Asianet COO denies charges of sexual harassment, says court will prove him right

Note: After reaching out to Sonam Mahajan multiple times, before and even after the publication of this article, she has refused to communicate with OpIndia.com. However, she has spoken to The Print and her statements can be read here.

The ongoing #MeToo movement in India has seen many women coming out and sharing their stories of sexual harassment at workplaces, with the accused men belonging to varied industries especially journalism and Bollywood. The latest addition to the list is allegations of sexual harassment against the COO of Asianet, a media conglomerate owned by BJP MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar.

According to media reports, Abhinav Khare, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Asianet, has been accused of sexual harassment by Sonam Mahajan, a popular political commentator on social media. Sonam was reportedly working with Abhinav as a Digital Marketing Consultant at Namma Bengaluru Foundation (NBF), an NGO founded by Mr Chandrashekhar, however, Sonam says that she essentially worked with Mr Chandrashekhar’s office.

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Mr Chandrasehkhar has been accused by Sonam of not helping her with her complaints about Khare, and instead, of shielding Khare. Media reports say that an internal complaints committee has found Khare guilty of misconduct and had asked him to tender an apology to Sonam, which was never done.

Khare insists that all the charges are fabricated and thus he refused to tender even a simple apology.

“My conscience is clear. If I didn’t do any wrong, why should I offer an apology?” Khare said when OpIndia asked him why he is not willing to offer an apology. He further said that it was not even an internal complaints committee, as according to the laws of the nation Namma Bengaluru is not expected to have one, but an ad-hoc committee which was formed illegally in the first place.

Khare went to court against the manner in which the committee was formed and how the inquiry was conducted which, he says, he had objected to in writing in February itself. He has termed it unfair and the result of ‘prejudging’ the case. Khare says that the moment Sonam Mahajan made the charges of ‘borderline mental and sexual harassment’ an ad hoc committee was immediately formed by NBF which he discovered much later in January or February when the committee sent him a questionnaire. Based on the questionnaire, he objected in writing about the manner in which the committee was formed and the direction of the inquiry.

The court has agreed with Khare that prima facie, he has proved that the formation and proceeding of the committee was illegal. Thus the court stopped the Namma Bengaluru Foundation on acting on its recommendation and further issued a restraining order.

NBF cites this court order as the reason why no action was taken against Khare because the matter is now sub-judice. NBF pointed out that if they never had any intention of helping Sonam Mahajan, as alleged, then why would they form the committee in the first place.

A statement released by Mr. Chandrashekhar reiterated that the BJP MP supports the women who have come out in the MeToo movement, but denied that Sonam was employed as a member of the MP’s office or immediate team – a claim Sonam has contested by releasing some WhatAapp chat messages that show Mr. Chandrashekhar discussing some work-related issues with Sonam. Sonam has also produced a letter where she is apparently being referred to as a member of Mr Chandrasekhar’s team.

However, Mr Chandrasekhar’s office claims that these aspects have been produced ‘out of context’ and the employment of Sonam Mahajan was limited to Namma Bengaluru Foundation, and not any other political or business interest of Mr Chandrasekhar.

OpIndia reached out to Sonam Mahajan on Wednesday to know her side of the story but she didn’t issue any statement as she has been restrained from commenting on the issue via the order of the court. However, on Thursday, she issued a statement on Twitter and named Abhinav Khare.

She accused Khare of defaming her by issuing statements to media that she was an extortionist “without providing any evidence to his malicious lies”.

“I stand by my statement,” Khare said when asked about his countercharges, “I am being blackmailed and pushed for ‘settling’ by paying her a seven-figure sum while she was running a Twitter campaign to defame me to put further pressure on me. Why did she not come out earlier? Why now? Because I did not pay her what she has been trying to extort. I did not give in to the monetary demands that came from her and from her so-called “mentors” who are all big political weights.”

Khare insists that Sonam’s discipline and performance in the office was not up to mark and these charges were level against him because he demanded accountability and hard work.

“It all started when she was informed that she is not performing up to the mark. Her lack of competence and indiscipline became a burden for the team she worked with and termination of her consulting contract was next on the cards. Realizing that her contract was about to be terminated, she framed these false “borderline mental and sexual harassment” charges in November 2017. And then used these baseless charges to fraudulently claim consultancy fees without doing any work for an entire year. This could be substantiated through her work and attendance record,” a statement released by Khare reads.

Abhinav Khare while talking to OpIndia also alleged that Sonam Mahajan had been drawing a salary for the past one year even when she did not attend work during that time span. Media reports indicate that Sonam’s contract has not been renewed after completion of one year.

Why should she lose her job when the internal committee had found Khare guilty? Khare insists that her contract was not renewed due to performance issues, and reports about him being found guilty in the committee report were misleading, even if one disregards the factor that the committee itself was constituted illegally.

OpIndia was informed that the observations of the internal committee had adverse comments on Sonam Mahajan as well, and thus to claim that the committee had found only one party ‘guilty’ would not be correct. Reportedly, there were several signed witness statements that claimed that Abhinav Khare was innocent, several of those being from women. The committee had even noted that there was a possibility that the complainant (Sonam Mahajan) is filing the complaint for “ulterior financial motives”.

Khare reiterated that the findings were not as Sonam was portraying. He alleged that these allegations surfaced a day after he had communicated to her that her services are not up to the mark and that her employment would be terminated.

“I invite any journalist to come to our office, talk to my female colleagues, in my absence, and decide for himself or herself about my work ethics and my character,” Khare told OpIndia.

“I will never ‘settle’ and pay her any money. If temporary humiliation is the price I need to pay for my principles, so be it. I am ready to fight it in the court,” he concluded.

Both the parties at the moment are accusing each other of defamation. In her statement issued on 18th October, Sonam too has said that she will broaden her legal fight against Khare in wake of counter allegations.

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