Reena Mukherjee's Story in Her Own Words...
Lessons learnt ten years on
I was no novice when I joined The Statesman
in 2002. I had started writing when in college and thereafter pursued a
career in journalism for over a decade following a diploma in
journalism in Mumbai. After a short sabbatical to do my doctorate on a
UGC fellowship, I had moved to Kolkata and worked for a short time on
the Business Standard. The arrival of my baby daughter had compelled me to keep off full-time work for a while.
I intended to put my career on track with this job at The Statesman in 2002.
That was not to be. Sexual harassment at the organisation, and an
indifferent management changed my world altogether. I was totally
demoralised by the experience and left shattered. I will not dwell on
the details here, since a lot is available on this (NWMI) website. I
needed gynecological treatment and medical counseling to get over my trauma.
Once I got going, I realised the truth behind the dark underbelly that characterizes the bright imprint of the Indian media. The truth that
they boldly claim to espouse is conveniently swept under the carpet if
it be unsuitable.
Sure, there were people who supported me. Rajashri Dasgupta, Ananya
Chaterjee , Kalpana Sharma –each in her own way – brought the issue
centre-stage. So did Sevanti Ninan of The Hoot. There were some
colleagues at The Statesman too. Ajoy John and OP Rana tried to persuade
the management to investigate into my complaint, to no avail. They had
to leave the organisation for daring to speak up. OP Rana went on to
make a statement to the police and West Bengal Commission for Women against the manner in which he was made to sign a letter against me by the management under duress.
Yet, the conciliation proceedings at the Labour Commissioner's office
proved unfruitful. The Women's Commission was also unable to get The Statesman authorities to investigate into and look into my complaint, despite being at it for a year. The Statesman refused to comply. Period.
Once the dispute went into the labour court, it was a harrowing time for
me. If you have ever seen a law court in India, you will know what I mean.
A dingy, dusty, depressing place, a court in India can make a
complainant feel worse than an accused. Once a case enters a court, one
can forget about its future. It is best explained by what is so aptly
put in a television commercial: "chalta rahe, chalta rahe."
But try as you might, most organisations will prefer to settle matters
in court. Mainly because, given the state of our courts, nothing is
settled for years on end.
The first few months saw their lawyers drag the case on without a single
hearing, using various pretexts. Although I have been very lucky to get
short dates, with few long gaps in between, vacant courts have been my
bane. To explain, vacant courts are especially characteristic of the
Indian judicial system. Once a judge retires or is promoted to another
court, the litigants and their legal suits languish by the wayside for
years. In the course of nine years – 2004 to 2013 –I have lost nearly
three years since there were four different judges who were either
promoted or transferred. The Statesman and its lawyers know all this
only too well. They took time and stretched the case until a judge had
to leave on either promotion or transfer or retirement, leaving us high
and dry for months, and hence hampering progress.
In fact, the moment I managed my first win, with an order in my favour,
they appealed to the High Court against it. This made me lose precious
time, in spite of the High Court ruling in my favour. Of course, once
sent back to the labour court, the case continued.
But it took quite some time to have the first part decided. This was
whether the labour court could decide on my case or not and whether I
fell within the ambit of a "workman". By then, I was too exhausted to
continue. I was frustrated with the system, and thinking seriously on
the amount of time and money that was going down the drain. The way the
Indian judicial system is run makes a complainant feel condemned. Even a
win feels no success at all. One looks at the unending path to a formal
My lawyers were unhappy; they had worked hard to get orders in my
favour. "Please consider; think of the hard work we put in." I relented,
and I am glad I did.
I must also make a mention of the difficulty in getting a lawyer to
fight my case. The senior lawyers were unwilling to try their hand in a
case that was difficult, and without precedence. They are people who
like to win…hence, only tried and tested varieties are admissible! If
not for Ms Sutapa Chakrabarty of HRLN, a legal aid NGO in Kolkata, I
would have been compelled to argue my own case.
Notwithstanding what I say about the attitude of senior legal luminaries, my case was certainly without precedence.
Women in Indian society are expected to be docile. A generation ago,
educated women with jobs were branded as "badmaash" or "paaji", since
they were believed (perhaps rightly) not to brook any nonsense from
anyone. Today, even though educated and employed women are a dime a
dozen, women who are sexually harassed or molested are expected to keep
quiet. Ditto with raped women (a venerable Hindu seer actually made
remarks to that effect on the recent Delhi gang rape).
Consequently, laws made by the State to protect women remain untested at
the ground level. Women's commissions were set up in the various Indian
states to deal with crimes and injustices perpetrated on women many
years ago. But they remained quasi-judicial bodies with very limited
powers and "no teeth" to bring offenders to book. These flaws in our
system emerged scathingly when the West Bengal Commission for Women
started dealing with my case, under the redoubtable feminist and
academician Prof Jashodhara Bagchi.
Speaking up against a frustrating system can also work against a
complainant, as I have discovered. Given the libel laws in our country,
one can easily be brought to task. I have two civil and criminal libel
suits filed against me in Kolkata and Delhi respectively. This has meant
shuttling between two cities, and three suits, leaving me little time
I have had some supportive friends and colleagues, and wonderful women
like Sutapa Chakrabarty who headed the HRLN and helped me legally. But,
beyond the initial help, one must go it alone. Be it the police, the
Women's Commission, and your lawyers, one has to juggle one's
professional demands, family, fellowships, and legal disputes with the
finesse of a trapeze artiste.
The labour courts are considered comparatively faster that regular
courts. But they provide no relief when an individual fights a case. One
scrounges for money while spending precious years for reinstatement and
relief after being illegally terminated. Unless there is a labour union
to do so, one is doomed.
It also means that no one will employ you easily. In my case, even
though jobs were not difficult to come by, given my credentials as a
prolific writer, I found it difficult to work with three cases in three
different courts to attend do. Thus, I had to take up and leave jobs,
both full time and part-time, that paid well and promised much. In fact,
in one case, the employer offered me a two-fold raise to prevent me
from leaving, assuming I was not happy with my pay packet.
I would like to mention here, fighting my case has taught me to bolster my inner reserves as I travelled up and down, seeking lawyers, undergoing medical treatment
and counselling, gathering information and attending courts all on my
own while continuing writing for publications, full-time or part-time.
At no stage was I ever accompanied by a friend or family member, and
neither did I seek to share my misery with anyone else. My husband was a
passive support, who sometimes extended financial help. Of course,
given the kind of patriarchy prevalent in India, this is something one
must be grateful of.
A word here about the attitude of colleagues in the profession,
especially in Kolkata. I became a member of the NWMI-Bengal Chapter when
I met Rajashri and Ananya in connection with my case way back in 2003.
This was perhaps when it had just been set up by Rajashri Dasgupta. When
details of my case on NWMI went viral, we had a lot of colleagues
pledging support. However, when matters picked up, several of the
members decided to shun me altogether. A few even moved away from the
NWMI altogether since I continued to be a member. This, in spite of the
fact that I was invited to write on other newspapers that had business
links with The Statesman.
Since a lot is being said about women's unity, I want to mention the
attitude of some women journalists here as well. A look at the documents
put up on the NWMI website will say it all, when you do a rough count
of the number of women who have signed it. A certain lady, who was then
the senior-most woman in the editorial section, had point blank refused
to help me with a parting note on my work done for The Statesman
publications, even after I had explained why I needed it. Even when the
Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee was formed after pressure from
NWMI's Bengal chapter, she had never bothered, as someone with
considerable clout on it, to initiate an investigation into my
complaint. Today, she is out telling everyone about how she had helped
me with my case. Truly, all the world loves a winner.
There are others who, like Oindrilla Mukherjee, have gone on to contest
my credentials as a reporter and journalist, without ever having had any
contact with me, save knowing who I was. Interestingly, I already had a
decade's experience working and writing for publications nationwide,
while they were just a few months or a year in the profession. A few
others have even sworn on what a thorough gentleman the accused offender
is, and how unfounded my accusation is.
Of course, I am not surprised. Think of how many women laugh at your
plight when you get teased on the streets; I know of many women who
think nothing of delivering a sharp rebuke to a young girl when her
clothes are tugged at or her dupatta pulled away by miscreants on the
Contrast this with the help extended by several male colleagues like
Partho Pratim Nag who not only supported me, but helped guide me on my
path to justice.
By the same token, I cannot but be grateful for the promptness with
which the Kolkata police and the Women's Commission responded when asked
to testify in court. Even though it was several years since my
complaint had been filed, their representatives did not spare the
necessary effort to take the case ahead. The police, particularly, plod
on to investigate into my complaint despite the lack of co-operation
they met with at The Statesman at every stage.
I feel particularly happy with the commitment and enthusiasm that
characterises youngsters in the legal profession, going by my own
experience. Debashis Banerjee of HRLN, Kolkata, ably assisted by his
other colleagues, managed to win favourable orders in a row, ultimately
clinching the Award from the Industrial Tribunal. One of them, Ambalika
Roy, has since moved to Delhi and is now handling my libel suit as a
private lawyer in Delhi. Unlike several senior lawyers in Kolkata and
Delhi, they were all keen to venture into uncharted territory. The case
may have been difficult for them too, with no previous judgement to fall
back on, and uncertainty of success looming large. But they were
willing to take the plunge, and addressing what they saw as a "human
About the future of the media, I am not that certain. My experience at
The Statesman, and the quality of journalists I have had to encounter,
makes me wonder as to how much of a pillar of our democracy the media
can prove to be. Journalism is not about merely holding a job in a
publication, but living a life of personal and professional integrity.
Newspapers are not mere documents that witness history; they make and
change history. Journalists make newspapers. To embody the values that
our state stands for, and uphold the Constitution, we need fearless
journalists who can stand for the truth. Only then, can the media serve
as the Fourth Estate, and defend our democracy. Alternative media has
already made a beginning to break off from the morass; one hopes that it
shall lead in bringing back the values that once spelt our media.