As a senior journalist, Rina Mukherji has achieved many accolades. She writes on the environment and gender-related issues, has worked for some of the most reputed publications in India, holds a doctorate degree in African Studies and is a 2016 Panos fellow on Migrant Labour. However, she is mostly known in the media as the first Indian woman to win a case against wrongful termination because she complained about the sexual harassment she faced while working as a journalist at The Statesman.
Mukherji received a Laadli Extraordinaire Award in 2014 for her decade and a half long battle against gender injustice.
Mukherji fought a brave but lonely battle, back in the day, when victim shaming was common, and there was no social media or a #metoo movement on the horizon. However, she didn't give up. Not only did she win the legal case but also the defamation case that was filed against her by her harasser.
After Mukherji had her first child, she took some time off and joined The Statesman in 2002. She was very excited to go back to the workspace, and for the first few weeks, things were fine until she noticed that a news coordinator of the paper was always looking for excuses to touch her. She tried different tactics to go around it — she ignored him, always pushed him away when he tried to come closer but the man persisted.
When he realised that Mukherji will not give in to his advances, he started ruining her professional credibility. Most of her articles would now end up in the garbage bin. Mukherji finally mustered up the strength to complain against him to the Managing Editor of the paper, who suggested that she should 'reach a compromise' with the news coordinator.
Soon Mukherji was given a month's time to resign voluntarily because she wasn't compromising. Her service was terminated and then followed a long legal battle that Mukherji fought with the help of NWMI and finally won.
In an email interview to CNN-News18, Mukherji recounts the battles she fought for complaining against sexual harassment, and how she won them. She talks about the ongoing #metoo movement in India and advises women on how to move forward with legal suits of harassment.
Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
How have the recent #MeToo revelations on the social and mainstream media impacted you?
They have in no way impacted me. What happened to me was more than a decade and a half ago. Even the verdict on illegal termination was delivered by the Industrial Tribunal in Kolkata on February 6, 2013 - that is a little prior to the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (SHW) Act. But, of course, I feel happy that there are a lot more women finding the courage to demand a better workplace culture for themselves.
What advice will you give to those women, who, after naming and shaming predators/harassers as a part of the recent ongoing #MeToo movement, are planning to file legal charges against them?
In the first place, the #metoo movement has pushed many organisations into damage control mode, and hence, I do not think that the women will need to do much. Having said that, I would like to say it is not enough to name and shame. Be ready to face the worst from those you have named. So it is best to get legal help, even if it is to make a formal police complaint.
There are many women who do not seem to be sure what law their complaint falls under. (For instance, some actually talk of having faced violence within intimate relationships. These are cases of domestic violence and not sexual harassment at the workplace) This is where a lawyer can help. Also, make sure that your lawyer shares your point of view, and is willing to stand by you in your crusade. There is no point having a hotshot lawyer who does not believe in your fight.
Do you think that the media work culture will change post #MeToo movement in India?
Hopefully, so. Given the fact that some media houses have already taken action against their senior-most editors.
When you took on The Statesman and called out the news coordinator for sexually harassing you, did you receive support from other staff members of The Statesman? Did your friends in the media support you? Very few did. Interestingly, none of those( who supported me) were women. As for the majority, they were either too afraid to speak up, or else, did not want to.
I would like to mention, there were a couple of co-workers from The Statesmen who actually testified against me in the Industrial Tribunal. One of them also wrote against me on the NWMI website, although she hardly knew me when I was working at The Statesman and was in no position to judge my competence since she had just two years in the media, as compared to a decade’s experience on my part.
As for friends in the media (outside The Statesman), there were some women who left the NWMI- Bengal Chapter because I was a member, and NWMI was supporting me. Most friends in the media thought it better to shun me, lest it affect their careers.
How has the legal battle and the trauma of sexual harassment impacted your career?
There have been both pros and cons. I could never take up full-time jobs, in spite of offers coming my way. It was tough to work on a full-time job when I had to follow up with the Women’s Commission, the police and the Labour Commissioner’s Office. Following which, there were hearings in Court and travelling between cities. But it did allow me time to write about things that I always wanted to. The period between 2002-2018 has seen me do some of my best work and earned me several fellowships from ICRS-Seaweb, Robert Bosch Stiftung, IUCN, Women Deliver, among others. I have done the kind of cover stories I have always wanted to and finally did win two Laadli awards. I have missed out on the financial security of a monthly salary, but have managed to build up an admirable repertoire of professional writing as a freelance journalist.
How difficult was it to sustain through those long drawn legal battles? How did you muster up the mental strength to do so? How did you go about handling the finances during that time?
Mentally, the initial months were very tough. But as humans, we build up the resilience. Finance was tight. I had to spend all my savings regularly travelling to another city, putting up there, and fighting my case for one and a half decades. Of course, my husband was a great help. Professional writing assignments for a host of publications kept me going. It was the best I could do to avoid sinking into hopelessness. Since I also hold a doctorate, I did a lot of academic writing during this time, besides attending seminars, and presenting papers. As a home-maker and mother, I have always believed in being a hands-on mother. Household chores kept me busy between writing assignments. The rest of my waking hours were spent indulging in my hobbies - I dance, paint, knit, cook, crochet. Work is a great healer. As long as you keep yourself busy, unpleasant memories evade you.