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POOR RECOVERY

TVF is writing the playbook on how to mishandle sexual harassment allegations

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Screenshot/TVFPlay
Not so funny anymore.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Some of India’s most prolific and popular comedy writers have scripted a public relations nightmare for themselves.

On March 12, a Medium user going by the pseudonym “Indian Fowler” accused Arunabh Kumar, co-founder of digital media startup The Viral Fever (TVF), of “abuse and molestation“ during the nearly two years she spent working at the company. Evidently inspired by Susan Fowler, the software engineer who revealed the rampant sexism at Uber last month, Indian Fowler laid out a long list of Kumar’s indecent advances—from lifting her and falling on her at parties to asking for a “quicky.”

At first TVF, known for its popular YouTube shows, including Pitchers and Tripling, dubbed the accusations as false, with other employees coming out in support. But as the day passed, more women—some even choosing to reveal their real names and faces—disclosed similar stories involving Kumar. And the company and its co-founders’ clarifications and justifications became a masterclass in how not to handle a serious scandal.

Initial outburst

After the Medium post surfaced, TVF released a statement deeming the allegations “categorically false, baseless, and unverified.” Pitchers actor Naveen Kasturia, whom Indian Fowler accused of laughing off her concerns at the time, went on to say he was “100% sure that the blog is fake.” The TVF team also denied that a woman from Muzaffarpur (the Uttar Pradesh town that Indian Fowler said she hails from) ever worked with them in the first place.

While these statements could be true, the lack of a formal probe into the allegations suggests that the company was more intent on silencing a dissenting voice, instead of fairly handling what amounts to a serious accusation.

In desperately trying to clear its name, TVF even threatened the alleged victim.

“We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations,” the company wrote in its post, prompting some Twitter users to suggest some more appropriate edits.

Botched recovery

While TVF remained skeptical about Indian Fowler’s anonymous claims, it couldn’t turn a blind eye to allegations from women who came out in the open. For instance, Reema Sengupta, co-founder of Mumbai-based digital content startup CATNIP, detailed her disconcerting experience with Kumar, while a fellow IIT-Kharagpur alumnus wrote of his demand that she go home with him and then strip and dance.

Though the company didn’t revise its official statement, Nidhi Bisht, the casting director and protagonist of TVF’s upcoming series Bisht, Please!, used her Facebook page as a megaphone. In a post, she expressed shock at the subsequent allegations, saying TVF has “zero tolerance towards workplace harassment and an investigation will be conducted and appropriate actions will be taken.”

For a while, Bisht’s damage-control offered respite, and a slew of TVF employees shared her post, echoing her sentiment. Two of them even said that Kumar had been a “father-figure” to them.

But just when things seemed to be cooling down, Kumar re-ignited the controversy, telling Mumbai Mirror in an interview on March 14, ”I am a heterosexual single man and when I found a woman sexy, I tell her she is sexy. I compliment women, is that wrong?”

Kumar, perhaps, was unaware that while complimenting professional competence is welcome, comments on appearances and looks are a no-go at the office. In an article for The Quint, activist Harish Iyer explained the deep-seated misogyny in Kumar’s nonchalance:

The assumption that heterosexual men have the right to say sexual things to a woman and that the woman should take it, is the epitome of a totally patriarchal mindset. And the audacity to end the sentence with, “is that wrong?” is not an innocent statement taken out of context. It is a justification of the words being said to a woman even when she clearly doesn’t appreciate it and also a slap on every woman’s face by the contaminated hands of patriarchy.

Act, don’t react

TVF and Kumar’s approach to handling the situation demonstrates the difficulty that employees face in speaking up against sexual harassment at the workplace, particularly when there’s a superior involved. Earlier this year, a survey by the Indian National Bar Association (pdf) found that 38% of the 6,047 male and female participants had faced sexual harassment at work. Of this group, 69% did not complain, fearing repercussions.

And even when women do speak out, particularly against powerful men, their voices often go unheard.

For instance, RK Pachauri continued to lead The Energy & Research Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, despite evidence that he sexually harassed a female colleague.

“Women in TERI had two choices,” Dilip Ahuja, professor of energy and environment policy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies at TERI, told Caravan Magazine. “They could either succumb to Pachauri’s advances, or leave.”

Not surprisingly, Pachauri’s victim chose the latter, just like the woman whose accusations against Indian Hotels chief executive Rakesh Sarna went unheeded, and Indian Fowler herself.

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