Fighting sexual harassment: my personal experience-the ishan joshi scandal
Honestly, when I talk of “fighting sexual harassment”, I do not know whether I have used the right expression to recount the events of the last full year. Yes, a full year, because I had been appointed on June 10, 2002 to The Statesman as a Senior Reporter after a long sabbatical from full-time work.
The first couple of weeks were fine, with everyone, repeat everyone, making me feel welcome and part of the team (my boss’ boss and eventual harasser, Ishan Joshi, even more so).
Around late June, I started noticing that as and when I walked down the office corridors, Ishan Joshi would keep dashing into me and paw me as he walked past. He would also touch and paw me whenever I was with him in his room. His moves got bolder even as I started avoiding him as far as I could. He would try putting his arms around me even as he talked of work, and kissing me. Pushing him away, as I always did, could not deter him.
There was also the kind of stare that seemed to just bore into me and
leave me numb. Very soon, he was not only pawing me in the corridors, but even in the News Room, in full view of every one. His hands would always be
on mine, if I ever happened to be within range, notwithstanding the presence of the Chief Reporter (my immediate boss), the News Editors, and sundry senior and junior colleagues.
In spite of several people whispering and giving quizzical looks, I could not confide in any one since I was hardly well-acquainted with any one at all. I had never worked in this media house, and did not know any one, male or female. The experience itself was too embarrassing to speak up about.
There was another very important factor. I needed the job, professionally, if not financially. I was returning to the profession after five full years, and this was my stepping- stone to stabilizing myself again.
Ishan Joshi, I found, had powers far beyond those commanded by any
News Coordinator in any news organization. He had been granted a special hierarchy and reported only to the Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief, and his word was law with respect to appraisals. Complaining against such a man was sure to cost me my job, especially since I was a probationer.
I hated going through such harassment every single day; but was helpless too. It was a situation that started telling on my peace of mind, and saw me beat my little four-year-old every time she clung to me and craved my attention on my return home. I always wanted to explode, and could not. I had no close friends in the office; while I found it impossible to narrate about my embarrassing experience to my husband at home.
Ishan Joshi had come to realize by July that I was certainly not going to give in easily. And so, he gradually started changing tack. From July-end, I found some of my best efforts getting spiked. If August increased these numbers, September saw anything and everything killed.
Perhaps, the absence of the Chief Reporter and the Officiating Chief Reporter only served to give Ishan Joshi a freer hand — in every way. I say this, because sexually too, the harassment took hitherto unprecedented forms. He would stalk me all over the office and paw me any and every time he could.
Thankfully, I had made friends by this time, and confided in them about the professional harassment I was undergoing. Not that they needed to be told.
But the empathizing emboldened me to complain about it to the Managing Editor, Ravindra Kumar.
Meanwhile, Ishan Joshi tried his last ploy: he asked me to resign since I was not quite “fitting the bill”. And this, after he had all along been praising my work in private and public!
It was about two weeks later that I managed to get an audience. Of course, I could not speak about the sexual harassment I had been facing all along. But then, I discovered, it was not at all necessary. Ishan Joshi had confessed to his boss every explicit detail of this sordid affair, and Ravindra Kumar sympathized with me in a very apologetic tone. He almost made me feel that my ordeal was over, when, hold your breath, he advised me to settle on a “compromise with Ishan Joshi.” That was when I realized I had reached the end of the road.
I had been given a MONTH to resign. When I was called in to put in my
papers by Ishan Joshi, I refused point blank. “I will resign when I want to. It will have to be my decision. Since this what you have decided on, you can do what you want to do.”
Perhaps, Ishan Joshi did not expect me to fight back in this manner. But I certainly did not want to compromise. I had spent 15 years in the profession, and worked hard enough to build my byline. I knew my mettle, and did not believe in climbing on my back. I wanted to fight back, and was determined. But, I also knew, there was nothing I could do at The Statesman.
My services were terminated on October 12, 2002, with no reasons cited. There was not even the one day’s notice as stipulated in the agreement.
The termination made me feel relieved. It was Dassera day, and my husband was home. He found it strange that I was feeling so happy after being sacked, especially since he felt sorry. The first two weeks after my termination felt great. But the unhappiness and brooding soon got the better of me. And then, there were the pent-up feelings of frustration and helplessness which had
prevented a person with an exemplary professional record to do anything about being treated shabbily.
I wanted to fight the injustice; and had not. Besides, the filthy feeling of being defiled and molested several times over started playing on me. This was when I contemplated suicide to end my wretched life.
Sure, I did not succeed in my desperate intentions. But it got my husband to discover the truth, and set in motion a chain of events that got me to recover from my depression. My suicidal tendencies saw me contact Lifeline-the online counseling service, which, on its part, saw me contact Sanhita – an NGO specializing in sexual harassment at the workplace.
My association with Sanhita did not yield much, excepting for helping me get in touch with NWM Bengal and its coordinators— Rajashri Dasgupta and Ananya Chatterjee. By this time, I had also recovered sufficiently to confide in my former bosses and colleagues. Not that every one was receptive. My
immediate boss, the Chief Reporter, excused himself with “I understand the problem. But I cannot do anything since I report to him.” He also warned me against taking on someone like Ishan Joshi who had a formidable genealogy, and a family with considerable political influence. However, for one negative response, there were hundreds of positive responses that egged me on with ” Go legal. You are not alone. We are all on your side.” While Sanhita dilly-dallied and expressed apprehension on taking on a media house like The Statesman by its horns (given the stature of C R Irani), my written complaint was immediately followed up by the NWM Bengal.
Ananya and Rajashri’s initiative was rewarded with a stinging reply from Ravindra Kumar, questioning their authority to speak up on my behalf. Of course, flashing the news on the Internet saw widespread public outrage and support pledged by several media personnel, male and female, for my cause. The resultant negative publicity perhaps (?), compelled the setting up of a Sexual Harassment Committee by The Statesman in both its Kolkata and Delhi offices— the first time that a media house has done so in both cities.
It also saw some close friends advice me to go on and complain to the West Bengal State Commission for Women, with Partha Pratim Nag, a male feminist friend of mine actually contacting the chairperson on my behalf and briefing her on the problem. Rajashri Dasgupta too pitched in with her support and contacted the chairperson on my behalf, prior to me actually meeting the lady, Dr. Jashodhara Bagchi for a discussion.
Another NWM Bengal member briefed the lady in charge of the Maitree network, Maitreyee Chatterjee, about my case (something which helped me when I was to contact Ms Chatterjee later). The fact that Aakash Bangla discussed my case on its special International Women’s Day programme also worked in my favour.
The last few months have seen the Women’s Commission work hard to give me justice, directing the Statesman management to conduct an inquiry on the matter. But three letters have yielded no result (the Sexual Harassment Committee at The Statesman has proved to be more ornamental in more ways than one!).
On the Commission’s advice, I petitioned the Office of the Labour Commissioner contesting my “illegal termination”. The matter is currently being examined by the Deputy Labour Commissioner. The police are also investigating into the matter; along with the Human Rights Law Network, under the guidance of the head of the Calcutta High Court’s Sexual Harassment Cell, Ms Sutapa Chakraborty.
My case stands at a crucial juncture as of now. But then, it has made me realize that there are more good men than evil, who dare to stand up for justice defying wrongdoers. It has also made me realize that being high-born or educated is no guarantee of decency.
The Class IV staff at The Statesman have supported me as much as some
of the senior-most editors, and finance, accounts, technical and other professionals in my fight. It has also made me realize that sexual violence and harassment against women cannot be curbed unless we have enough men on our side— and these could be our husbands, friends, colleagues or even the general public.