KOLKATA, West Bengal — On August 9 this year, a Times Network employee said she received a phone call from Srivathsan S, the head of Human Resources at Times Network, informing her that she was being fired for non-performance.
On the call, the employee said, she told Srivathsan she had been sexually harassed for years, and in at least one instance physically assaulted by Times Network’s Managing Director Anand MK. The employee noted that a week previously, on August 2, she had called Anand’s wife and told her that Anand had sexually harassed her for years.
Speaking to HuffPost India, the employee said, that rather than investigate her allegations against Anand, Times Network filed a complaint against the employee for “criminal intimidation and blackmail”.
On August 27, the woman filed a First Information Report at a police station in Mumbai. In the FIR, which HuffPost India has reviewed and translated from Marathi to English, the woman laid out her allegations in detail, listing several instances of inappropriate touching, forcible kissing, groping and verbal harassment over several years starting in 2008 and continuing right up to earlier this year. In her police complaint, the woman said that Anand repeatedly asked her to have sex with him and to send her nude photographs, and her career suffered when she refused.
HuffPost India is not naming the woman as Indian laws restrain media houses from identifying survivors of sexual assault.
The woman told HuffPost India that she suffered this harassment for years without filing a formal complaint as she was a single mother struggling to raise a young child. Now, she said, she had chosen to speak up and go to the police as, she felt, Times Network was not taking her allegations seriously, and instead had fired her and filed a police complaint against her.
Pallavi Pareek, managing partner at Ungender, a Delhi-based advocacy group that advises on the POSH act, said Times Network’s decision to file a police complaint against the woman confirmed every woman’s worst fear about filing a sexual harassment complaint.
“The very core reason why women don’t raise any complaint is for the fear of losing their job, hostility, and retaliation which results in her character assassination. All these fears multiply as the power hierarchy and authority of the alleged person grows,” she said.
Suruchi Kumar, a Supreme Court lawyer, said, “If a survivor informs the HR about sexual harassment, the HR is duty bound to redirect her to the Internal Complaints Committee of the organisation so that she can file a proper complaint in writing and an inquiry can be initiated.”
As Managing Director of the Times Network, Anand is in-charge of some of India’s most influential television channels including Times Now, Mirror Now, and ET Now. Times Network is part of Bennet Coleman and Co Limited, commonly known as the Times Group, which publishes India’s most-read newspapers including the Times Of India, the Economic Times and flagship newspapers in several Indian languages including Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati. (HuffPost’s India edition was also published by the Times Group till mid-2017. HuffPost India is now part of the Verizon Media Group.)
Taking on such a large and influential company, the woman said, was not a decision she could take lightly.
“Former colleagues called and told me that I shouldn’t take the legal route because it will not end well. But I was tired of their bullying, so I went ahead,” the woman told HuffPost India.
“This is a malicious abuse of provisions of Sexual Harassment by this employee to blackmail the company after termination,” Hina Jafri, Times Network’s head of Corporate Communications said in an email to HuffPost India. “The said employee was communicated of her non-performance repeatedly, resulting in termination.”
Jafri said that the woman had not filed a complaint with the Times Network’s internal complaints committee either prior to, or after, her termination.
Jafri said Times Network filed a police complaint on August 10 because the woman made “unreasonable demands of severance, which was denied.” Jafri claimed Times Network had gathered evidence against the employee and submitted it to the police.
The woman said she first met Anand MK in 2008 when she joined Zoom TV, a Times Network channel that covers Bollywood, in a senior editorial capacity overseeing their lifestyle and society coverage.
Anand, the woman says in her FIR, was the business head of the channel and frequently spoke with Zoom anchors and producers and was involved in the decision-making process on shows.
“Whenever Anand found me alone in his cabin, he would try to become intimate with me by talking about sex. After some time, I came to know that Anand had physical relationships with several other women employees in the office. I also came to know that many employees had filed police complaints against him in the past. I began avoiding talking to him slowly but he would always try to talk to me. He would often offer me to drop me home after work and would also invite me to go out and establish physical contact with him. But I would say no every time,” the woman said in her FIR.
HuffPost India could not independently confirm these incidents or police complaints. The Times Network has disputed the contents of the FIR and has said the FIR is based on “incorrect facts”.
That year, she told HuffPost India, another Times Network employee filed a police complaint stating that Anand harassed women in the company and asked them for sex. The woman said Anand asked her and a few other employees to give statements to the Mumbai police in his favour.
“We all testified that Anand was a great guy and he did no wrong though I was myself being harassed by him. Karma has come back to bite me now,” the woman said.
The woman said she was, at the time, a single mother with a young child, and worried that she would lose her job if she did not comply with Anand’s demand that she testify in his favour.
“That was a big mistake,” she said.
A year later, in 2009, Anand left Times Network. His LinkedIn profile states that he briefly worked for Bloomberg TV before longer stints as CEO at UTV and then as Managing Director at Disney and ESPN Media Networks, before returning to Times Network as Managing Director in 2014.
Immediately after Anand joined, the woman said, she started receiving poor annual appraisals. When she asked Anand about her appraisals, the woman said in her police complaint, he insisted that she establish sexual relations with him and also demanded she send nude photos of her to him. The woman refused following which Anand, she said, began to threaten her that she could lose her job.
“In July 2014, I found MK Anand standing in front of me when I came out of the toilet. Before I could realize what was happening, MK Anand hugged me and began kissing me. I panicked and began crying and pushing MK Anand away from me. MK Anand pushed me and threatened to defame me if I related this incident to anyone. I was really scared after this incident but kept quiet fearing defamation,” says the FIR filed by the woman.
The FIR also mentions another incident in 2015 when, the woman said, Anand tried to accost her. “IN 2015, during an office party in a street’s club MK Anand groped me and tried to become intimate with me after which I tried not to come face to face with him. Because of this, MK Anand stopped my promotions and reduced my shows. Three of my shows were closed. When I requested him to give me shows, MK Anand told me that I would not be given work until I kept physical relations with him,” the woman stated in the FIR.
In 2017, Times Network revamped Zoom and the woman was moved to Times Now where she continued to work on lifestyle and entertainment shows. In 2019, the woman said in her FIR, she said she had a chance encounter with Anand at the network’s corporate office.
“I came across Mr.MK Anand who stared at my chest and said indecently, ’You have become fat.” the FIR says. “I told him not to use indecent language. He then began pressurising some of my office people not to give me work in the shows.”
“I realised that I was not being given proper work so I spoke to the editor in chief Rahul Shivshankar on WhatsApp messages on 27 November 2019 about salary and work,” the FIR says. “He told me that decision-making powers are with M K Anand.”
The FIR states that the woman was subsequently made to report to Navika Kumar, Times Now’s other prominent anchor and senior editor, who was given charge of the channel’s entertainment vertical.
“I asked Navika about my salary, work and shows on March 25, 2020, through WhatsApp messages but she did not reply after which I realized that MK Anand was deliberately doing all this,” the FIR says.
The woman declined to share copies of these messages with HuffPost India on the advice of her lawyers.
In February and March 2020, the FIR states, Anand visited the Times Now office in Kamala Mills in Mumbai where he again demanded that the woman have sex with him.
“I told him that I would slap a case on him after which he threatened me that he would defame me,” the FIR says.
The FIR also says that the woman told both Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar about her alleged harassment by Anand, but says neither of them responded to her.
Then on August 2 2020, the woman said, she spoke with Anand’s wife on the phone and told her that Anand was harassing her. A week later, as noted earlier, she was terminated for non-performance.
HuffPost India shared the specific allegations contained in the FIR with Times Network — including the allegation that Shivshankar and Kumar were made aware of the allegations against Anand. Shivshankar and Kumar, Times Network said, do not report to Anand on editorial matters.
Jafri, the Times Network spokesperson, said the company denied the allegations contained in the FIR. She said the Times Network had not received any complaints against Anand in the past, including in 2008. Jafri said the woman had not made any complaints of harassment to Shivshankar, Kumar, or Srivathsan of HR. The allegations were made after her termination, Jafri said – a claim the woman has denied.
Jafri said Times Network filed a police complaint after the woman made “abnormal settlement demands”, which the company interpreted as blackmail. “The company lodged a complaint with the NM Joshi Marg Police Station on August 10 against her for Criminal intimidation and Blackmail. Realising her failed attempt at making unjust monetary demands, the former employee lodged a frivolous complaint with the Mumbai Police, 17 days after our complaint, making false and wild allegations. We have submitted a detailed response to this complaint to the Mumbai Police,” Jafri wrote in the email.
The woman has denied Jafri’s claims. The Times Network representative added that the company has “evidences in the form of mails/ whatsapp chats/ team discussions / audio / video recordings etc. substantiating our legal position.” In her FIR, the complainant has mentioned she has videos in her possession related to the case and she is willing to submit them to the police if required.
“Times has withheld my full and final settlement and now I neither have my job in the midst of a pandemic, nor have they paid me my dues. This is criminal and amounts to mental torture,” she said.
With inputs from Akshay Deshmane and Pavan Dahat.