#MeToo: Mumbai real estate firm's bosses accused of sexually harassing two foreign nationals

Two women — an architecture student from Caracas, Venezuela, and a digital marketing professional from Morocco — said they were sexually harassed by the top executives of a real estate company when they came to India for a global internship programme arranged by international youth organisation AIESEC.

Venezuelan national Belkis Campos, 23, and Houria (who asked to be identified only by her first name) from Morocco, were both interning at Xrbia Infrastructure Pvt Ltd under the AISEC programme, and say they were harassed by the firm’s bosses. Houria had been at Xrbia since 22 August, while Campos came to India on 30 September to start her internship with the company.

The problems began even before Campos landed in India. She was informed that all other interns, except a Moroccan woman who was to be her roommate, had been fired. That struck her as odd. Xrbia further refused to share details of her future roommate with Campos, citing company policy.

Unknown to Campos, Houria had been waging her own battles at Xrbia. The 23-year-old Moroccan national alleges that in the time she interned at Xrbia, the firm’s sales director Pritam Mutha repeatedly asked her to hug him. A week before Campos was due to arrive in India, Houria got into an argument with Mutha over the firm’s refusal to share (her roommate-to-be) Campos’ contact information with her. Coupled with the friction over the hug issue, Houria says she feared it would be used by Xrbia as a reason to fire her.

Houria added that three days before she was to leave for India, Muthu allegedly called her to say that he had fired five of her predecessors.

“When I asked why he said, ‘Oh it’s because they don’t want to be friends with the company.’ When I asked him what it meant to ‘be friends with the company’, he said, ‘You have to hug each other’, and ‘take our hands’. I feared he would fire me so I was pushed to hug him. Once I said: ‘Please Pritam you have to stop hugging me. I don’t like this. I have a fiancé'. To which he said, ‘We’re just sister and brother’. I told him well, we are not sister and brother so you have to stop doing that,” Houria said.

#MeToo. Image via REUTERS

#MeToo. Image via REUTERS

Campos’ experience at Xrbia too began on a shaky note. Campos told Firstpost that when she landed in Mumbai on 30 September, she spent hours trying to contact her assigned driver and locating her living quarters because the arrangements that should have been in place to help her negotiate an unfamiliar city weren’t there.

For her first three days at Xrbia, Campos said she was not given any actual work and then asked to research exotic plants of India. Then, on the night of 4 October, Xrbia’s top bosses showed up at the company apartment where Campos and Houria were staying.

What happened on the night of 4 October

At around 9.30 pm on 4 October, Houria and Campos came home to find that four senior executives of Xrbia were already at the company apartment. Among the men present were chairman Rahul Nahar, vice president (land) Akesh Bohra and Mutha. All the men had access to the company apartment. They had a few beers and dinner at the apartment, then asked the women if they would like to go out for ice cream. Campos and Houria agreed.

“Normally when I (would) hear they are coming home, I'd start stressing out. I was traumatised. I had already asked him (Mutha) not to hug me or take my hand. So I waved ‘hi’. Mutha came to my bedroom and said, ‘Look what happened last week... I’m sorry, give me a hug’. I told him that I didn’t want to hug him anymore. He said, ‘You have to hug me’, and I was forced to hug him,” Houria recalled.

After dinner, Campos and Houria accompanied the men in their car for the proposed ice cream trip. Along the way, the men informed the women that since ice cream shops would be closed at that hour, they should get drinks instead. Campos said they headed to Four Points by Sheraton in Navi Mumbai where they spent about an hour and a half.

“They kept ordering drinks for me, even though I didn’t ask for them or drink them,” Campos said. At the bar, Campos said she was witness to a conversation between Houria and Nahar. Later, Campos found out that Houria had recorded the conversation; Houria told Firstpost she made the recording after months of alleged sexual harassment at the hands of Mutha as proof she could present to AISEC's Internal Control Board (ICB).

During this conversation, Nahar allegedly said Houria was hired because the sales director (Mutha) “liked her” and that they didn’t even have a digital marketing department [where she had been placed for her internship]. Firstpost has access to the recording in which a man, whom both Campos and Houria identified as Nahar, can be heard saying:

“Tell Pritam clearly you don’t like him.”

To which a woman, whom Campos identified as Houria, says:

“I told him I don’t like him. He’s like my boss. He knows I have a fiance and nothing can happen.”

The man says:

“Did you indicate...”

“You are saying that you thought that I would be his girlfriend when I come here? For me it was totally professional. If he has a crush on me I...uh...no I don’t like him at all…and he’s my boss.”

The man says: “He told me that you told him in the interview that you also would be like...a girlfriend.”

“No, no. no. I never told him this.”

“It’s not a problem, tell him clearly. Just leave your job next month or in January whatever works for you…. He just hired you because digital marketing was a position not open at all. You understand?”

The woman says: “I can tell you now Pritam I don’t like you and nothing can happen between us.”

The man says: “Please go to your destination as soon as possible.”

“I have to finish my work in four months and then go. You are telling me that I have to go because I don’t like him back?”

Firstpost has not independently verified the authenticity of the recording.

 “If you had to choose one of us which one will it be?”

At the hotel, Houria said the men were ordering sangria for Campos “cup after cup”.

“But Belkis just had one. They (the men) were getting so drunk,” Houria said.

“Rahul got drunk and we could see he was getting so comfortable. He told me, pointing at Pritam, ‘This guy next to me he likes you’… He was asking me to sleep with him, or pack my things and leave India. I told him I have a fiancé who was coming to India in December. He said ‘I don’t care’.” Houria said Nahar kept insisting that she had to “be with Pritam” because she “didn’t tell him she had a fiancé at her interview” before coming to India.

Houria objected to this conversation and said she was not aware she had to disclose the information for a job interview. However, she added that she did tell Mutha one week before coming to India that she had a fiancé. Houria said Nahar continued to insist that she tell Mutha she didn’t like him and if she wouldn’t sleep with him, then (she should) leave the country. “I said in front of everyone I didn’t like Pritam,” Houria told Firstpost.

She said things got weirder soon after when she was asked: “If you had to choose one of us, which one will it be?” This she said, was not in the recording.

“I told them I don’t like any of you, I work for you. They all were expecting me to choose one of them or something. That was weird,” Houria said.

‘We locked ourselves in the bedroom’

On the way back to the apartment, a little before midnight, Campos said Nahar put his arm around her in the car and proceeded to tell her that any of the executives in the company “could have her”.

“[He said] 'All my directors are very successful and any of them can have you but I won’t let them'. I said 'excuse me', because I didn’t think I heard properly. He said the exact same thing three times. I said, 'I don’t think it’s your decision to have me or not'. Everyone was in complete silence in the car,” Campos said.

When they returned, Campos said they locked themselves in their room but the men remained in the apartment. Houria said the men didn’t leave the house until 3 am. The men also kept knocking on the door of the room into which the women had locked themselves in fear.

“We were so afraid. They asked the cook’s wife, who had a key to my bedroom, to open the door. She did so and said Rahul was asking us to come out. It was a nightmare,” Houria said.

Campos said she had a panic attack and was crying and throwing up by this time.

The women then contacted the ICB and the AIESEC Pune team. Campos said they responded to her declaration with a “did you set boundaries?”. She told the AISEC Pune team she feared for her personal safety in a house provided by the company, where “four men were waiting for us to come out of the room the next morning”. The Pune team told Campos they “would send a member of AIESEC Navi Mumbai, and I told her that she needed to come with the police because it was dangerous. This girl was just as scared as us.”

Campos alleged that the AIESEC team didn't show up until 11 am on 6 October. AISEC moved the women to a hotel at their request. Campos said she was clear that she wanted to go to the police and asked to be refunded for her stay, food, flight and visa fare. Instead, Campos and Houria say they were asked to sign an undertaking to the effect that they had no problem with the company (Xrbia) and were grateful for their hospitality.

“I was being forced to negotiate with my aggressor and to sign a document that said that nothing had happened,” Campos said. But stranded in a foreign land with no help, she said she was compelled to do it anyway.

Firstpost has seen screenshots of a group conversation between Houria, Campos and another former intern of Xrbia, which supports Campos’s account of these events. The former intern also wrote about her discomfort with Mutha.

“Once he starts asking like ‘do you like me as a person’. And u literally in another country depending on this horrible man have no idea what to to [sic],” the former intern wrote to the two women.

Campos described the harassment by Xrbia’s bosses in her ethics case to AIESEC’s ICB against AIESEC Pune. Campos said she also lodged a complaint on Friday (30 November) with the Crime Against Women Cell in Lower Parel in Mumbai detailing her ordeal.

Xrbia chairman dismisses the complaints

When Firstpost contacted Nahar, he dismissed the allegations as “motivated”.

“These interns were hired by Pritam Mutha because there was a vacancy in the architectural and digital marketing department. One worked for two months and one had come only two days before. I had met her just once. Now, on 4 October, we went to have ice cream. It was a casual meeting in an open restaurant. It was a public space. We haven’t told anything amounting to harassment. They had willingly come there,” Nahar told Firstpost over the phone.

“We never knew that they were recording the conversation. Understand one thing. When these two girls are joining us in the restaurant for a casual food...eating... nobody ever records these type of meetings but they were recording and they didn’t tell us they were recording [sic]. So you can understand their motive. From those two hours of discussion they are picking and choosing whatever is beneficial to them,” he said.

“There was some friction with Pritam and the Moroccan girl (Houria) about work so she wanted to leave. I was asking her whether she liked working with Pritam. It was in the context of work. She said no. I asked the same question to Pritam also. I told the Moroccan girl very clearly, if you don’t like working with him, you should leave. They are now cutting and editing (the recorded conversation) and showing to the media,” he said.

Of the specific complaint against him, the Xrbia chairman said: “Nothing of that sort happened. The restaurant to the flat is a five minute distance. We didn’t invite them to sit in the car. There were four of us and two of them and six people cannot sit in the car. Still they said ‘we will adjust’ and they sat in the back seat. I was sitting normally. I had to put my hand on the back of the seat because there was no space. There was nothing beyond that.”

“Basically when she (Campos) came to India, it was her second day. She had read a lot of articles on the internet about India, just to make her comfortable I told her ‘all my directors are powerful and they will take care of you. Even if something bad happens I will not allow that to happen.’ In fact I was saying that from the angle of protecting her, not harassing her,” he said.

Nahar said the women approved the draft of the undertaking that was sent to them by AIESEC. “After that the amount was paid by AIESEC to them, not by Xrbia to them directly. They can’t say today the draft was not approved by them. Even if they had dues from Xrbia or AIESEC they shouldn’t sign anything that is wrong,” he said.

Houria, on her part reiterates that she recorded the conversation as evidence of harassment she faced. “I never had proof. AIESEC would ask ‘do you have proof’ of the harassment. I waited for the right moment so people can finally believe me. But AIESEC wanted to get rid of us, to leave the country. They wanted us to sign the undertaking,” Houria said.

AIESEC responds to allegations

Karteek Hoshangabade, the national president of AIESEC, told Firstpost that the organisation has cut all ties with Xrbia.

“AIESEC has been in India for 35 years ago and we have never faced anything like this before,” he said. Among the steps that AIESEC took to address the issue, he said, “First, we sent a member from Navi Mumbai to the house, to make sure the girls are safe. Second, a team from Pune came to Mumbai and suggested that the girls can come to Pune and stay with the family of an AIESECer where they will be safe.”

“The interns refused. We then offered to book them a hostel or a hotel and they chose to go with that. We booked the hostel and the payment was made by us. The email complaint that the women lodged with the ICB (which is the equivalent of an Internal Complaints Committee) was forwarded to us and we are following that. For us, the first priority was the company doesn’t know where the interns are, we didn’t want the interns to talking to them. We were the mediators,” Hoshangabade said.

He said, “The company is where the harassment happened. I completely support the women and appreciate they have come forward. I myself met Belkis Campos with another woman from my team. In that meeting it was clearly communicated that if she wants legal support we will give access to our national lawyers. They chose not to go ahead with AIESEC lawyers.”

Hoshangabade said the company took “a lot of time” in clearing the women’s dues.

“From our side, the company has been cut off our client list and we are more than happy to provide legal support to the women.” However, Campos said that when the Pune AIESEC team came to Mumbai to meet them they were allegedly told that “this happens all the time in India”. “AIESEC Pune discouraged me from filing a legal complaint saying ‘we can’t guarantee your security’."

An official at the Venezuelan embassy said he had no information about the case at the moment “as he had only recently arrived in India” but said they would get back in touch as soon as possible.

Firstpost has reached out to Mutha for comment. This report will be updated once he responds.

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Updated Date: Dec 02, 2018 08:51:12 IST

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