Update: This article has been updated with a response from the Tatas that appeared in The Indian Express.
The Indian Express ran a signed article by Anjuli Pandit on November 1, where she narrates her horror story of dealing with Rakesh Sarna, one of the most powerful CEOs inside the Tata group, back in 2015. Sarna was the then CEO of Indian Hotels, a rock-star performer effecting a major turnaround, and therefore, considered untouchable. More than his repeated sexual advances that she had to deal with, the sheer callousness with which her case was dealt with in the group at all levels, is simply breath-taking. Everyone, including board members, Tata Group Executive Council members and the office of the chairman, apparently advised her to quietly resign—and not pursue the case. (If you haven't had a chance to read it, I’d suggest that you take 10 minutes out to do so today.)
This is actually the second time I have surfaced this case in my Strategic Intent column. Back in 2016, I had done a wider piece on sexual harassment in India Inc. I started it with a reference to Pandit’s travails, albeit anonymously. It was based on a piece titled Just Another Sexual Harassment Story, written by journalist and author Manu Joseph in Huffington Post. At that stage, Joseph had masked her identity. But with just a little bit of digging, it was amply clear to me whom he was referring to and indeed what the back story was.
Given her traumatic experience, Pandit understandably took three years to come out with her version of the truth. There was legal intimidation and the threat of revealing her truth to future employers. “…the Taj board member who constituted the committee recommended that I move on with my life and let this issue rest without closure. In 2017, the male committee member even breached confidentiality to inform my new employer of his role in the case,” she writes.
As she explains in detail, she had exhausted all viable routes for redressal, including approaching the media. While I was writing my column, I was told that a senior woman journalist at India’s leading business daily had all the details of the case, but chose to either bury the story or wasn’t allowed to go ahead by her editor.
When I dug into the case, I found the company had ticked all the right boxes. They had appointed senior women of stature on the board. Expert trainers had conducted employee sensitisation programmes across the board. The internal complaints committee had capable, qualified people (except that Sarna was himself a committee member) and trained to handle cases. Plus, Indian Hotels was part of a group that was known to pursue the highest standards of probity for decades. And yet the system failed, completely and utterly. Because people who were supposed to run them failed to show spine when it really mattered. They forgot to demonstrate the will to put a powerful leader in his place, especially since he had failed to abide by the rules of conduct. Other than some perfunctory statements to the media and analysts, Indian Hotels simply didn’t come clean publicly on what their investigations had revealed—and the steps they had taken to clean up the system.
Now this isn’t uncommon. In such crisis situations, companies tend to freeze and lose all sense of perspective and common sense. And if they are surrounded by the wrong set of advisors and spin doctors, they invariably tend to pursue any or all these options: hide behind confidentiality, threaten legal action, block any media coverage or look to discredit the whistleblower.
This is exactly what had happened four years ago, when some of us wrote to Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry about Charudutt Deshpande’s mysterious suicide in December 2014, while he was employed with Tata Steel. Deshpande, who had the reputation of being an upright and ethical journalist-turned-PR professional, was hounded by senior leaders within Tata Steel for allegedly leaking stories that were detrimental to their interests to the media.
Mistry promptly instituted an inquiry committee. Yet despite several requests from the Mumbai Press Club and other quarters, the report was never made public—thereby denying the closure that was perhaps due to Deshpande’s family and friends. There were attempts at creating divisions in our group of journalists, scuttle the police probe, offer financial support to the Press Club in a bid to curry favour and also malign my reputation through a whisper campaign. I’ve never spoken about this before because none of it worked. But it was downright dirty. And I can empathise with what Pandit may have gone through.
Back to this Taj case. After my column on sexual harassment in 2016 appeared, I was reliably told by insiders that it raised a huge ruckus inside the group. The matter was escalated to Ratan Tata. And the case was once again reopened. I don’t know what came of it, but if Pandit’s account is anything to go by, she neither saw any delayed justice delivered nor was her complaint ever properly acknowledged.
The most insidious thing in this saga was when Cyrus Mistry was unceremoniously removed on October 24, 2016, the group was desperate to gain public approval for the sacking. I was repeatedly sent multiple messages that clearly hinted that one of the reasons for Mistry’s removal was his poor handling of the Sarna sexual harassment case. I chose to ignore them, putting it down as yet another case of spin doctoring, conjured up by one of the firm’s flamboyant external lobbyists.
One last point: Pandit’s experience with the internal committee is no different from what some of us went through when we deposed before the inquiry committee that was set up to investigate the circumstances behind Deshpande’s suicide. The encounter was almost surreal. Instead of treating us as whistleblowers who simply wanted the Tata group to look into the matter seriously, the line of questioning seemed completely hostile at times—and intimidatory. Almost as if I had committed a crime by reporting the matter to the group. Of course, I’ve never allowed myself be intimated all these years—and I wasn’t about to flinch. But it was a wasted opportunity to find out more about the mess within, that’s if the intent was to get to the bottom of things. It didn't seem that way at all. Some heads did roll internally, but the group refused to publicly share what it had found.
In the end, despite all the enormous emotional trauma that she went through, Pandit makes an incredible offer to the new Tata management: to meet her and discuss how to ensure that her experience serves as a way to improve their processes.
“We can help companies, like Tata, who do believe in women’s rights, detangle misogyny from their systems and establish transparent processes. If you work in corporate India, do you know who your sexual harassment committee is? Do you trust them to be fair? Are they empowered to take ethical decisions? If you question this, help us fix it by asking for its review. I invite Tata’s new management to meet with me to discuss how we can ensure that my experience serves as a learning to improve their process.”
Now, are the Tatas willing to sit across the table, listen and learn? There is a whole new team in place, with N Chandrasekaran at the helm. Hopefully, there is now a more pragmatic approach to dealing with a crisis, a return to good governance and an ethical approach. And so, if the Tatas do accept Pandit’s offer, it would be an incredible leadership gesture to actually make things better. And that would be the only silver lining in this otherwise sordid saga.
Note: A day after Anjuli Pandit's story appeared in The Indian Express, the Tata group said: The #metoo movement is a “watershed moment occurring across the country and the world”, and that they “hear” her and “recognise the opportunity to raise the bar”.
A Tata group spokesperson said: “Every complaint matters, and each matter is investigated with the highest care and respect, through a rigorous process established under the Tata Code of Conduct. We have always taken decisive action on evidence of inappropriate conduct in the organization.”