Stop Criticising Modi’, Tehelka Journalists Told as Crisis-Hit Magazine Stumbles Again

Employees cry foul as management fails to clear three months’ salaries despite repeated assurances. More than 20 staff members were not allowed to enter the office. Senior editorial staff also allege they were asked to go soft on BJP and right wing fringe elements.

The Tehelka office in Delhi. Credit: georgia Popplewell/Flickr CC 2.0

The old Tehelka office in Delhi. Credit: georgia Popplewell/Flickr CC 2.0

New Delhi: Tehelka seems to be in the throes of another crisis, with employees going on strike demanding the payment of salaries due and an explanation for the management’s apparent tactics to force them to resign. More than 20 Tehelka employees, from the magazine’s English edition, have been left in the lurch after the management decided to downsize the team, with the staff now at half its previous strength, and make the magazine a fortnightly. The salaries of the employees – routinely delayed even before the latest crisis – have not been paid for three months now (for January to March this year) despite repeated assurances from the management. The Wire has accessed multiple complaint letters, memorandums and emails from the editorial staff to the management about this issue.

The management issued a list with the names of 20 people, among the 43 staff members, and only these employees have been allowed into the new office at Nehru Place. The staff left off the list have not been terminated, neither have they resigned from the organisation. They allege that the management has refused to communicate with them to resolve the issue and also say that this is a “humiliating tactic” to “coerce resignations” to avoid paying severance packages.

Senior editorial staff to whom The Wire spoke also allege that they were specifically asked to not do any anti-BJP or “anti-establishment” stories. Distressed with this attitude and concerned about their careers, they have now written to the Labour Commissioner of Delhi. A copy of the letter and the acknowledgement from Labour Minister Gopal Rai’s office is with The Wire.

A timeline of events

According to events narrated by a number of Tehelka employees, most of whom have requested anonymity, here is a timeline of events:

After former Editor-in-Chief Tarun Tejpal was booked under charges of sexually assaulting a colleague, a new managing editor, Mathew Samuel, was brought in. “Samuel was the sole point person between the Tehelka staff and the management,” Deepti Sreeram, features editor at Tehelka, told The Wire. The delay in payments of salaries started after the Tejpal controversy, but the employees did not mind this initially as they understood the magazine was going through a rough phase. Many who joined the organisation in the course of 2015 say that they received their first salaries only after two-three months and the delays in salary payments continued despite repeated assurances from Samuel. In November, the employees received their salaries for two months, leading many to think that things were now set to change.

In December, Samuel informed around 20 staff members in an informal meeting at the Press Club that he was going to leave Tehelka. Reporter Martand Badoni says Samuel requested everyone to continue and assured them that issues with salary payments were resolved for good.

In January, the staff were informed by the management that the magazine would now be published every fortnight – a change the staff was told about only when an issue was stopped after going to the press and without consulting the editorial staff, allege senior journalists working there.

File photo of K.D. Singh. Credit: PTI

File photo of K.D. Singh. Credit: PTI

In January, Tehelka had around 200 employees. K.D. Singh, chairman emeritus of the Alchemist Group and owner of a majority stake in Anant Media Private Limited that publishes the magazine, said in a meeting that they were unable to pay so many employees. Singh is also a Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress. “The hiring policy was approved by the management, they should’ve thought about it (paying salaries) before hiring (so many people),” says Sreeram. The staff were informed that the magazine would downsize, but no mention was made of a severance package.

New CEO brought in

Some days later, Sumeeta Sehgal from the Alchemist Group began going to the magazine’s office and informed the staff that she had taken over as CEO of Tehelka. “There was no formal introduction from the management and this was unusual as she was supposed to be the new point person between the staff and the management,” says Amit Bhardwaj, a former reporter with the magazine.

At the end of February, the electricity connection at the Noida office was cut off without any warning. The staff tried to reach the management but there was no response. They were later informed that the landlord had cut off the power supply because the bills had not been paid and that they were to work from home until alternative arrangements were made.

The Noida office was reopened for a brief period and on February 26 the staff were told an issue had to be published on February 29. The staff allege that this was purposely done to ensure they failed and the management could use that as an excuse to fire them. The staff further alleges that although they ensured the issue was published by the deadline, the management withheld their salaries once more.

The magazine was then moved into a new office at Nehru Place. The new office is small and could not accommodate all 43 employees, the staff said. “We had to take turns to sit on the chairs. There was no separate washroom for men and women, and we didn’t even have the basic software and other resources to work,” adds Bharadwaj.

‘Stop criticising Modi’

Senior editorial staff said that Singh then called them for a meeting and asked them to stop criticising the Modi government. “He said we shouldn’t focus much on BJP and asked us not to do anti-establishment stories. Most of us here work with a critical mind towards the establishment, and used to do stories critical of all governments. All of a sudden we were asked to not do that anymore. He even asked us not to talk about right wing fringe groups,” says a member of the senior editorial staff.

The editorial staff wrote multiple letters and emails to the management (copies of which are with The Wire) in March to settle all disputes so that the team could work without any issues. The employees even went on an informal strike, while the management kept hinting that they could resign if they wanted their dues cleared. In a meeting between a team of employees and the management, the management asked the employees to “compromise,” saying that they couldn’t afford to pay their backlogs let alone severances. The employees were told to “adjust” and that they would have been paid if the company had money.

The employees have now written to the Delhi’s labour commissioner regarding the “non-payment of salaries for three months, forced resignations, arbitrary terminations, barring entry to office, unfair labour practices and lack of good governance”. The letter, signed by 18 staff members, also mentions that “many employees are kept on probation for months, without being confirmed. Those who have joined as Trainees, continue to remain so, even after a year, without revision of pay or service conditions. Pay slips are not issued, Provident Fund numbers and contributions are not conveyed, Form 16 for the 2014-15 financial year have not been issued.”

The Wire tried to reach Singh for his comments, but he was unavailable. Swinder Bajwa, Tehelka’s publisher and general manager, refused to comment and directed us to Vijay Mohan, general manager of human resources. Mohan too refused to comment. There was no response to our emails to the management at the time of publishing this story.