New Delhi: A young woman working as a strategy consultant in the office of BJP Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar in Bangalore accused a close aide of the businessman-turned-politician of sexual harassment and went on to have her charges confirmed by an in-house inquiry committee.
But this is not a story about the triumph of due process. Last week, even as the #MeToo movement raged all around her, the woman, Sonam Mahajan found herself out of a job – and saddled with an ex-parte court order that gags her from speaking to anyone about her situation.
Mahajan’s plight, say lawyers familiar with cases of sexual harassment at the workplace, is a textbook illustration of how the process can be stretched out by employers and the accused to a point where the victim is effectively denied any remedy. The fact that she has also been silenced indefinitely, they say, only adds insult to injury.
An MBA graduate with a right-of-centre approach to public policy, Mahajan joined Chandrasekhar’s office on October 9, 2017 on a one-year contract with the understanding, say sources on the MP’s team, that this would be automatically renewed at the end of the year. Working out of the building of Jupiter Capital Management, one of the businesses run by Chandrasekhar, Mahajan was placed on the payroll of his Namma Bengaluru Foundation, which also functioned out of the same building.
A month after joining, on November 16, 2017, Mahajan alleged inappropriate behaviour on the part of Khare and filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment. The complaint, company sources say, was made directly to Chandrasekhar. Though the company initially tried to push for a compromise, it finally set up an ad hoc investigation committee on December 1, in line with the requirements of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace law.
An internal investigation into sexual harassment allegations is meant to conclude in 90 days. In this case, the committee set up by Chandrashekhar’s office took twice as long, and only delivered its report at the end of June 2018. Its findings, however, bore out Mahajan’s complaint and recommended a range of punitive measures against Khare.
There is no record of the company accepting and acting on the investigation committee’s recommendations. Towards the end of September, Mahajan started repeatedly asking management why the recommendations had not been acted upon. She also refused to rejoin work if she was once again to be placed in close proximity to the man who had been found guilty of sexually harassing her by the ad-hoc committee and against whom no action had as yet been taken.
Even as she was pressing her points with management, Khare filed a case in a Bangalore court on October 1 praying for a stay on the ICC report. Notice was posted for the end of October.
However, when the #MeToo movement erupted in the first week of October and Mahajan took to Twitter to question Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s commitment to fighting sexual harassment at the workplace, Khare rushed to court and obtained an ex-parte injunction on October 8 restraining the Namma Bengaluru Foundation from acting on the ad hoc committee’s recommendations and barring it and Sonam Mahajan from speaking or writing or communicating any details about the charges against Khare.
The Wire reached out to Mahajan but she declined to comment not just on her case but even on whether she had been injuncted. However, the injunction is available on the court’s website.
The Wire also asked senior officials in Namma Bengaluru Foundation, arraigned in Khare’s petition as Defendant No. 1, and Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s office whether they intended to challenge the injunction and gag order but did not receive any response.
In approaching the courts for his injunction against Mahajan and Chandrashekhar’s NBF, Khare used the services of M.S. Syamsundar and Associates, the same law firm Chandrasekhar uses – and has used against The Wire for obtaining an ex-parte injunction in 2017.
When The Wire contacted Surya Raju, head of HR for Chandrasekhar’s office in Bangalore, to enquire about the current status of Mahajan, he said her contract had ended on October 8 and that she no longer worked for the company. He also claimed, when asked about the status of her sexual harassment complaint, that “the enquiry is over, we have acted on the recommendations … the company has zero tolerance towards sexual harassment.”
A subsequent question on how the internal committee’s recommendations could have been implemented when they had not been till the time Khare filed and obtained his injunction went unanswered.