Nasreen Khan, pens her bitter experience when she chose to say ‘no’ and sought an action to be taken against her editor for sexually harassing her
I faced repeated sexual harassment from my former boss Satadru Ojha at Calcutta Times. And after all his failed attempts to make me fall for his smooth words of fake appreciation in public (causing unwanted jealousy and office politics) followed by arm twisting tactics he had the gall to finally tell me on my face that I can’t work (in Calcutta Times) unless I keep him “happy” and “please” him. This was just before the assessment in 2014.
Things had started right after I joined in 2013 and I fought on alone despite being boycotted (clearly under instructions of the culprit) by everyone in the team and outside till 2015.
Mr Ojha had earlier called me up several times while I was home to say how I could enjoy extra days off to spend time with my kid if only I knew “how to play my cards well”. On one particular occasion when I was home nursing my sick child he called again with the same sweet temptation. I lost my cool and shouted at him to never call me and to communicate with me either via SMS or emails only. My kid, despite being ravaged by high fever, understood something was wrong. The effect it had on her came out recently. Last week someone from TOI had visited her school to promote the newspaper and my little one kept glaring at her because she was praising the editor. It intrigued the lady and she asked my daughter why she was not showing any interest in subscribing to the newspaper since it came with a host of other offers and gifts. My daughter asked her if the editor is still “Shatoduru something” (she couldn’t pronounce the name correctly). The journalist was surprised to know she knew about him and asked what her name was. My little one replied, “Just tell him I’m Nasreen Khan’s daughter”.
Coming back to my ‘story’ I later came to know that the editor had ganged up with others in the team who were feeling threatened by my presence and had made every effort to sabotage my work and to malign me. For example despite an exclusive interview with Akshay Kumar they deliberately delayed publishing the story and then took it on page 5! They had even twisted my exclusive interview with Shahrukh Khan to make it seem he’s anti Indian. Those in the entertainment media will understand that all this is done to sabotage whatever contacts you build.
Coming back to the sexual harassment part, this man then stopped taking all my stories and assigned my ideas to others. Multiple page one stories of mine were done by other journalists. I had written proof of all this. But I didn’t protest. I was living in denial and trying to shut my mind to the united assault on my entity and capability by stuffing my face with sweets. I later came to know that it was a psychological reaction to all that was happening to me. In the meanwhile others from different departments within TOI, Kolkata started sharing their ordeal with me. I was caught between finding an alternate job to be able to follow my passion for writing and raising my kid independently or complaining against a man who I knew was a repeat offender. It was the HR and the Branch Manager in Kolkata who finally pushed me to speak up. But I was not prepared for what was to come next.
The all India HR head Siddhartha Ganguly who flew down to Kolkata to meet me not only admitted that he’s aware of what’s happening and that the errant editor was under therapy to stop such behaviour, he asked me to withdraw my complaint. He said it would serve no purpose to bang my head against the wall. He then went ahead to subtly hint at my marital status with a clear intention to shame me. Next, the then head of the TIMS group, Priya Gupta flew down to meet everyone and much to my shock and bewilderment told me that “The boss is like a husband and I must learn to adjust”. I had shared this with a close friend in the media who had even tweeted this without taking names. Till then I still was being cautious because I did not want to sabotage my career. I was this close to becoming the editor of Femina East. But the entire BCCL machinery was put into action and they used all their artillery to muffle my voice because I refused to take back my complaint and was insisting on an independent inquiry.
I was not going to run away from my demons. I was prepared to face them. But the evil forces got more evil. While I was caught up between the meetings with the big bosses flying in from Delhi/Mumbai and unknown to me a ‘package story’ was published under my name. It was titled “Hot Babes With Ugly Legs” and it had some of the most respected names in Hollywood in the list including Angelina Jolie and Lindsay Lohan. The article body shamed them and I was shamed internationally for the article. Incidentally among the first to speak up and shame me was Cosmopolitan, UK and Huffington Post. BCCL is the partner company of Cosmopolitan in India and Huffington Post entered India soon after in collaboration with BCCL.
Around the same time a journalist from Australia also found me on Twitter to tag me to her “first attempt at opinion piece”. It goes without saying that it was on the same article purportedly written by me. But till date I’m not sure how she located me on Twitter where my bio never ever mentioned that I’m a journalist or that I’m even from Kolkata. (My bio remains the same as it was then. I added my location and my online news portal’s name only recently and that too after I got tagged in multiple posts related to some other Nasreen Khan in UK).
What followed next was even more bizarre. In the middle of the night I got a call that threatened me with abduction and rape! I recognised the voice but did not name the person because I was confident Kolkata Police would be able to trace the caller and action would be taken. The caller was a gay makeup artist I knew professionally and I knew he was made to make the call so that even if the call was traced to him his being gay would put a question mark on my “claims”. After that I was not surprised to see that the makeup artist got featured regularly on Calcutta Times. The morning after that call I went to my local police station but they kept coming up with excuses to delay filing my complaint and after a few days informed me that the number belonged to someone in Murshidabad and that his call records don’t show any calls made to me. Nevertheless, I also recorded my statement with a judicial magistrate and it was she who told me about spoof calling.
When I went back to work the day after that phone call I witnessed a change in Mr Ojha. After my complaint earlier he had stopped coming over and hovering around my seat. He again started walking to and fro around me and had a smirk on his face and an ugly glint in his eyes that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. It creeped me out and I immediately applied for leave which I knew was my legitimate right under the given circumstances.
In the meanwhile I had also noticed weird activities on my personal email IDs and Facebook even when I was not logging on to it from my office computer. I looked up the IP address and found it was the same as that of TOI, Kolkata. I wrote to the IT department in Kolkata informing them about the matter and requesting them to look into it. They replied denying that the IP address belonged to TOI, which was clearly not true. So far I had been continuously writing mails from my official mail ID and marking a copy to every official I could manage to get the IDs of including Vineet Jain, Samir Jain and Indu Jain. In an agitated state of mind I again wrote to the senior officers including Mr Jain asking him if the company was not at fault what need did it have to deny its own IP address. Action was almost immediate. My computer was taken away and the local IT guys admitted, off the record of course, that the hacking was indeed being done by someone within TOI.
My harassment didn’t end there. I discovered I was part of group chats and video calls on Gmail with people I don’t even know professionally. I was/still am quite a bit technologically challenged and discovered it while fiddling with my new tablet. It was a friend from my university who alerted me that from what I was describing I was the admin of those groups! But when I went to the cyber crime cell at Lal Bazar they tried to mislead me at first. Luckily I was accompanied by a friend who intervened and then the OC accepted a written complaint but told me not to count on any positive outcome because oGoogle does not comply with their requests for information. Maybe it’s irrelevant to mention here that the business card of a colleague from TOI was lying on the OC’s table, a mere co-incidence probably.
In the meanwhile TOI blocked my access to my official email where all my correspondence and my proofs were. Luckily I still have quite a few that I had forwarded to myself and shared with friends I trusted. I was “dismissed from service since I had brought a bad name to the company because of the article I wrote which was in bad taste”. When I questioned why the editor and others in the team were not answerable since no ‘story’ can be done unless the editor gives the go ahead to the idea and after the copy is submitted it undergoes checking by the entire team and sometimes the articles are rewritten and come out reading completely different from what the copy submitted read like. And not to forget the fact that it gets published only after everyone, including the editor has passed it. The new HR person wrote back saying “do not politicise the issue”.
The earlier HR person too had to suffer because of me and he told me that he’s learned his lesson and that henceforth he’ll only toe the line of the big bosses. I felt bad and responsible for what he had to face because he spoke up what was in public knowledge and was going in my favour. After that I did not want to go on being part of an organisation that not only harboured an offender/s but protected and encouraged him/them as well. All this while I had only insisted that the company spread the message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the company, given that they have such lofty social awareness campaigns. I wanted them to live up to what they promoted on paper. My intention was never to punish anyone or cause him to lose his job. I saw it as a social evil and I chose to fight it.
The thought that prompted me on was that, if I did not fight now, tomorrow my daughter might join this profession and I did not want her to face anything like this. I had hoped that TOI would live up to its brand building activities that played with emotions connected to social issues by pretending to promote social change. Instead they put the entire BCCL machinery in place to fight an ordinary woman!
Yes, I do come from a privileged background but I opted to fight it out alone primarily because I knew my family would immediately ask me to leave media, they anyway thought I was wasting my time and talent writing for entertainment and lifestyle whereas I loved my work and was passionate about it. And secondly, I felt if a woman like me did not speak up then who will? I had seen how a previous victim almost ran out of the place and refused to speak up, due to personal problems I assume. And I purposely did not seek help anywhere else including my family (that housed a former district judge, secretary of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly and two time member of West Bengal Human Rights Commission; a political leader and former Member Mayor in Council, Kolkata Corporation; and the then Chief Judge Kolkata Sessions Court now Justice at Calcutta High Court) because firstly, I had/have the faith in our police and secondly, I didn’t want other women to think I could dare because of my family background. I wanted every woman out there facing such torment to have the strength and courage to stand up and protest against sexual harassment. I wanted my colleagues to know that we women maybe soft at heart, but we are never weak.
Sadly, I realised being idealistic doesn’t always work and I lost interest in writing or pursuing the matter further. I wanted to focus on raising my child and all that is positive in my life. (I must thank Gautam Bhattacharya and ABP for cajoling me back to media and giving me another opportunity to get back to doing what I loved. But I just could not get over the trauma and was questioning my choices in life). After fighting a lonely battle with the Times of India (Calcutta Times in particular) nothing happened despite all the proofs I submitted to the concerned authorities, marking a copy to the owners as well, including Indu Jain. All I managed to do is force them to set up a sexual harassment committee. After my dismissal I wasn’t surprised to find the committee’s report which stated I could not give them “substantial proof so the matter ends there”. When I enquired where I can apply against the committee’s findings, there was complete silence. I then went to my local police station to file a formal complaint against sexual harassment at workplace as per the law.
The local PS who knew us for the last 40 plus years refused to even jot down the name of the person I was complaining against. I had made the mistake of going there alone. To me it was my residential area and I saw it as a simple act of filing my complaint. But I was in for a shock. The cops present not only refused to register my complaint I was made to sit there from 6.30 pm to 10.30 pm! The cops were huddling up in groups and whispering among themselves, avoiding coming to where I was sitting and waiting for someone to accept my complaint letter. Finally I banged my can of pepper spray that I had started carrying after that threatening phone call and called them out for not protecting women and the rise in the crime rate against women under their jurisdiction. After that drama they reluctantly accepted my complaint letter. But I knew no action would be taken. I was told later that the then RE of TOI Kolkata had sent his senior crime reporter to meet the concerned cops and officers to ensure no action was taken on my complaint. I wrote to the Commissioner of Police narrating to him my experience at Hastings PS and he too came out in support of his men.
Anyway, they at least took the matter further so that I could record my statement with a judicial magistrate. Much to my embarrassment I broke down before her and decided to stop my efforts there. I did all I could to protect my self respect and dignity. Now it was taking a toll on me. I could not afford my aged parents or my young child to see me like this. I had to move on. I did and switched careers.
I now fight for the rights of other women and feel much more empowered as a lawyer. I write occasionally because it’s difficult to let go of a passion. But much to my dismay the offender, Satadru Ojha, continues with his ways, aided and abetted by some of the women in the team. His last victim had got in touch with me seeking guidance. Speaking from my experience I told her to move on and focus on her career. But yes, if she or anyone chose to take it forward legally, I’ll be more than happy to help.
For now I’m walking with my head held high and with a smile on my face. A single woman dared to challenge an organisation like The Times of India singlehandedly and it took the mighty BCCL to bring out all their artilleries to ‘fight’ me. Not bad! I pat my back. And I am aware that they are still monitoring all my activities, looking for ways to muffle my voice again. And I’m prepared for the challenge. Bring it on!