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Corporate calumnies

Did due process let Sonam Mahajan down?

On October 15, 2017, a month into working at Namma Bengaluru Foundation (NBF), Sonam Mahajan, political commentator and consultant, wrote to Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the founder and director of NBF, to tell him that she was being sexually harassed by his Chief of Staff, Abhinav Khare.

The allegations Mahajan makes against Khare are numerous: on one occasion, Mahajan was wearing faux diamonds in her ears. She says Khare asked her if they were real. When she replied in the negative, he said, “Had we met earlier, things would have been different, those diamonds would have been real.”

On another occasion, Mahajan says that Khare informed her that women who were “much better looking” than her were “dying to go out for drinks” with him. Then he lamented that she remained unmoved by his advances. At an office event, he told her that his wife was jealous of her. He would often berate her for her looks, telling her she had a “weight problem” and if she took offence, he would say, “I’m only joking, why do you take me seriously?”

He offered her a show on Republic TV, adding that he could “polish her to be like Smriti Irani” or she would end up like “Uma Bharti”. At other times, he would ask her about intimacy in her marriage.

Mahajan says this was taking a toll on her and her work. “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t work, I felt deep inside like something really wrong and bad is happening. I just couldn’t deal with it.”

She would tell him he was making her uncomfortable, and he would respond, “You and I are both hot-headed people, of course problems will happen.”

The last straw, according to Mahajan, was when he invited her to sleep over at another colleague’s home because his wife was out of town. He had described both her and the other colleague as “hotties”, and he wanted to take them “around” in his car. Mahajan says she confronted him, said that this was grossly inappropriate and, within minutes, decided she had had enough and took the matter to HR.

HR told her to “prove her worth” at the company before making any complaints against the Chief of Staff. This did not satisfy Mahajan, and so she decided to take it up with the founder and chairman of NBF, Bharatiya Janata Party minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar. She sent him an email stating that she could no longer deal with the “mental and borderline sexual harassment” by Abhinav Khare.

Mahajan says as soon as she filed the complaint, her colleagues stopped talking to her, and she was no longer given any work. Her first project, a voter mobilisation camp, was cancelled by Khare.

At the time of her email, Rajeev Chandrasekhar had responded with: “I gather things are not working out.” Next, on Mahajan’s insistence, he ordered the setting up of a committee to investigate the complaint. Finally, he blocked Sonam Mahajan on Whatsapp, preventing any further communication with the complainant.

Over the course of three months, the three members of the committee investigated all documentary evidence furnished by Mahajan and Khare, as well as the statements of both parties, which were then cross-examined. The committee also interviewed and recorded the statements of several witnesses. These included employees of Jupiter Capital, the Office of the Member of Parliament (OMP), HIPE and NBF—all Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s companies operating on the same premises. According to the committee report, the employees of these various companies share resources and collaborate on projects frequently.

Eight months after Mahajan’s complaint, the committee ruled that it was of the view that Abhinav Khare had in fact sexually harassed Sonam Mahajan. He had done so numerous times.

Simultaneously, the committee report contains a curious section called “Other Observations”. This section, it is stated at the very outset, is “outside the purview of the committee” and does not relate to the complaint filed. Yet it contains statements that would qualify as textbook victim-shaming.

It states that Mahajan “may have had ulterior financial motives” in filing her complaint. As evidence, it furnishes an email that Mahajan’s mentor had sent to Rajeev Chandrasekhar requesting that they “resolve the matter in a friendly way”. It adds that Mahajan has made numerous complaints against others for sexual harassment on Twitter, while also stating that this is not relevant to the complaint. Mahajan believes this section was put into the committee report on Khare’s insistence.

In light of this evidence against him, the committee recommended that NBF issue an official reprimand to Khare, that he suffer a “real” consequence for his actions, that he not be promoted or receive an improvement in salary or position, and that he formally apologise to Mahajan in writing.

None of this happened. For three months, NBF did not act on the recommendations of its own committee. During these months, Mahajan insisted she would not go back to work while Khare still worked there. “I was clear that it was either him, or me.”

Further, she adds, many of her colleagues had falsely testified against her in the committee hearing and the workplace now felt hostile. “I was being forced to work with people who caused me trauma. This in spite of the fact that the POSH Act demands that no woman be forced to work in a hostile workplace.” Eventually, by September 2018, Sonam Mahajan informed NBF that she would not be coming back to work and would be seeking legal remedies.

In October 2018, as soon as #MeToo made landfall in India and Mahajan began tweeting about the inquiry, Khare went to court. He received an ex parte injunction on the committee report to prevent Mahajan from speaking publicly about the sexual harassment. Soon after, Sonam Mahajan filed her own FIR for mental and sexual harassment against Abhinav Khare with the police.

In the days after, Rajeev Chandrasekhar put out a statement stating that “Sonam Mahajan was not a member of Chandrasekhar’s office or team. She was a consultant for NBF, an NGO founded by Chandrasekhar, but managed by an independent CEO and team.” The statement added that he had met her once in person, “unexpectedly at the elevator lobby in the building his office is in”.

This is, at best, misleading. Mahajan has furnished evidence that she was directly consulting with Chandrasekhar on his social media outreach. She was communicating with him personally over Whatsapp. (The Office of Rajeev Chandrasekhar has not responded to requests to comment on this.)

Further, the CEO of NBF has said on record (in the committee report) that he was not consulted when Mahajan was hired, and only came to know of her because of her sexual harassment complaint.

By his own admission, it was Abhinav Khare, Chandrasekhar’s Chief of Staff, who had hired Mahajan, who had discussed remuneration with her, and who claims to have the power to fire her.

In the months that followed, Mahajan claims that Pratap Simha, BJP MP from Mysore, approached her to settle the matter privately. Simha, she claims, said that “they” (Abhinav Khare and Rajeev Chandrasekhar) were scared to provide her with a formal apology for fear that she would “go to the media with it”. They would rather she resolve the matter privately.

Pratap Simha, who is currently dealing with sexual harassment allegations of his own, has not responded to requests for a comment on this. This reporter subsequently contacted numerous colleagues of Sonam Mahajan and Abhinav Khare for comment. Nobody was willing to speak on record.

From the beginning, Abhinav Khare has maintained:

Sonam Mahajan was an inept employee. She filed a complaint against Khare because he was going to terminate her.

Sonam Mahajan is an extortionist. He added that she was “extorting” money from a junior employee in the finance office. When prodded further, it was revealed that this money is in fact her consultancy fee, i.e. her salary.

Last week, the police filed B-report — a closure report. They believe that Mahajan’s complaint is false, and does not require further investigation.

The police report says that: The internal committee ruled that Abhinav Khare is guilty, but did so without explaining why they believe this. This is untrue. The 600-page committee report lists in detail the precise evidence that led it to believe the allegations against Khare to be true, as mentioned in an earlier section of this story.

The inspecting officer was unwilling to answer any questions, and only provided the following statement: “We tried to get the evidence against him but we totally failed. We approached Sonam but she was not cooperating with the investigation. Helpless, we decided to file the B-report.”

Abhinav Khare was unwilling to respond to questions he was asked. He has instead, provided the following statement:

Dear Sneha,

Please publish my statement without edits or don’t publish it at all. I do not authorize you to edit and/or twist my statement out of context.

I was informed by many that Newslaundry is a leftist propaganda portal. And your queries based on Mrs Sonam Mahajan’s lies makes me believe that this is a deliberate attempt to peddle a defamatory story against me. I’m also aware that your website will give this story a misleading headline linking me to Mr. Chandrashekar, though in reality I’m not his close aide. I’m just an employee working for his investee company that is managed by an independent board.

(Abhinav Khare is Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s Chief of Staff, and Chief Operating Officer of Asianet, a media-house owned by Rajeev Chandrasekhar.)

About your story:

Formally Mrs Mahajan is pretending that all she wants from me is an apology. In reality, these false allegations are her attempts to extort my hard-earned money from me.

Mrs Mahajan received multiple warnings for non-performance, indiscipline and unprofessional conduct due to which we had to inform her that her consulting contract will have to be terminated.

(Mahajan denies this. Further, Khare has been unable to furnish any evidence of these “warnings”. Nor has he been able to explain in what authority he was going to terminate her, as he also claims she did not report to him.)

The very next day she filed a false complaint against me. I got to know about the existence of any complaint or committee months later and immediately objected to their biased functioning. Later, when I reached the court, I successfully got the injunction to declare the committee illegal by the court.

(The court has not ruled that the committee is illegal. It had merely stated that there is a prima facie case for it. Additionally, according to NBF, Abhinav Khare had consented to the formation of the committee at the time of its formation.)

Anyway, the same illegal committee made observations about Mrs. Mahajan’s bad moral character and vengeful attitude. The committee also observed Mrs. Sonam Mahajan’s complaint was done to delay the termination of her consulting contract and done with an ulterior financial motive.

There is no mention of “bad moral character”. The report states that her vengeful attitude is understandable given the unsubstantiated accusations made against her. This is also a classic example of victim-shaming.

Mahajan’s mentor had emailed Rajeev Chandrasekhar with an appeal to “settle matters in a friendly manner”. This has been furnished as evidence that Mahajan had “ulterior financial motives”.

Mahajan has challenged these observations and asked for them to be removed.

Using the loopholes of POSH guidelines, Mrs. Mahajan, a seasoned player extracted free consulting fee for an entire year. As a serial offender she didn’t start any public smear campaign against me till she was getting free money i.e. end of September 2018.

(Khare is unable to substantiate why he believes Mahajan is a “seasoned player” or “serial offender”. The “free money” he is referring to is her consulting fee, i.e. her salary.)

Then she filed a FIR to put further pressure on me. Police officials after several months of investigation found no case against me. They found that the case is false and thus submitted a B-report. As per Mrs. Mahajan’s tweets, they also observed that she is a habitual offender. Many witnesses observed that Mrs. Mahajan’s behaviour around me was inappropriate.

(There is no mention of the fact that Mahajan is a “habitual offender” in the police report.)

Both the court and Police gave decisions in my favour.

(In fact, the court has vacated Khare’s injunction).

I’m relieved that I’ve been proven innocent in the end. I reserve the right to take all possible legal remedies.

Thank you, Abhinav.

And so it is that after eight months of internal enquiry that ruled in her favour, witnesses who would later retract their statements, injunctions that prevented her from speaking out, and a police investigation that led to some findings that are patently false, for Sonam Mahajan, there is no justice, nor end, in sight.

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