Before #MeToo, This Journalist Stood Up To Sexual Harassment And Won A Lengthy Battle

Mukherji, who started her career in the late 80s, says that back then, the whisper network cautioned everyone about the harassers, not too different from today

Cases after cases have been piling up against media professionals as victims are finally coming out to tell their stories of sexual harassment amid the industry’s overdue #MeToo moment.

However, while the sheer amount of allegations is like nothing we have seen before, this isn’t the first time an incident of sexual harassment has escaped the rim of the industry. Way back in 2002, when the understanding of workplace harassment and power dynamics involved was limited, journalist Rina Mukherji complained of sexual harassment by Ishan Joshi at The Statesman office.

Mukherji, who started her career in Mumbai in the late 1980s, says that even back then, not too different from today, the whisper network cautioned everyone about the harassers. She told InUth, “Sexual harassment was rampant in Mumbai. But hardly any positive steps were taken by organisations to stem them. Mumbai was swarmed with several known characters who thought nothing of making lewd comments about women.”

(Courtesy: India Together)

Following the birth of her daughter, Mukherji found employment at The Statesman in Kolkata, a city she found to be a lot less uninviting with respect to harassment in the streets. However, soon after joining, she started experiencing sexual harassment at the hands of a superior.

“The first couple of weeks were fine, with everyone making me feel welcome and part of the team. About ten days into the job, I noticed the news coordinator Ishan Joshi looking for opportunities to touch me. When I walked down office corridors, Joshi would dash into me and paw me as he walked past. He would also touch me whenever I was with him in his room. Technically, he was my boss’ boss; I reported to the Chief Reporter who in turn reported to the News Coordinator. I started avoiding him as far as I could. His moves only got bolder. He would try putting his arms around me even as he talked of work. Pushing him away, as I always did, would not deter him,” Mukherji stated in a 2014 article in Open Magazine.

Mukherji said that with time, Joshi’s advances found their way into the newsroom “in full view of everyone.” Afraid that a complaint against Joshi, who reported only to the Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief, would only backfire, Mukherji kept quiet.

(Courtesy: Open Magazine)

As Mukherji persisted against the constant harassment, Joshi only resorted to questioning her professional credibility. She added in her Open Magazine account, “The number of rejected stories shot up in August and by September anything and everything I wrote was indiscriminately rejected.” When Mukherji finally mustered the courage to share her ordeal with a few friends, she felt emboldened to file a formal complaint. To her surprise, she was asked to resign, after devoting 15 years to the organisation.

When she resisted, Mukherji’s employment was terminated on October 12, 2002, with immediate effect, citing no reasons. As her professional reputation lay in ruins, unemployment took a toll on her as depression started to kick in.

Despite some supporters within The Statesman, when Mukherji saw no change, she reached out to NGOs and journalists within the fraternity. Her written complaint was then picked up by Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) Bengal, brought focus to her experience. “The resultant negative publicity probably forced the institution of a sexual harassment committee by The Statesman in both its Kolkata and Delhi offices, a first for a media house in both cities,” she goes on to detail in the Open Magazine column.

Mukherji later also approached the West Bengal Commission for Women and the Labour Commissioner’s office, however, failure to co-operate from The Statesman got her case transferred to the Industrial Tribunal for adjudication. After riling up some feathers, Mukherji finally stumbled upon the Human Rights Law Network and continued her treacherous battle for justice.

Representational Image (Courtesy: Reuters)

She stated, “Between 2004 and 2013, I lost more than three years due to the transfer or promotion of different judges. Speaking up against a frustrating system can also work against a complainant. As a result, I have had to contend with two defamation suits—one civil and another criminal—filed against me by Ishan Joshi and The Statesman in Kolkata and Delhi respectively. This has meant shuttling between two cities and three suits, leaving me little time for work.”

On February 6, 2013, the Industrial Tribunal ruled in favour of Mukherji’s labour suit against the management of The Statesman, Kolkata. Recently, Mukherji also won the criminal defamation suit following a verdict by the Patiala House court in New Delhi on September 18.

Detailing everyday sexism at the workplace back in the day, Mukherji told InUth, “We were denied opportunities to report on politics, business, sports, or whatever. Earlier, it was just lifestyle, culture and fashion that came our way.” However, with the current #MeToo storm, which has sparked a discourse on gender sensitisation in the newsrooms, Mukherjee says she couldn’t be happier.

Speaking about the National Commission of Women acknowledging the overwhelming number of allegations, Mukherji adds, “It will make the workplace far safer for the next generation. I’m glad that they will never have to put up with the kind of mental agony we had to.”