In exonerating Rahul Johri, CEO of the BCCI, and clearing him of all the sexual harassment allegations against him, the three-member probe panel appointed by the Committee of Administrators (CoA) of the BCCI, exposed the “mischievous and fabricated” mis-use of the #MeToo movement.
In a telling and far-reaching judgment, Justice (Retd) Rakesh Sharma, head of the probe committee unambiguously stated, "The allegations of sexual harassment in the office or elsewhere are false, baseless and have been fabricated and manufactured with an ulterior motive to harm Mr. Rahul Johri...". The Hon’ble Justice went on to elaborate, “The complainants have failed to provide their cases as set up by them… The allegations of sexual harassment in the office or elsewhere are false, baseless and have been fabricated and manufactured with an ulterior motive to harm Mr. Rahul Johri and throw him out of BCCI…”
He further stated in his judgment that, “No adverse action need to be taken against Mr. Rahul Johri, CEO, BCCI on the basis of these mischievous, false, fabricated, unsubstantiated complaints, e-mails, tweets etc on social media”.
Johri, who has been through literally an ordeal through fire, and an unprecedented trial-by-media, over the past month, has been allowed by the committee to resume office.
I have known Rahul Johri for well over 25 years, since when he was a junior functionary at Outlook magazine. Our paths continued to cross as both of us grew up the hierarchies of our respective organizations. He had just quit Zee when I joined as the group CEO in 2001. Johri then served for a longish time at Discovery, including the last many years as country head. Rahul was always known to be a thorough gentleman, a respected professional and a good family man. His move to the BCCI as CEO was seen by industry watchers as a bold and timely move by the cricket body to professionalise itself. And the results were soon visible: the IPL and the India cricket broadcast rights fetched the BCCI a record Rs. 16,347.5 crore and Rs. 6,138 crore respectively under his leadership, amounts unprecedented and almost unbelievable till they actually happened.
Johri’s professionalism and no-nonsense approach to business at BCCI has been further visible in cases like the recent ruling by the ICC in favour of India in the USD 70 million compensation case filed by the Pakistan Cricket Board wherein the BCCI CEO was widely praised for putting together India’s robust and well calibrated defence at the case hearings by hiring the famous British lawyer QC Ian Mills and the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills; more importantly roping in former external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid whose testimony largely turned the case in India’s favour.
Rahul Johri’s more difficult assignment has been the clean up at the BCCI, as part of the mandate of the Committee of Administrators (CoA) setup by the Supreme Court. As part of his job, Johri has had to undertake many an unpleasant action against powerful cricket administrators who for years were almost a law unto themselves. Johri remained largely under the radar, with very little mention or visibility in media, working relentlessly in effecting long term changes at India’s controlling cricket body. In the process, he made some very powerful enemies.
The BCCI’s former anti-corruption unit chief Neeraj Kumar, BCCI treasurer Anirudh Chaudhary, IPL petitioner Aditya Verma, and former Mumbai captain Shishir Hattangadi all lined up to depose against Rahul Johri at the hearings of the probe panel. Former Indian captain, and current chief of the CAB, Saurav Ganguly, too made his share of media noise in maligning the BCCI CEO. Two ‘victims’ (both coincidentally from overseas) also deposed on Skype. Thankfully, despite all the vicious opposition lined up against him, Rahul Johri has emerged triumphant and largely unscathed from the entire fabricated sexual harassment case made out against him.
There is much to learn, introspect and examine, with respect to the entire Rahul Johri episode. First and foremost is the dent to women emancipation and empowerment in the Indian workplace. Barkha Singh, one of the probe panel members and former DCW chairperson, in fact made one of the most key observations as part of the probe report when she focused on the negative impact of using the #MeToo movement to settle professional and personal scores.
She said on record that the ‘other side’ of such “fabricated allegations” should also be looked at where opportunities for women at workplace may dwindle. “In my opinion, such kind of motivated and fabricated allegations will diminish the status of women and the job opportunity for them. Such complaints will also have an adverse effect on the fight for equality for women”.
Ms. Singh further added, “Setting such precedents will only make it more difficult for achieving equality and equal opportunity for women”. I cannot but agree a hundred percent with Barkha Singh. Media, advertising and related professions have always had a disproportionately large number of women, very talented women in fact, in key places and key responsibilities in India. By using women as pawns in a power game, the BCCI functionaries who lined up to depose with ulterior motives before the probe panel, have lowered the dignity of women in the professional sphere, and simultaneously smeared the reputation of the cricket body.
Worse still has been the sheer irresponsibility displayed by the media over the past month. #MeToo has kind of become a convenient brush-all deface-all handle where responsible media houses and media banners did not do any due diligence in their reportage on the subject. #MeToo was sensational. #MeToo was titillating. #MeToo was a headline grabber. Very few journalists took time off to actually examine the very many allegations appearing everywhere; no one looked for motives; no one cared to look below the surface and do a bit of research on whether the allegations being made were vendetta or victimization. The likes of Rahul Johri were mauled. Crucified. Sentenced even before the trial had begun.
The worst-est facet that the Rahul Johri case has exposed is the rampant and blatant mis-use of social media. In the case of Johri, some self-styled woman activist put out a midnight tweet on behalf of an anonymous ‘victim’ who claimed to have been harassed by Rahul some 20 years ago. Within minutes, the tweet had gone viral because of Rahul Johri’s exalted position in a key organisation like the BCCI. By the morning every newspaper and website had Johri in the dock for what was at best an anonymous (and as it turned out later fabricated and mischievous) tweet. What is even more interesting is that the tweet was nullified by its author exactly 12 hours later. And finally deleted a few days later. But the desired damage had already been done. Rahul Johri had been moved in just half a day from being a professional to a predator. Not for a moment am I trying to say that #MeToo as a movement has not done good. It has helped many a genuine victim to come out and nail men in powerful positions, and this may never have been possible without the widespread omniscience of the internet and social media which provide a free-for-all platform for anyone and everyone to express anguish, anger and ill-treatment. But social media can also be used to sinister purposes. Those who so desire, can use the tweet as a targeted arrow to harm, if not kill, an inconvenient boss or person in authority who is seen to be an obstruction to nefarious plans of some in a workplace.
To be fair, one of the three members of the BCCI probe committee, lawyer Veena Gowda has recommended “gender sensitivity counselling/training” for Rahul Johri with reference to his handling of a situation with a woman associate during the last World Cup. I think it is a point well made. In the day-to-day conduct of work, many of us tend to forget the lines that define work etiquette and professional decorum.
Especially, post work hours, both actions and morals sometimes tend to veer towards a grey area. Those in advertising, media and other ‘glam’ businesses have always assumed that ‘effervescence’, ‘exuberance’ and ‘ebullience’ are expressions of swagger or what is more popularly today referred to as ‘swag’. Taking liberties, being ‘free’, using foul language, being drunk and intemperate, passing undignified comments and generally being a nuisance has been quite the accepted behavior at advertising and media get-togethers for as long as I can remember, and I have been in this business for well over thirty years. If nothing else, the #MeToo movement will certainly restrain at least some of the more aggressive members of the media fraternity from feeling ‘free’!
I could go on and on. I felt terrible when Rahul Johri attracted all the negative headlines over past weeks. I dreaded every morning all the rubbish that was being written about him. It was not just because I knew Rahul, and knew him well. But what was happening to Rahul could well happen to just about anyone in corporate India. Many many many years of a corporate reputation destroyed by just a tweet. Destroyed by an anonymous, perhaps even non-existent, ‘victim’.
I have felt sorry not just for Rahul, but for his wife Seema and their two sons. I have also felt sorry for Rahul’s aged parents and other members of his extended family. No amount of suits for damages (should Rahul Johri decide to pursue that route) can actually compensate for what the Johris have been through in the past one month and more. As a family they have had to suffer disgrace and suffer humiliation just because some disgruntled elements at India’s top cricketing body wanted to settle professional and personal scores with Rahul Johri. What would have happened if the knives had turned the other way and the likes of Neeraj Kumar or Shishir Hattangadi or even Saurav Ganguly were actually at the receiving end of the same negativity that they were heaping on Rahul?
The Rahul Johri episode has very many lessons for all of us in good, responsible corporate jobs. I am not getting into the celebrity domain, and the misuse of power-position-patronage at those levels. I am just focusing on the fragility of corporate existence. And the ease with which you can be targeted, and how easy it is to trigger ‘where-there-is-smoke-there-is-fire’ kind of conversations where no innocence or past reputation really gets counted or taken into account. Well, it is kind of caveat emptor for everyone who goes by the moniker ‘boss’… you could be at any level in the organisation, not just CEO. More than ever before, it is uneasy-the-head-that-wears-the-crown. Other claimants to the crown (themselves, or through ‘guns-for-hire’) can easily hijack #MeToo. Kill. Or atleast maim. Ask Rahul Johri.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal has been in media and advertising for over three decades. He is never afraid of voicing his views.