from inside such workplaces?
A: The kind of power and money that these big media houses control today, no it is not possible to fight this battle from inside. There is no way you can do it. I could, but I know how difficult it is, and no one should be made to go through this.
Cover image courtesy Outlook India. Illustrator: Irfan.