Sexual harassment charges against TVF founder show rape culture is the real viral fever

The accusations and subsequent testimonies from former employees expose how patriarchy and male entitlement fester in media start-ups.

 |   Long-form |   14-03-2017
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She called it “India’s Uber” and perhaps justifiably so. The Indian Fowler’s scathing and heartbreaking account of sexual harassment, molestation and abuse she faced for over two years from The Viral Fever’s co-founder Arunabh Kumar, is a bitter testimony to something terribly stinking in India’s “dude-bro” type start-up culture.

The blog post which surfaced last night on the portal medium.com has taken Indian mediasphere by storm, particularly the ultra cool, modernist and decidedly feminist (at least in public positions, stances, criticisms via their short-form comedy sketches) comic start-up world. 

The Mumbai-based TVF, in their first official statement, however, rubbished the claims made by the former TVF employee, a 24-year-old girl from Muzaffarpur by her own account, who had to endure two years of physical and mental trauma, sexual abuse and harassment from Arunabh Kumar.

Fellow stand-up comics from the group AIB have made scathing condemnations of the incident, and have categorically said that there’s no place for predatory culture of sexual harassment in a modern workplace.

 

However, Indian Folwer’s blog post, written in halting English, points to a different reality, far removed from the ideal. It is gut-wrenching in its recounting how Kumar used innuendoes to indicate that because she hailed from Muzaffarpur, she must be okay with potential sex work. Indian Fowler wrote:

“Day 21 - I am abruptly called by Arunabh at 6.45pm. I am in the local back towards my home. He demands I come back to office. Apparently I have not finished some part of my work. I reluctantly come back. There are 3 people in office. 2 of them leave withing 5 minutes of me coming in. And Arunabh is sitting on a Chair in a casual manner. I walk up to him. He looks at me and asks me "Chaturbhuj Sthan ka naam suni ho”? I am stunned. For Non Starters, Chaturbhuj Sthan is the Red Light District of Muzaffarpur. I didnt respond. His second question- “Humko Chaturbhuj Sthan Bahut Pasand Hai. Udhar commercial deals hoti hain. Tum Bhi to commercial deal pe aayi ho”. I was getting where he was leading the discussion to. I avoided an interaction. I said “Arunabh, aap bade bhai hain. Meri tabiyat thodi theek nahi hai. Kya karna hai bataiye. Hum karke ghar jaayenge” He suddenly holds my hand. Says “Madam, thoda role play karein”. I was stunned. None of this was something I had ever asked for. I ran away. Locked myself in the toilet. And cried. He went away. But i was thinking why the hell he is after me? What did i do to make this happen to me. That was the longest night of my life.”

However, that was only the beginning of her ordeal. The rest of the blog enumerates the numerous other occasions during which Kumar tried to touch her inappropriately, made lewd comments and solicited sexual favours from her.

To add insult to injury, an entity called “Legal” kept the victim from quitting her job at TVF, which was incidentally also her very first, because that would be a “breach of contract”.

TVF contracts, it emerged, had in them the clause that employees who quit wouldn’t be able to work for another media company for at least one year, and because the definition of what is a media company is suitably vague and inconsistent, first time workers like the Indian Fowler, were trapped in this vicious circle of a predatory work environment and a worker-unfriendly, discriminatory employee contract.

The denials and naysaying from members, past and present, of TVF poured in, irrespective of the media storm the issue had raised, painting India’s Holi with colours of ritual abuse and discrimination.

TVF, as it was found out, didn’t even have a human resources (HR) department, that would enforce what used to be the Vishakha guidelines, or the updated Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

This means, the Indian Fowler had no way to voice her grievances and the address the issue internally. Given the first responses of the TVF co-founders, it seems likely that not much would have come out anyway from an internal inquiry.

 

Interestingly, despite the vehement and ridiculously self-defeating denial from TVF, a number of other women have come forward with corroborations of sexual harassment and lewd behaviour they endured during their interactions with Arunabh Kumar. 

At present, at least four such instances of women coming forward to publicly acknowledge the disgusting conduct of Anunabh Kumar, have been documented.

 

The final leg of the blog post even says that Arunabh Kumar had been thinking of “pimp”[ing] the blogger and others to potential clients and high-profile actors for possible sex work, and that was really the last straw.

The last lines are particularly pathetic in their portrayal of how “Legal” continues to harass her (and possibly others too) over the breach of contract, and how they have been tracking her even though she has been without a job for a while, utterly taurmatised by what all happened with her at TVF.

The predatory culture of Indian workplaces has not only not changed in the Indian media start-ups, the first front of India’s digital revolution, they have intensified.

This has been labelled as the “dude-bro” culture of young media entrepreneurs who do not value women, female contribution and see women as sexual objects out their to satisfy the gender and diversity quotient.

Particularly appalling is this coming from TVF, which has women standup comics such as Nidhi Bisht, Monica Dua and others performing comedy and brilliant viral sketches that forefront the issues women face on a day-to-day basis.

Despite cutting-edge feminist comedy, how is it that TVF allows such disgusting culture of predatory machismo to fester in its workplace?

Aditi Mittal, the poster girl of female stand-up comedy, has direct questions for this dude-bro culture that perpetuates male entitlement all the more.

 

We need to pay attention to the revelations by the Indian Fowler now more than ever. Is Digital India is all about Being Abusive in India?

Also read: What if women heckled, ogled and sent out rape threats on Women’s Day?

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