The murky case of India TV and its anchor Tanu Sharma

04 July, 2014

On 22 June, the Noida police registered a First Information Report that went largely unreported by the mainstream media. The FIR charged Anita Sharma Bisht and MN Prasad, senior executives of the news channel India TV, under three sections of the Indian Penal Code—306 (abetment of suicide), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) and 511 (attempting to commit offences punishable with imprisonment for life or other imprisonment).

The complainant was an employee named Tanu Sharma, who, in the FIR, alleges she was harassed and “mentally tortured” during her time with the channel, and was driven to consume poison.

On 2 July, the channel’s editor-in-chief, Rajat Sharma, and his wife, Ritu Dhawan, the channel’s managing director, sent Tanu Sharma, along with Manisha Pande of Newslaundry and—both of which had covered the story—a legal notice alleging that the accusations against them and their company were false and reserving the right to seek damages of up to Rs 10 crore.

When I emailed Rajat Sharma on 30 June to seek his response on the matter, I received a reply from Ritika Talwar, a legal representative, who provided a detailed account of the channel’s version of the events. In this mail, she disputed Tanu’s claim that she had consumed poison, saying, “It is noteworthy that as per the medical report no toxic substance was found in her stomach.”

However, when I contacted Renuka Singh, the investigating officer of the case, from the Gautam Budh Nagar police station, over the telephone on 4 July, she said: “The contents of the stomach wash have been sent to the Agra Forensic Laboratory by Kailash Hospital. Results are awaited.”

While investigation is on, and the facts of the case will only emerge over time, the incident raises questions about how the channel treats its employees.

In her four-page complaint, Tanu narrated a story of harassment by her superiors from the day she joined the channel as a “Sr Producer (News Anchor)” in February this year, a day which she wrote “turned out to be the most sinister day of my life.” According to her, between February and June, her seniors Anita Sharma Bisht and MN Prasad, under directions from Ritu Dhawan, told her to do “wrong things,” which she refused repeatedly. The complaint says: “Anita Sharma tried to cosy up to me in the first fifteen days, trying to lead me into the trap. She complimented my body and facial features, saying ‘You have good assets; they are meant not to hide but to flaunt. You have come here from a small channel; try to start socialising and learn the manners to deal with big people. Start socialising.’ Politely and peacefully I tried to convey to her that I could not do these things, but in spite of this she continued to pursue me, saying, ‘Start socialising. There is no harm in meeting big people. I have to send you somewhere.’ When I repeatedly declined, her rage increased, which ultimately led to my mental harassment and mental torture.”

According to Tanu’s complaint, Anita Sharma Bisht told her in plain words, “If you listen to me, it will always benefit you. I tried to avoid this situation in every way possible at that time, but she repeatedly asked me to meet corporates and politicians.” Tanu wrote that one day, while she was anchoring, “Anita Sharma told me to ‘deep low’ up to my ‘inner top.’”

“Gradually I found myself unable to bear the inhuman treatment and couldn’t escape from their pressure and rage,” she added.

Tanu further wrote in her complaint that when she complained to her head of department, MN Prasad, about Anita Sharma, he retorted, “So what? What is wrong in whatever Anitaji is saying? What is wrong in going to corporate and politicians?” “This reaction was painful and broke me down from inside,” she wrote.

In her complaint Tanu wrote, “I worked long shifts from 5 am, 5.30 am to 3 pm, and I had to deal with Anita Sharma’s harassment. They insulted me about everything including my makeup, hair style, clothes, costume, footwear, jewellery, voice.” She claimed she attempted to talk to MN Prasad again, in the last week of April: “When I tried to tell him everything in detail, he looked at my thighs obscenely and said, ‘There is a gap between your thighs. Make sure you fill it up when you are on screen.’ I felt embarrassed and walked out of the room.”

She continued: “I wrote an email to the HR, describing the harassment and the indecent proposals, but Puneet Tandon (HR Head) never replied me back, and it resulted in my removal from Lok Sabha election anchoring.” According to the complaint, Anita Sharma “complained, insulted me and tried to explain to me that it was all because I hadn’t complied with her.”

“My life became hell,” Tanu wrote, “but I did not leave work because India TV’s contract stipulates that if I left I would have to pay six months’ salary, which I could not afford.” Her salary was low, she wrote, “and Anita Sharma and MN Prasad were aware of this, and that is why Anita Sharma also told me that you have a chance to earn good money, and if you follow my advice you will get money as well as success.”

Tanu added that after further harassment, she demanded to meet the managing director, Ritu Dhawan, and was told by MN Prasad that everything that was happening was in accordance with Dhawan’s wishes. On 19 June, Tanu continued, Anita Sharma “came into the make-up room and began complaining about my clothes, saying ‘Ritu Ma’am didn’t like your trousers. You were not looking good on screen,’ to which I said they had been approved by ma’am herself and even the top had been brought by Ritu ma’am. This conversation took place in front of others and it was very normal. But then after 10 minutes, she called me and insulted me badly over a phone call. When I told her I couldn’t bear it anymore and I would die, she shot back bluntly, saying, ‘Go and die. Eat poison, it makes no difference to me.’”

Tanu wrote that after this, she cried for a long time and then tried to call MN Prasad, but he didn’t take her call. “Helplessly I messaged him that I am resigning,” she wrote. “I did that only because I wanted him to pick up the phone and talk to me.”

The complaint states that MN Prasad forwarded her SMS to the human resources department, and Puneet Tandon accepted the SMS as an official resignation. In a further meeting with one “Rahul Khanna,” she says she tried to explain that she had suffered “harassment” and “mental torture,” but that all he said was that her resignation had been accepted. According to the complaint, when she protested that she hadn’t resigned, he told her that her “HOD had converted the SMS into an email and accepted it.”

When she tried to meet MN Prasad once more, she wrote, her entry into the office was restricted. She claimed she called him on his phone and asked what he had gained from trapping her. According to the complaint, he replied, “Don’t trouble me. Drink poison or die, it means nothing to me.”

In their email to me through a legal representative, the channel contested Tanu Sharma’s version of events. They said:

Certain incidents transpired at India TV in the last few days, which (not surprisingly) have conveniently been plastered on social media to grab public attention and generate negative opinion against a respectable woman journalist having spent 18 years in electronic media. The truth, however, is very different. A case of a subordinate’s personal vendetta against a senior colleague is being presented as a case of harrassment at workplace. While it is natural for any third-party/spectator to feel sympathetic towards a woman alleging harrasment at her work place, is it not your responsibility to protect a woman journalist who is falsely implicated and deliberately maligned by a disgruntled employee, simply because the senior disciplines and pulls up the employee for her unprofessional attitude and below par performance. This is exactly what has happened in this case.

The fact is that during her four month tenure Tanu Sharma never reported any harassment nor did she try to speak to the management. She has falsely stated in media that she tried to seek an appointment with the MD, Ms Dhawan. If she did, then she must explain what means of communication did she use, e-mail, sms, phone call? Who did she contact in MD’s office for appointment and when? Mr Rajat Sharma and Ms Dhawan are available in the newsroom every day for several hours, why did she not walk upto them? Mr Rajat Sharma is himself an anchor and shares the same anchor lounge with other anchors who chat up with him on a regular basis. His make up room is right across the girls make up room where he is present every day before his show. Anchors cross him all the time. Tanu could have approached him anytime if she intended to. Most of our women anchors have been with India TV right from the beginning and will vouch for the safe environment that they work in. Not only the anchors, but all women employees of India TV can tell you that it is one of the safest news channels to work in, as it is tightly run by the team of husband and wife. Mr Rajat Sharma’s wife, Ritu Dhawan is the CEO and Managing Director and is very careful about women safety in the organization. India TV was therefore amongst the first few channels to have instituted a committee for safety of women employees as per Supreme Court Guidelines. The committee is headed by a Supreme Court lawyer. Tanu Sharma had the option to approach this committee but at no stage did she approach them.

The fact is that a senior woman journalist, Anita Sharma has been subjected to extremely disturbing actions and conduct by Ms. Tanu Sharma, who was hired as a ‘Presenter’ with the channel in the month of February. Tanu, who was placed under the guidance of Anita Sharma, senior editor, has attempted to malign and completely destroy Anita’s reputation and career, by making all sorts of false and concocted allegations against her. What actually transpired is described in the following paragraphs.

Tanu Sharma was hired by India TV as ‘Presenter’, in the month of February 2014. Ever since her initial appointment, her conduct at work left a lot to be desired, to say the least. She was undisciplined, unprofessional, casual and irresponsible. There have been quite a few instances when she was warned by her seniors, to check her demeanor and attitude towards her work. Her undisciplined and unprofessional actions included being absent from the studio and newsroom despite being on live news duty, which had on one occasion forced the channel to give breaking news solely on graphics without any news presenter, and, on another occasion, laughing on-air during a live news bulletin though she was reporting a serious news event. All these incidents are recorded in mails. On one such occasion, as part of her job responsibilities, Ms Anita Sharma duly corrected her. However, owing to Tanu’s impertinence, the conversation ended abruptly as Tanu became quite agitated. This transpired in the presence of two other women news anchors, as well as the hairstylist and woman make up artiste in the girls make up room. Seeing Tanu’s intemperance, Ms. Anita Sharma left the make up room. However, it transpires that after Ms. Anita Sharma’s departure, Ms. Tanu Sharma told the hair stylist that she would teach Anita Sharma a lesson.

Obviously out of a feeling of resentment at being corrected and reprimanded, and being asked to improve her performance, even if by a person far senior to her in the company, Tanu began a campaign, as it were, to malign Ms. Anita Sharma and tarnish her reputation. Eventually, rather than correcting her own indisciplined behaviour, or improving her performance, she sent her resignation to her Head of Department through an SMS (on June 19, 2014). Ms Tanu Sharma was not on the rolls of the company and was under a contractual arrangement with it. Her contract with the company did not mandate or require any particular form/method for communication of her resignation and since she had been warned twice for her mistakes, her resignation was acceptable to the company. Thereafter, the HR department of the company wrote to Tanu (through email dated 19.06.2014) requesting that she contact them for completing the relieving formalities following her resignation. She neither visited the office of the company, nor contacted the HR department, on June 20, 2014. Finally, on June 21, 2014, at around11:30 am, she visited the office of the company and met with the concerned officials in the HR department and voluntarily completed the formalities for being relieved from the company. These include handing over her company Identity card back to the company, and collecting all her belongings. On that day, she even met some of her colleagues in the company and pleasantly said her goodbyes. It may be noted that while leaving she told an HR staffer who was assisting her that she would teach Anita Sharma a lesson and would ruin her life.

The very next day, i.e. on 22nd of June, Ms. Tanu Sharma started posting messages on social platforms like Facebook making wild allegations against Ms. Anita Sharma. She even, dramatically, threatened to commit suicide. The police was duly informed by company officials.

Meanwhile, her friends on Facebook even suggested that instead of contemplating suicide she should be thinking of murdering people like Ms. Anita Sharma.

On 22 June itself, Tanu came to the office gate and in front of the security guards starting using abusive language against Ms. Anita Sharma and threatened to ruin her life. She then asked the security guards to call a senior official as she was going to consume something. Distressed by her agitated behavior and startling statement, the security guard immediately called a senior official who wasted no time in reaching the gate. By that time, however, Tanu ran a couple of metres away from the main gate of India TV studio and raised an alarm that she had consumed something that she was holding in her hand. The security officials snatched from her what she was holding and as a precautionary measure took Tanu to the nearby Kailash Hospital, where she was immediately put through a stomach wash to ensure her safety. It is noteworthy that as per the medical report no toxic substance was found in her stomach.

Unfortunately, Tanu has continued her tirade against Ms. Anita Sharma. Ms. Anita Sharma has been in the media industry for 18 years, and has earned respect and built up an impeccable reputation amongst her peers and team members. This has been achieved, painstakingly, through sheer hard work and dedication. Today, however, not only her own professional reputation but also the social standing and, perhaps, the very safety, of the members of her family, including her husband, mother in law and two young daughters, is at stake.

The channel also claimed that there was a contradiction in Sharma’s account of her departure from the company.

Tanu Sharma has said in the media that she was harassed and wanted to resign but could not do so as she did not have the money to pay on resigning as per her contract. If this was the case, then when her resignation was accepted, then she should have been happy to be let off, why did she make a hue and cry that her SMS has been treated as her resignation and why did she try to commit suicide in protest? She should be happy to be out of the organization that was allegedly harassing her and giving her depression, but according to her she could not leave on her own due to contractual binding. This proves that she was neither harassed nor wanted to leave the organization but had threatened to resign to settle scores with Anita Sharma. However, when her resignation was accepted she decided to take revenge from Anita Sharma.

The facts of the case are yet to be established. But the implication that Tanu Sharma should have welcomed her dismissal if she was indeed being harassed is itself open to question.

The channel’s response also sidesteps the draconian nature of India TV’s contract with Tanu Sharma, which stated that: “Company has the right to terminate this agreement by giving three months prior notice to the Presenter (anchor). The Presenter does not have any right to terminate this agreement.” The contract goes on to say that should the “Presenter” choose to leave on account of “some exceptional circumstance,” the “Presenter shall be liable to pay to the company an amount equivalent to six months professional fee.” Tanu told me her monthly salary was Rs 53,000—this amount would then be more than Rs 3 lakh for her.

Tanu’s contract also included a section that suggested that the company viewed the money (for which it cites a “conservative estimate” of “26.40 lakhs”) spent on promoting her (“in the press” and “in ground events”) a favour of sorts. According to the contract: “The Company will be spending aggressive amounts of monies on promoting the image, persona and personality of the Presenter. The amount spent includes foregoing airtime, including in the primetime, in lieu of advertising revenue.”

In its email to me, the channel said:

It is being suggested by some that the Contract signed by Tanu Sharma with the Company is somehow unfair. What is overlooked, however, is that Ms Tanu Sharma herself executed the contract, of her own free volition and after much negotiation. Moreover, these contracts have been upheld and enforced, in India TV’s favour, on more than one occasion by the Hon’ble Delhi High Court.

The email goes on to say:

Ms. Anita Sharma, who is the target of Tanu’s vicious attack has the unqualified and fullest support of all her female colleagues including anchors and journalists who have all professionally interacted with Ms. Anita Sharma, have voluntarily signed a declaration in her support.

Unfortunately, people have been presented, so far, only with complete falsehoods fabricated by Ms. Tanu Sharma. We hope this release will shed light on the truth, and will bring out what actually transpired. We believe this case should serve as an eye-opener, as it lays bare not only the lengths to which a person blinded by vendetta can go to cause harm, but also the grave risks of the misuse of otherwise beneficial institutions and media. Importantly, what Ms. Tanu Sharma has done with a senior journalist like Anita Sharma could easily be replicated by any other employee at any other organization, and all of us must be alive to this risk, and find the most effective means of preventing and/or combating such dishonest behaviour.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the media’s silence on the story raises serious questions about the self-regulation model advocated by the television industry—particularly since the channel’s editor-in-chief, Rajat Sharma, wields great clout in the industry. When the association of owners of private news broadcasters, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), penalised India TV in 2009 for airing as their own interview a dubbed interview that Farhana Ali, a policy analyst, had given to Reuters, he simply walked out of the association. Around three months later, the organisation persuaded him to return, and gave him a place on its board, where he remains a member.

Tanu Sharma meanwhile told me when I met her at her sister’s home in Noida, “Now no one will give me a job.”

In their legal notice to Tanu Sharma, Rajat Sharma and Ritu Dhawan accuse Tanu of making “various mischievous and malicious comments/statements which contain false, concocted and defamatory allegations … with a clear intention to tarnish and malign” both them and India TV. “The defamatory and vilification campaign … is being carried out with an ulterior motive of reckoning vengeance against our clients.” It calls on her to “immediately stop such vilification and defamatory campaign” and on Newslaundry and to “immediately remove the objectionable articles,” “issue a public statement apologizing … and circulate the same on all platforms including online websites, social networking sites, twitter handle, facebook accounts and all print or digital media.”

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.