TVF molestation case: Startup culture, male ego and the murky world of sexual harassment in India
This is a new story that broke yesterday, but it sounds like an old one because it feels hopelessly familiar.
Late on Sunday night, an anonymous post by ‘Indian Fowler’ went up on Medium. In this post, Fowler, who says she is an ex-employee of the media and content company The Viral Fever (TVF), talked about how she had experienced persistent sexual harassment at the hands of its 34-year-old CEO, Arunabh Kumar.
She writes about the harassment and abuse she faced, alleging that Kumar asked her if she’d be interested in a “commercial” transaction, role play and at another point, a quickie. She says he informed her that the police are “in his pocket” when she told him she would complain to them about his behaviour.
The post also details the reactions she faced when she spoke to other people in the company about it, like actor Naveen Kasturia, who has worked with TVF in several of their videos, and also about how she continues to receive legal notices from the organisation regarding a breach of contract, because she quit when she simply couldn’t take it anymore. It’s a very sad story and features the sentence “I just wished I could kill myself”.
TVF’s response to the allegation was simultaneously interesting to observe in one way, if you managed detachment, and absolutely revolting in every other way. It began by saying categorically that the allegations contained in the post were defamatory, ludicrous, unverified, false and baseless. Shockingly, it then went on to say that TVF will leave “no stone unturned” in trying to find the author of the article and bring her to “severe justice”.
The statement resonated everything that’s nasty about situations like this: A rich, influential male in power, promising vengeance on a woman, who dares to speak out. It also bore the hallmark of a product of a frantic, fearful and injured male ego.
While the official response did contain an open doxing threat to the victim of sexual harassment, and plenty of implied violence and malice in the term “severe justice”, there wasn’t a hint of remorse, a suggestion of an official impartial investigation into the matter, or the slightest indication that the allegations made by a woman would be taken seriously.
How are complaints like this supposed to be handled?
Well, according to the Vishaka Guidelines, a set of mandatory guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace, the complaint should be handled by an Internal Complaints Committee, which every organisation that hires more than 10 employees must have. According to an anonymous woman speaking to FactorDaily, TVF has no HR department, despite recently receiving $10 million in funding from Tiger Global and others.
The Vishaka Guidelines also make it clear that creating a sexist environment and passing lewd or sexist comments and jokes also constitute sexual harassment. The Sexual Harassment Act of 2013 builds upon the Vishaka Guidelines, and mandates that in such cases, women should be transferred to other offices or be allowed to take leave up to a period of about three months.
But in start-ups, these situations become much more complex. Most start-ups are very small, and more often than not all their operations revolve around a tiny nucleus of powerful men who make most decisions with regard to hiring, firing, transfers and promotion, including in HR.
There’s a strong sense of yaar-bro camaraderie. People who have worked in the space immediately say that it’s an old boys club.
Not only do most of the men within the company know each other well and maintain strong friendships, they also maintain personal relationships with other start-up companies and their leaders, which may go back to shared college days. This makes it several times more difficult for women to come out publicly with allegations of sexual harassment: Not only are their complaints unlikely to be taken seriously within the company, but the chances of them being blacklisted in a small and close-knit industry are very real.
It’s telling that so many people turn to social media in cases like this. When there’s so much professional and social stigma attached with going to the police, so much hassle going to court, and so much fear of retribution within the company, industry and the society, for a lot of women, social media is the only place they can go.
This obviously isn’t a one-off case, or even one restricted to India. In fact, the original Medium post calls TVF “the Indian Uber”, referencing the numerous allegations that came out last month about Uber creating a toxic work environment for women and about cases of sexual harassment within the company, after an engineer posted her account of working at Uber, on social media.
Earlier this year, investor Mahesh Murthy was publicly called out on LinkedIn by a woman called Pooja Chauhan who claimed to have received sexually charged messages from him when she approached him for professional advice. When she protested the tone of his messages, he apparently responded aggressively and without remorse. In the comments section on Chauhan’s LinkedIn post, several other women made similar complaints about him as well. Following this, Murthy published a detailed Medium post refuting the claims but also mocking his accusers, including calling one of them “bored Barbie in Bangalore”.
The Guardian, in a report on sexual harassment in the start-up space in the US, mentions the lack of available funds for proper HR departments and a generally fraternal work culture as possible reasons for the prevalence of sexual assault. It also mentions a socially enforceable culture of networking and socialising that puts pressure on people to behave and socialise in a certain way outside of the office in semi-professional networking events, or else face social and professional consequences.
A friend who used to work closely with entertainment companies in the start-up space says he thinks the problem doesn’t lie in socialisation, but in the environment that start-ups create and the kind of people who dominate them.
A heady mixture of power and money leads them to think that they can get away with a variety of transgressions. It also leads them to react in strange ways when they don’t have their way, like when the ex-CEO of Housing.com, Rahul Yadav, posted pictures of Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka sleeping in the airport after Sikka told him he was too tired to talk to him right now.
Several people from the comedy scene weighed in on the allegations on Twitter yesterday.
Comedian Aditi Mittal, in a series of tweets, made it clear that these allegations of sexual harassment were an open secret, and called out men in the industry who claim to be feminist in their videos but keep mum on issues like this.
Rohan Joshi, Ashish Shakya and Tanmay Bhatt soon posted their thoughts on Twitter, saying that start-ups should hold sensitivity training for their colleagues and should have internal bodies to deal with sexual harassment complaints. But their tweets hardly mentioned TVF. Mittal was the only one who made it clear that she believed the allegations were true.
Last evening, many people who worked at TVF exercised some amazing logic by saying that they didn’t know anyone from Muzaffarpur (which is where Indian Fowler said she was from) who had worked at TVF and so obviously all the allegations are false, hence proved, case closed. They launched conspiracy theories, and some women employees felt the need to say that they felt nice working at TVF, as though this invalidated anyone else’s feelings or experiences while working there.
Actor, writer, and casting director Nidhi Bisht of TVF, who is soon set to start her own show called Bisht Please, was the only person who mentioned that an investigation will be conducted, just after dismissing the allegations completely. TVF’s own Twitter handle has been absolutely silent since yesterday morning.
Do I have high hopes from the investigation that Nidhi Bisht said will happen? Not really, but under the circumstances, it really looks like it’s the best we’re going to get.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine