Trigger Warning- Sexual Harassment
Issues and concerns have been raised by Sarita who was working with Centre for Health and Social Justice ( CHSJ ) especially working on the issues of social justice , it is also an example of how performance issues are used as a shield against the woman complainant when there are layers of sexual harassment at workplace .
by- Sarita Barpanda
It is sad that I have to remember something that I would not like to remember or think about. But #MeTooMovement has brought with it a lot of memories which I had suppressed it. It would also have not played on my mind if I had not seen the perpetrators name as one of the signatories who has signed a undertaking to create a safe space and environment.
I was working in Centre for Health and Social Justice as a Programme Director, I joined in 2011. The first few months were good as all of us were in the best behavior. Slowly this changed, I could see other girl’s bullied, sexist remarks being made about their sexuality and even members from other organizations who visited CHSJ like Subhash Mendharpukar (who was also a governing body member) would make sexist remarks about looks, body which was unjustified and was unfair harassment. I think the atmosphere changed when the Boss or his side kick were present in the office. It would become dark and everyone would immerse themselves into their computer. One day Dr. Abhijit Das, Satish Singh, and Subash Mendharpukar during a meeting started talking about me and my two daughters. The discussion centered around how I dress, and how sexy my daughter was. Subash Mendharpukar even went to the extent of rating my daughter if there was any need for money. This conversation was loud and so disgusting that I could not keep my tears and started to cry helplessly. I went home crying and I was so ashamed that I could not tell the whole story to my husband, however my husband knew the conversation must have been nasty and immediately called Abhijit Das and was stern and said that the behavior was unexpected. Dr. Abhijit Das apologized and said it would never happen again. The next day it was almost normal, but majority of the team members reporting to me had either stopped reporting to me or would not give me the information that I was looking for.
For a few months I did not know how to take it, because when Dr. Das would call me to his room he would be very nice, sit with me closely, and congratulate me by hugging me. So it was exactly like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Personality, but both the personalities were eerily scary and I avoided going into his room. My appraisal was a farce with Dr. Abhijit Das, Satish Singh and Lavanya Mehra the HR Manager, so they had written a list of issues about me, the first was I did not talk with Mahendra, one of the activists from Madhya Pradesh; the second was I had given the donor report without completing a table, and the third was I give gifts to my colleague and try to buy their loyalty. For a moment I was stumped, because I was the one who had compiled Mahendra’s presentation and sat with him to prepare him for an international workshop. The donor report was complete and the table was supposed to be shared by another colleague who had not done it, I did not know how I was responsible. Wherever I go I get small gifts for all my colleague and it was mutual, they would also give me small token most of which I still have it. But then I heard for the first time that through gifts I was buying loyalty. I just looked at all the three faces and very politely said what I had to say. But my disappointment at the level of professionalism of this organization, and the pettiness of the seniors made me realize that I would not last for very long in this organization.
On 31st January I had returned back from Rajasthan and organized a meeting with the partners and Dr. Das and Satish Singh. We were having a discussion with the partners suddenly from behind Dr. Das yelled at me saying I did not know what I was doing, and I was not prepared. I quietly followed him into his room, where he threateningly started shouting saying my work was not up to mark. His face was close to mine, I could feel his spit on my face, and for a moment I was so scared that he would grab my shoulders that I ran out of the room on the verge of tears. I handed over my resignation on 31st of January, the same day and walked out. Dr. Das called me back again on 5th of February 2014 and personally apologized and said that he had not accepted my resignation and asked me to return back and join the organization. I said I needed time to think, and would get back once I recover from all the onslaught and attack. Dr. Das hugged me tightly, it was uncomfortable and I could feel him, which was uncomfortable and I was relieved and almost fell over when he let go. I left the office and ran home. On the 1st of March I got a call unexpectedly from Dr. Abhijit Das, Director and he asked me to resign and provide a handing over note especially when I was coming back from Mumbai after medical treatment; I was too tired to fight and felt humiliated and exploited despite my exemplary work and substantial contribution to the organisation. There was no fair hearing as there was no sexual harassment committee or any grievance redressal committee. I wrote to the Governing Body Members and asked them for justice and hoped that they would recognize my humiliation and rectify the situation so that other professionals would find a safer environment within the organization.
Some of my allegations were:
Allegation I: Shouting and making remarks which are sexist, rude, body shaming and openly gossiping about others loudly and creating a unhealthy environment.
Dr. Abhijit Das has a tendency to shout, and these verbal bouts of anger were sometimes personal and could strip a woman of her dignity. He would assign work and then forget about it, and shout about it. He has even in front of my team members torn of my work without seeing it, and in a fit of anger left the room, these bouts of anger were bewildering and confusing as after a month he would ask for the same work and shout why it had not been shown and shout again at me for it. It was stressful, and he targeted a few not all; since he was my Supervisor, it was becoming extremely difficult as I have seen a few of his trusted old staff talk against me and he would believe them and would hold me responsible for the act, and would order me to apologise. In order to please him I would apologize without having made any mistakes. I never knew whether I was taken in the organisation to lead the team as a Programme Director or constantly harangued and shouted at as a mere worker.
Allegation II: Asking the staff whether they have received gifts from me to buy their loyalty
I was surprised when the Director made this allegation in front of the staff that I have been giving gifts to people to buy their trust or loyalty. This was even shared by the Research Director with others that I am unprofessional and giving gifts and money to team members to buy their loyalty. Yes I have gifted my colleagues during their birthday, when I go for field trips or vacations and similarly I have received gifts from my dear team members too. And I do not think I bought anybody’s loyalty with that. The above allegations were made after the Director met me on the 5th of February in his office in the afternoon requesting me not to resign and he even went on to state that he would restore my dignity and make amendments. I agreed to what he said, and shared that I would come and join after I return back from Mumbai where I was going for a checkup of me and my daughter. While returning back on 1st of March he asked me for my resignation and a handing over note, I was too tired to respond.
However what bothered me was the fact that the Director even went to the extent of alleging that I engineered the recent resignation of other staffs; It surprised me no end as I had resigned because of his sexual abuses and humiliation. The other two young girls had been targeted and also did not feel safe in the office. Dr. Abhijit Das, Satish Singh and Lavanya Mehra in order to protect themselves organized a core meeting on 31st of January comprising of a few old staff (one of the staff was called from the field and I have never ever worked with him and surprisingly he also had something to say about my behavior, the meeting came to a conclusion that I needed to change my behavior as everybody in the office was scared of me. This was the last straw, I had an emotional breakdown. I have worked in state and international organisations and I still have absolutely good relations with my supervisor and my team members. In fact during my stay at CHSJ; my fundraising was successful as I managed to get two projects from NMEW and PACS through my own initiative, and I have supported in writing other proposals too which have been successful. It happened because of these friendships and my work ethics and professional rapport. So bringing this up and questioning my ethics and using terms like, ‘Gutbazi’ made me feel small and humiliated no end. As these are not some of the things that all my Supervisors from my previous organisations would ever say about me as I have always been a team player.
Allegation III: Personal sexist remarks made in a forum as well as individually by the Director and Deputy Director.
It is a shame as well as a shock that the language used during lunch hours in the office has been threatening as well as abusive and sexist. There have been sexually indecent comments made to me to sell my daughters (the Director specifically told the group of CHSJ team as well as Mr. Subash Mendharpukar, GB member about my older 17 year old daughter being sexy, which I overlooked) as well as the Deputy Director who took the conversation forward by saying that Sarita’s assets could be sold for the release of the Sahayog team if they were ever caught by the Naxalites in Odisha. Mr Mendharpukar also joined in and made dirty remarks trying to put me down. It was as if each of them were inciting the other. I was further shocked when he called the girls of our team standing in a group during our retreat as lesbians in my ears. For me it was a shock as this is an organisation which considers itself a flag bearer of gender sensitivity, whereas this is one organisation which has not understood that making personalized remarks, sexist remarks are sexual harassment.
Allegation IV: No external body to lodge our formal complaints.
CHSJ had no external committees or internal complaint mechanism to lodge complaints of sexual harassment.. Since the day I joined (October 2012) there were no mechanisms to establish or lodge sexual harassment complaint or our concerns, even if somebody goes through any harassment there is no scope for that to be addressed as one had to go directly to the Director. There was an HR Manager who was close to the Director and the Asst Director, and she was the ears and eyes of them. There was a fear in general to speak about harassment. One of the girls I remember had too many drinks to drink during her field work, she was accompanied by the Asst. Director, and suddenly the whole office was talking about her loose morals, and within two weeks she was asked to leave. A few days before my issue reached a boiling point I saw the Assistant put up a notice on the notice board, and it had my name and Leena Uppal’s name as members of ICC. This was surprising as there had been no discussion about it and none at CHSJ talked about it. when the systematic harassment started, I realized that the Director wanted me to leave. He did not have any excuses to kick me out, so I would hear a lot of rumors about me, which was sad. My complaint also would not have been taken up seriously if Dr. A.R.Nanda had not forced the other members to take up and investigate the complaint. In order to dilute the complaint, Dr. Abhijit Das and CHSJ formed a committee which was headed by Dr. Rajani Ved a family friend of Dr. Das and the second trustee of CHSJ. After three months Dr. Ved came out with a report saying that Dr. Das had been flippant but had no intention of sexual harassment.
I was shocked the way the report was written, it was shoddy, many people had wanted to speak on behalf o me, but many of them were not invited, and from CHSJ the Director, Asst. Director, a field worker called Mahendra with whom I had never had any contact of spoken to and Dr. Das’s personal assistant. I was angry and wanted to take legal recourse, but I was tired and had fallen seriously ill. My depression was so bad that I could not get out of bed, and had to be hospitalized. I had to let go for my sanity
CHSJ set up a hearing committee comprising of Ms. Rajani Ved (trustee and a very good family friend of Dr. Das) Gagan Sethi, Jayawati Shrivastava, and asked me to write down the events and share. I wrote in detail and also in my letter asked for unconditional apology from Abhijit Das, Satish Singh and three month salary.
The report of the committee was not shared in complete form, and witnesses from the organizations side were those whom I had never worked with, For example Mahendra one of the witnesses was a field worker and worked in Madhya Pradesh and I have spoken to him to him once for a brief few minutes, Anita Gulati was the personal assistant of Dr. Das, and I had very few opportunities to talk with her. The report came back admitting all that had happened and the fact that Dr. Abhijit Das did make those remarks, but they were non serious, humourous, flippant remarks and the anger and shouting by Dr. Abhijit Das was due to non-performance and that did not count as sexual harassment. It was a huge blow. I felt humiliated, but then was seriously ill to take it forward. Both Dr. Abhijit Das and Satish Singh gave me letters of apology, but the apology letter was vague and made no sense.
Dr. Abhijit Das is a pervert, vindictive, arrogant man, who belittles others and tries to control women through sexual innuendos, staring at the breasts of the women and also making personal remarks about a women and her sexuality. One of my colleagues was wearing a stiletto to the office, and I remember one of his core staff coming and telling her not to wear such shoes as it distracted the Director. I do believe that he got away too easily and action should have been taken against him. It took me four years to recover, I went into deep depression and was on medication and will probably be on medication for the rest of my life.
Her colleague Leena Uppal writes
Leena Uppal It took me sometime to comment. I remember you being sad and upset but holding strong because you wanted always to put professionalism first. I remember being sad myself about being bullied. I remember a few others being bullied. I don’t know why we were not a right fit Sarita, despite our passion and good results we brought in our work? Since I worked with you and learned through your experiences, all I can say you were too much above the benchmark than it was expected. I am fully in support of you and a bit emotional too reading your testimony
Sarita Barpanda is working with ( Human Rights Law Network) and is program director of Reproductive Health unit