“In December we had an uncomfortable phone call to discuss my salary and when I wasn’t happy with his offer, Sarna said ‘I think you are beautiful enough to pay you a crore but I don’t have that kind of money honey,” Pandit said about Sarna.
A former executive assistant with Taj Hotels, whose resignation letter alleging sexual harassment by Rakesh Sarna, then its CEO and MD, anonymously appeared in the media during the Tata-Mistry tussle in 2016 has now decided to speak on the record.
Saying that she was inspired by the #MeToo tide, Anjuli Pandit told The Indian Express that she knocked on several doors at Tata Sons but few heard her out. Instead, she was “left with no choice but to quit.” After she complained, Tata Sons set up a new committee where she deposed but two years on, she said, she is yet to get the report of its findings.
The Indian Express has accessed official documents, emails, and other communications related to Pandit’s complaint and spoken with people who were aware of her experiences.
Pandit, a US citizen and an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card holder, who works with a financial advisory firm in London, joined the Tata Group in 2009 when she was 23.
After a break for her Master’s degree at Sciences Po, Paris, she was back in Tata Sons in then Chairman Cyrus Mistry’s office in January 2014, managing government relations with Europe, Middle East, and North Africa.
Pandit said that a year into her “dream job,” Sarna asked if she could be moved to Taj Hotels as his Executive Assistant.
“In December we had an uncomfortable phone call to discuss my salary and when I wasn’t happy with his offer, Sarna said ‘I think you are beautiful enough to pay you a crore but I don’t have that kind of money honey.’ That was the first indication I had that something was not right,” Pandit said.
In January 2015, she moved to Taj as Sarna’s executive assistant. In a piece she sent to The Indian Express, she wrote: “Over the seven months, he remarked on my looks, his attraction to me and his desire to have an affair. His advances were very verbal, and I was always clear, I was not interested at all. Whether I deflected, professionally requested, or burst into tears in frustration, he persisted. The environment became intolerable as we both lost our patience.”
She said she couldn’t lodge an official complaint with the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) committee at Taj as it included Sarna and had his subordinates as members.
Pandit said that even after approaching Taj Board members, Tata Group Executive Council members, and the office of the Chairperson, the only solution they offered to her was her resignation from Taj Group and a demotion to “a mediocre-at best position.”
“Since I didn’t feel comfortable with the internal Taj processes, I decided to seek support from the board and largest shareholder, Tata Sons. What I didn’t realise, is that by not following the formal route, I was providing the Tata Group an opportunity to side-step best practices,” she said adding that despite approaching everyone possible up to the rank of the Chairperson, she was, in the end, asked to resign from Taj Hotels and demoted to a back-office job with the corporate communications team at Tata Sons.
In November 2015, Pandit put in her papers citing the hostile environment at work due to Sarna’s “repeated unwanted sexual advances” and her desire to “move out of Tata Group and into an organisation which values and respects women’s rights.”
Months after she left, Pandit said, in July 2016 the law firm AZB & Partners, on behalf of Tata Sons, tried to persuade her to sign a letter stating that her “decision to quit the Tata Group was based purely on personal reasons”. The letter, which she refused to sign, also states that she prohibits the media from writing any “speculative stories about my stint with the Tata Group” threatening to take legal action if they do.
Pandit’s former colleague from a previous organisation and a friend of 10 years, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Indian Express that sexual harassment “dominated every conversation we had.”
In November 2016, a year after her resignation, the contents of her resignation letter appeared in the media without naming her. “It was during the Cyrus Mistry-Ratan Tata face-off and Sarna was known to be close to Mistry…I was horrified that the letter was leaked and I was a mere pawn in this power struggle despite me keeping quiet about it all along and not making any trouble as advised, “ she said.
After Pandit declined to sign the legal firm’s letter and wrote to them about their inadequate mechanisms to prevent sexual harassment, Tata Sons set up a new committee to look into her matter.
The minutes of her deposition before the commitee in the Tata Capital Office in Mumbai in August 2016, available with The Indian Express, show that she detailed Sarna’s “inappropriate behaviour” and remarks on her appearance, her clothes, and his persistent propositions.
She alleged that if he was upset over her rebuff, she wasn’t marked on emails, invited to meetings. He told her, “we should have an affair, I have never been attracted to an Indian woman before. One day you will be my third wife and live with me in Miami…She mentioned his wife and he said she knows I have a glad eye.”
Sarna resigned in May 2017, a few months after Mistry’s ouster.
Pandit said she hasn’t been given a copy of the committee’s findings. “I have written to everyone including current Tata Sons Chairperson with a copy to head of HR for Taj, for a copy of the final report. But I never received a response.”
When told about Pandit’s allegations, IHCL (Taj Hotels) spokesperson told The Indian Express: “The matter referred to in your mail was investigated and dealt with by an appropriate independent committee constituted for this purpose.”
A questionnaire was sent to Tata Sons asking for a response to Pandit’s allegations regarding her “demotion,” resignation and not being sent a copy of the committee’s findings. A spokesperson for Tata Sons declined to comment saying that the matter pertained to Taj Hotels.
Sarna couldn’t be contacted for comment.
AZB’s Zia Mody, when asked about Pandit’s allegation that the law firm had asked her to sign a letter, declined to comment.