In October 2017, the Chief Operating Officer of Asianet, Abhinav Khare was accused of sexually harassing a young woman who had joined as a strategy consultant at the Namma Bengaluru Foundation.
BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar is the Founder Trustee and Chairman of Namma Bengaluru Foundation and former board member of ARG Outlier Asianet News. The NBF, Asianet and Rajeev’s venture capital firm Jupiter Capital Private Limited work out of the same building in Bengaluru.
Though the woman in question, Sonam Mahajan had joined the team as a strategy consultant to help Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s political office, she was told that she would be under the payrolls of NBF. Abhinav Khare was the person she was reporting to.
A few days later, she complained that Abhinav Khare was harassing her and wanted Rajeev’s office to reassign her to a new team. But instead of a transfer, what followed was a long process of inquiry, stressful rounds of talks and finally a gag order on Sonam.
From L to R: Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Abhinav Khare
According to a source who worked in the same office building as Sonam and Khare, there were attempts to shame Sonam after she filed her complaint. “I am not sure of the exact sequence, but I believe they tried to shame her. Till then she had only demanded that she be shifted to a new team, but later when they tried to blame her for his behaviour, she asked for an investigation,” the source said.
The company claimed that she was an employee of Namma Bengaluru Foundation. Since NBF has less than 10 members, they did not have an ICC.
As reported by The Wire first, the company initially tried to push for a compromise and said that NBF does not have an ICC, but on Sonam’s insistence it finally set up an ad hoc investigation committee on December 1, in line with the requirements of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace law. The Committee had one external member and two other members including a lawyer who used to work with Jupiter Capital.
The Wire report notes, ‘an internal investigation into sexual harassment allegations is meant to conclude in 90 days. In this case, the committee set up took twice as long, and only delivered its report at the end of June 2018’.
“Many people from our office were called as witnesses. We are not sure what each one said. We were told that she had demanded CCTV footage, but I think the committee was told the CCTV is missing," the source added.
Though the ad-hoc committee met many times, it was only in June 2018 that they gave the final report. The report found that most of the allegations made by Sonam were true and Khare should tender a written apology to her. Sonam, as per the source, objected to two ‘observations’ on her in the report. She demanded that the observations be substantiated, and if not, they should be removed.
From June to October, neither NBF nor Asianet made any efforts to ensure that Khare sent his apology. Instead, they insisted that Sonam who had been on leave of absence from December 2017 should re-join work. According to the source, Sonam refused to work out of the same office in which her harasser worked and objected to this arbitrary decision. Sonam told NBF that since Khare was not ready to give an apology, she would be forced to go to the police.
On October 1, 2018, Abhinav Khare as a precautionary measure, approached the ACCJ court (Additional City Civil and Sessions Judge) asking for a stay on the ad-hoc committee’s report and demanded that NBF should not implement the recommendations. When #MeToo movement started in India and many women took to Twitter to name the men who had harassed them, Sonam too tweeted about her case on October 7. Though she had taken no names, on October 8, Khare rushed to the ACCJ again and got a gag order, that too ex-parte.
The Wire story on Tuesday, mentioned that ‘there is no record of the company accepting and acting on the investigation committee’s recommendations’. This is evident from the ACCJ’s gag order as it clearly says that ‘Defendant no 1 (NBF) is restrained from taking any actions pursuant to the proceedings of the ad-hoc committee.’
Both NBF and Rajeev Chandrasekhar's office responded to The Wire story saying that they are committed to pursuing action as per the ad-hoc committee report. It is however strange that the recommendation to make Khare apologise was not implemented between June and October. Since NBF has been restrained by court to not pursue action against Khare, it remains to be seen if NBF will move court against Khare.
"As soon as the complaint was brought to Mr. Chandrasekhar’s attention, he satisfied himself that NBF had acted swiftly and decisively, as per law, by constituting a committee consisting of Independent Members including a woman rights activist (instead of only an Internal committee expected under the law) to investigate that complaint and ascertain the truth. NBF is committed to ensure that the complainant will get fairness in the process as prescribed under law," Rajeev Chandrasekhar's office said.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar's office also claimed that Sonam was not a part of his team and was only working with NBF.
However, on Wednesday evening, Sonam tweeted screenshots of her conversations with the MP in which they can be seen discussing about political strategies and Abhinav Khare is mentioned as the person Sonam reports to.
I am not the person who likes to release private conversations but “I ALSO HAVE ZERO TOLERANCE FOR DELIBERATE LIES AND HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO BRING THE TRUTH TO THE PUBLIC VIEW.”— Sonam Mahajan (@AsYouNotWish) October 17, 2018
When I was not a member of Rajeev Chandrashekhar’s office or team, why was he designating work to me? pic.twitter.com/P40EFD1HGQ
Khare who has no gag order on himself alleged that Sonam's performance had not been satisfactory and she made up 'malicious arguments' to settle scores. He also alleged that Sonam had been blackmailing him. He also blamed NBF for making him depose before an ad-hoc committee and claimed that they had told him it was Internal Complaints Committee. Khare meanwhile continues to work as COO of Asianet and is board member of Jupiter Capital Private Limited.
Both the Namma Bengaluru Foundation and the office of Rajeev Chandrasekhar issued a statement regarding the same.