CP Surendran named in multiple #MeToo allegations; says 'I believe sexism is an intellectual reality'

Two of the female journalists who raised their concerns over CP Surendran's alleged harassment with the HR departments of their respective publications were left deeply upset by the way their complaints were mishandled

Rohini Nair October 16, 2018 17:58:25 IST
CP Surendran named in multiple #MeToo allegations; says 'I believe sexism is an intellectual reality'

What happens when a female journalist complains to the HR department of her publication about her editor's inappropriate behaviour towards the women in the newsroom?

Joanna Lobo, a freelance journalist who was previously employed with the features team at DNA, says HR tipped off the said editor about her complaint, revealed her identity as the complainant, while making no attempt to resolve the concerns she had raised.

Repeated emails from Firstpost to a representative of DNA's HR department went unanswered.

The incident is one that has been reported as a number of women — mostly journalists and writers — came forward with #MeToo allegations against editor and poet CP Surendran.

At least nine women have named Surendran in their #MeToo allegations; some of these women met him at literary festivals and say they were subjected to unwelcome advances and inappropriate comments of a sexual nature. The others have worked under Surendran in various publications over the years, and describe sexual harassment at the workplace — including comments on their physical appearance, touching them in the newsroom, and lewd remarks.

Joanna Lobo, the former DNA employee, was with the newspaper from June 2008 to March 2014. It was Lobo's first job and when Surendran came on board (as executive editor), she was principal correspondent with the Sunday features team.

In a series of tweets on Saturday, 13 October, Lobo wrote of colleagues being subjected to sexist, misogynistic comments from Surendran, being asked to ideate for stories like "Weirdest places people have sex" in edit meetings, remarks in which he allegedly victim-blamed the survivor of a gang-rape, among others. Lobo says Surendran also "had a habit of" massaging female coleague's shoulders even when it was evident his actions made them deeply uncomfortable.

Lobo says she confided her reservations about Surendran's behaviour to a senior editor, who dismissed her concerns by saying "that's just the way he is".

However, Lobo was not ready to simply shrug off these concerns and flagged them in a complaint to HR. "A few days later, CP calls the only man in our team and asked him what my problem was with him [CP] is, and why did I make a complaint. This colleague called and told me about it. I remember going to work shaking with fury and in tears because of this betrayal," Lobo said.

She adds: "To make things worse, the whole office knew. I had a person on the city desk come to talk to me, pause mid sentence and take two steps back jokingly saying: I should be careful of standing too close. 'Who know, you will make a complaint against me'. It became a joke."

Lobo says the way her complaint was handled made her disinterested in working with DNA and she resigned.

CP Surendran named in multiple MeToo allegations says I believe sexism is an intellectual reality

CP Surendran at Kolkata Literary Festival 2018. Facebook/ Speaking Tiger Books

Lobo told Firstpost that she wishes her complain had been properly investigated. "I wish they hadn't somehow leaked the fact that I complained, which was the biggest betrayal for me. I wish they had created a safer space for other women who faced his (Surendran's) advances to come forward and share their story," she said.

One of Lobo's DNA colleagues stepped forward on Twitter to corroborate her account of how her complaint was handled. Firstpost sent this colleague an email questionnaire requesting additional details, but didn't receive a response at the time of publishing this article.

Meanwhile two other female journalists who previously worked at DNA under CP Surendran also shared their experiences.

One of them, Shikha Kumar, who now works as a freelance writer, detailed how she was called in by Surendran for a meeting with a representative for a company that retailed sex toys. In another incident, when Kumar — who had worn shorts to work while recuperating from an injury to her leg, but had now reverted to regular trousers — walked into a meeting, Surendran allegedly quipped how she was not showing her legs that day. Kumar, who was flustered about reaching the meeting a few minutes late, says it took her a few moments to register the comment.

Recounting the harassment, Kumar told Firstpost, "(The incident with the sex toys) was a very uncomfortable experience for me. I remember, I kept trying to come up with a reason for why he had called me, and did he not understand these things were no appropriate. Another colleague, who left a few months after me and was at the paper for less than a year, had told me how — during her interview — he commented that she has "really long fingers." He would hover around employees' desks and wouldn't think twice before touching their shoulders, catching them off-guard while they were working. Once, I had interviewed an author who had written an erotica book and was working on the copy when he swung by my desk. The headline of the piece was 'Let's Talk About Sex' and he peeked into my computer and read it out loud — which I thought was extremely intrusive and uncalled for. Another female journalist in the office had mentioned that he had grabbed her hand and caressed it."

"I was a very different person at 24 than I am now, in that I just let all these things pass because I wasn't even sure if they constituted as harassment even thought they did make me angry and uncomfortable," says Kumar, whose stint at DNA lasted from 2012 to early 2014. She adds that she never filed a complaint with HR because the incident with Joanna Lobo had played out in front of her. "We would sometimes discuss this within the team... What was really unfortunate was how our features editor let his behaviour pass, because apparently being 'politically incorrect' and 'inappropriate' — my words — was 'just how he was'."

A third journalist from DNA, Roshni Nair, has also shared an incident in which Surendran slapped her thigh during a meeting. Nair says she didn't say anything as she was a rookie journalist and no one else in the room seemed to realise that something was amiss. "I didn't think much of the slap on my thigh at that point; I was young and of the belief that so many of us have — that harassment is 'supposed to be more explicit'," Nair told Firstpost. Nair had heard of at least one other colleague being subjected to Surendran's 'predatory behaviour'; she also told Firstpost while Joanna Lobo was no longer working at DNA at the time that she (Nair) was, most employees knew about her complaint regarding Surendran's behaviour — and its aftermath.

Her hope, in raising her concerns over Surendran's behaviour — Nair said — was simple: "Greater accountability and cognisance of what consent is. It may have been 'socially acceptable' to massage a woman colleague's shoulders, slap her thigh, or say you want to sleep with her. No more. Verbal overtures are also harassment if not consensual. Men still don't get that sexual persuasion or pleading and even sexual/body shaming or jibes are forms of harassment. It's up to men to change, not for women to put up with such behaviour any longer. We all know how women journalists are treated when they've rebuffed such men. It's also a question of our mental and professional well-being," she said.

DNA wasn't the only newsroom from which #MeToo allegations naming Surendran have emerged. A woman who worked with him at another media house has spoken out a lewd remark Surendran reportedly made in her presence. (We do not have her permission to quote the account here.) At Arré, where Surendran also worked, in 2015, a female employee — Namaah Kumar — flagged his behaviour to the HR team. Namaah told Firstpost no action was taken on her complaint.

In an email interview with Firstpost, Namaah detailed instances in which she says Surendran behaved in disturbing ways. Once, when commissioning a story on the dark web, Namaah says Surendran asked her questions like "Do you buy leather/other kinky stuff" to "You look like someone who might" (not verbatim). Namaah recounts finding the questions strange and inappropriate, but wasn't sure if it was enough to report him.

Later, Surendran picked up an illustration Namaah was working on for a story on BDSM and said the woman in the picture resembled Namaah; the drawing in question was of a faceless, scantily-dressed, leather-clad woman, Namaah adds. "Several such comments followed, always somehow directed at me. But there was also a barrage of casual old-fashioned sexism in every edit meet," Namaah says.

Initially, she told herself that her workplace was a liberal environment, and stories that dealt with subjects like the dark web and BDSM might lead to difficult conversations. Over time, and on speaking with two other colleagues (one male, one female), Naamah concluded that Surendran's behaviour had made many others uncomfortable. "His blatant misogyny and inappropriate comments started to seem normalised," she says.

Namaah says she approached a representative from HR who — in a strikingly similar manner to what Joanna Lobo says happened when she flagged the issue at DNA — told Surendran that she had complained about him. "My understanding of the due process is that there should be an internal committee that deals with this (which there was not), and even more importantly, that the authorities were to respect the complainant’s anonymity, especially when requested as such. This didn’t happen. This led to CP stopping all communication with me in the fair few months for which he continued to work there, which as I’m sure you can understand, made work not only harder, but also quite hostile; especially considering most approvals of commissioned stories and illustrations were routed through him," Namaah says.

Namaah says Surendran became irregular at work a few months later, and then stopped coming in.

"There was never an apology. Never a mention of all this. I continued to work with Arré till October 2016 and maintained a wonderful relationship with everyone there despite CP's behaviour, and upper management's complicity in it. I need it to be known that I have nothing but the utmost respect for the editorial team that put in all the work that makes Arré what it is. I don’t hold Arré as a whole at fault for the above. I also think it’s troubling that they wrote to me, telling me that the issue was dealt with, rather than confirming with me that it was. It was not," she told Firstpost.

In response to an email from Firstpost, Niyati Merchant from Arré said, "In late 2015 before we launched Arré, our then employee, Namaah Kumar, brought to our notice CP Surendran's inappropriate remarks. CP, who was a consultant with the organisation since June 2015, was informed unequivocally that such behaviour would not be acceptable at Arré, which is committed to creating a culture that is above all, respectful to women. Subsequently, Arré did not renew CP Surendran’s contract and he ceased working in any capacity with us from December 2015. We launched Arré in April 2016, and Namaah continued to work at Arré until October 2016."

Apart from women who worked with Surendran, others who encountered him at events like literary festivals have also spoken out about being subjected to discomfiting behaviour.

The writer Nilanjana Roy tweeted about having to fend off Surendran at the Kovalam Literary Festival in 2012; he was drunk at the time and leaned onto her and she had to push him off. (Initially, Roy's account had been shared anonymously by journalist Sandhya Menon via her handle @TheRestlessQuil; later, Roy revealed that it was her story.)

Roy told Firstpost about her #MeToo allegation against Surendran, "This is not about any one individual, it's about calling out and trying to change patterns of harmful, abusive behaviour across entire industries. And while the incident I described is not an assault, I still remember stepping out of CP's path and him walking into me, and having to push him and his hands off me. I share it just to support the accounts by other women who went through far worse; their accounts were believable in any case, but my experience made me see what they'd gone through even more clearly."

Another journalist — who we do not have permission to quote in this report — alleged that Surendran made repeated passes at her at a literary festival; despite her disinterest, he attempted to massage her neck, stopping only when she told him he was hurting her. A third journalist has tweeted about being asked questions about her sex life by Surendran, whom she met at a literary festival.

Firstpost sent a seven-point questionnaire to CP Surendran, referring to these specific allegations, and for his response to them.

Surendran wrote back (in a statement he has since shared with other media houses as well): "I may have made what some people consider to be sexist comments. I believe sexism is an intellectual and physical reality. And I may be a victim of it myself. I choose not to think in given categories. This may be construed as arrogance. I may have put an arm around a woman at a party, never at work. That act of familiarity may have caused offense, which I regret, but I have never meant to give grief. I have not made obscene comments or gestures. I have not played with 'breast shaped' balls as alleged. I have not massaged unwilling necks and said my door is open, as alleged. I can't recall making any remarks about clothes in bad taste at DNA. Drunk, I have not chased women across gardens as alleged. I have no gender or political loyalties. I have paid a price for this all my life. It is quite easy to hate me. I often rub people of both genders the wrong way with my often ill-considered views. The majoritarianism that liberals deplore in political discourse is what is at stake here. This is the lynch mob of the drawing room at work. I am being shamed in a Scarlet Letter-meets-The Crucible social media-produced movie. I have no power to stop this. The #MeToo movement needs victims to feed and fatten itself. I won't be the last."

Incidentally, the 'Scarlet Letter-meets-The Crucible' reference is one Surendran's wife Manjula Narayan also used to describe the #MeToo movement in an earlier tweet.

Meanwhile, Joanna Lobo has continued to question DNA on social media, asking why they haven't issued a statement yet about why her complaint against Surendran was dealt with, the way it was.

"I am happy #MeToo is finally addressing the imbalance of power in the newsrooms. This all-boys' club, which brings with it a sense of entitlement and complacency, needs to be dismantled and thrown out," she told Firstpost. "Male editors and seniors have managed to get away with a lot of problematic behaviour without suffering the consequences. I am hoping this movement ensures that women's voices are heard and believed."

Adds Shikha Kumar, "This is a watershed moment for Indian newsrooms, and other creative professions too. Having anti-sexual harassment policies, conducting sensitisation sessions means nothing unless you proactively crack down on issues."

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