This note concerns the mishandling of the multiple allegations against Stalin K, co-founder and managing trustee of Video Volunteers (VV) by the organisation (in particular, the Board and some representatives of the management team).
The response by the organisation towards the adult survivors of sexual abuse and harassment at the workplace perpetrated by Stalin K has been brahmanical and patriarchal in that it has attempted to discount, victim-blame and disempower the survivors while protecting the perpetrator and attempting to negate any accountability on his or the organisation’s part while using a different yardstick for other employees accused in such matters in the past.
This note attempts to place all the proceedings from the first survivor testimony till recent developments in a rough timeline for the sake of context.
Towards the end, we (a collective that includes concerned former employees of Video Volunteers some of whom may also be complainants in this matter, former colleagues and allies of Stalin K from other organisations and movements, and other members of civil society) articulate a few demands for the management & board of Video Volunteers to consider and respond to.
The statement is not meant to encourage scapegoating and the targeting of individuals for procedural lapses. It is not meant to target any individuals within VV or its network but rather hopes to ignite change within a broken system currently protecting an accused while failing his many victims.
The First Allegations
On October 10th 2018, as a part of #MeToo movement, the first allegation of sexual harassment against Stalin K, co-founder, director, & managing trustee of Video Volunteers was made public on social media by the friend and ally of an intern who had worked at the Goa office of Video Volunteers in 2017. Within the next 24 hours, at least 3 ex-employees of Video Volunteers came out in solidarity and spoke out on incidents of sexual harassment at workplace that they had experienced while working with Stalin or on similar experiences of other women colleagues which they had known about.
The Patterns of Grooming & Abuse
The accounts of survivors and allies reveal a disturbing and common pattern of grooming which Stalin indulged in over the years to manipulate or overwhelm the survivors . these include exercising and abusing the power of an employer over an employee or intern, actively seeking out the most vulnerable for abuse, isolating potential survivors, confusing and desensitising them through uncomfortable touches and gazes, and normalising sexual abuse by contextualising the abuse as part of ‘progressive’ politics in a ‘permissive’ atmosphere. Reading the survivor accounts through a victim-centric lens, makes it obvious that Stalin is someone who displays the characteristics of a ‘sexual predator’. And the awareness that he is a dominant caste, upper middle class, heteronormative man working with women from some of the most marginalised communities should have necessitated quick and affirmative action from the organisation.
Inadequate Response & Victim Blaming
Instead social media accounts of Video Volunteers as well as Stalin went completely silent for the first 48 hours. On 12th October 2018, the first official response from Stalin was posted publicly on Stalin’s account in his voice in which he expresses being ‘hurt and sickened’ by the allegation, claims that he does ‘not remember’ the incident and insinuates that they ‘never happened’. After this bit of borderline victim blaming, he offers an ‘unconditional’ apology, commits to ‘dismantling patriarchy’ and offers his support for the #MeToo Movement. He also mentions his compliance with the independent, external investigation instituted by the VV Board.
Stalin copy-pasted his statement as a stock response to the public statement from survivors.
Contradictions among Statements
On the same day, the Video Volunteers social media pages posted a response that contradicts Stalin’s post in that it mentions that it was previously aware of the complaint against Stalin from earlier this year thereby discounting Stalin’s claim of ‘not remembering’. Another contradiction was that the Video Volunteers statement does not mention the external investigation but seems to suggest that all complaints would be dealt with by the organisation’s ICC.
With no clarity on the course of action, no concrete steps taken and statements abounding with contradictions and hinting at victim blaming, many more survivors including current employees stepped into the light with their accounts of Stalin’s sexual abuse and misbehavior. While the most recent incident allegedly took place in 2018, the furthest one allegedly occurred even before Video Volunteers was formed, at Stalin’s previous workplace at Drishti, Ahmedabad. Trainees from training groups where Stalin had acted as a resource person complained of his misbehavior.
We know of a total of 12 people who wrote in to the ICC citing either their personal experience or something they witnessed at the organisation.
Attempts to Solicit Positive Stories around the Accused
Even as employees of Video Volunteers were now actively leaving comments below allegations, asking complaints to be registered at the email of the organisational ICC, the management circulated an internal message through a staff whatsapp group that specifically asked them to share positive stories around Stalin. This leaked message pulled in more outrage and more survivor accounts.
Keeping in mind the fact that this message was sent to the very same correspondents who have been undergoing gender related trainings and contributing to the organisation’s “Dismantle Patriarchy” campaign, gives a sense of the hypocrisy and complete lack of sensitivity to survivors (some of whom were on that whatsapp group) by the decisions makers in the organisation.
What does ‘Stepped Down’ Mean? Is Stalin Still the Managing Trustee?
All this culminated in a message put out by the Video Volunteers account on 18th of October, around 8 days since the first allegation, stating that Stalin K has ‘stepped down’ from his role as ‘Director’. However, the Video Volunteers website continues to list Stalin as a ‘Managing Trustee’. When questioned on social media as to whether the term ‘stepped down’ equates to resignation or suspension, there has been radio silence from Video Volunteers’ end.
Later, on further questioning by those who had formally submitted their complaints, the ICC merely stated that “On October 14, employees of the organisation received an email stating that Stalin K. has stepped down from his role as Director in the interim of this inquiry.”
The Situation 2 Months After the Incident
Unclear Nature of Enquiry: There has been no statement by Video Volunteers Board or Founder on the nature of enquiry if any into the accusations.
No Preventive Measures Put in Place: It is still unclear as to what steps have been taken to ensure that the Video Volunteers work spaces located across the country where their community correspondents work, and in the U.S are being made safer.
Accurate and contextual information has not been shared with the network of correspondents and other staff despite repeated questions by some of them on this issue till date, thereby causing confusion and stress across much of the organization and its network. In the light of the allegations, some correspondents seem to have linked the allegations against Stalin as part of a recent State crackdown against human rights activists. While this may be directly related to political atmosphere at the time, there is reason to believe that there have been attempts to actively encourage the correspondents to see the complaints as a ‘fabricated’ attempt against VV.
The ICC Response is Lacking: Response from the ICC has ranged from vague to misleading and is symptomatic of the flaws within the systems prescribed to address sexual harassment at the workplace. We are aware that perhaps the ICC itself is functioning under extreme pressure not just from outside but perhaps from the some within the management & board.
ICC has limited understanding of how to deal with issues of sexual harassment– They took time to consult with a lawyer and also to come to an understanding that the complaints of sexual harassment when against the employer need to be dealt with by an external complaints committee. The ICC is trying to be helpful, as is evident from the interactions of the complainants with them, but do not seem to be supported by the organisation in any way. This renders them to be a supportive body in name only, with limited mandate/ power to make the work space a safe one, free from sexual harassment.
It is important here to note that the mandate of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (under which the ICC is constituted) is not only to redress complaints of this nature but also to spearhead the prevention and prohibition of such behaviors at the workplace.
The ICC informed some of the people who had written to it that they had submitted their report to the Trustee (Manish Kumar) with multiple recommendations ( email to this effect was received by one of us during week on Nov 26th). They reiterated the demand for an external investigation which as of 12th October 2018, Stalin had already publicly complied to participate in. Why has the independent enquiry been kept pending until now?
The ICC recommended that the complainants approach the Local Complaints Committee independently and didn’t follow it up with explicit, proactive, adequate support or referral. Information and resources on how to approach the LCC were shared the complainants when they wrote back explicitly asking for the same. For an organisation that works on information transparency and dismantling patriarchy, that is a remarkably opaque statement to make.
The ICC report shows no sensitivity towards the intersectionalities involved. Given Stalin’s socio-economic-political dominant position vis-à-vis the rest of his staff, why couldn’t this recommendation been thought through with appropriate sensitivities? Given that understanding such power dynamics are central to VV’s work, it is difficult to argue that the omission was a blindspot and not willfully hostile. Such a response has meant that very few of the complainants have thus far approached the LCC.
The ICC has said that it has limited access to board members. The Board Chairperson Davia Temin is a renowned reputation and crisis-management consultant based out of New York. This necessitates a critical eye on VV’s responses to the situation. And considering that Ms. Temin had come out strongly and unequivocally in support of survivors during the #MeToo wave in America, it is disappointing that she does not ascribe tantamount value and urgency to the movement’s counterpart in India. We can only surmise that she is being willfully misinformed as her board’s response goes against everything she has publically made a stand for.
To the best of our knowledge, no other Board member of VV India or USA has made any statement on this matter till date. The Board has not recognised the gravity of the complaints. Its silence is not just apathetic to the survivor voices, but also serves to undermine them.
Disturbing events at Video Volunteers: Recently, we learnt of disturbing and disappointing developments at the VV office in Goa where external evaluators from a crisis management consultancy sought responses from primarily female employees of VV regarding their perception around continuing to work with Stalin.
The evaluators directly asked the employees whether they had experienced any sexual harassment by Stalin. When one of the employees replied in the positive, she was asked things like “what happened with you?” and “can you tell us exactly what happened?”. This was inappropriate and insensitive especially when the purpose of the enquiry was not clear.
Later, the notes from the conversations that the evaluators had were sent to employees individually. However the responses were presented without the context of the questions asked. The insensitive probing implemented to solicit the responses have not been recorded.
Some employees regard this intervention as a loyalty test. There is a pervasive feel of paranoia among them that those who failed the ‘loyalty test’ would be gradually be pushed out of VV.
There have been rumors in Goa that Stalin is strategising to return to work in the next few days.
We have attached below a timeline of events for reference.
There needs to be a larger acknowledgement from organisations and allies of VV, that so long as Stalin is involved, VV is not a safe place for women to work/intern/consult/volunteer.
An independent External Inquiry Committee should immediately be constituted, preferably comprising of competent experts such as retired judges, former members of the Women’s Commission, Labour commission, or those having experience of working with an NGO or associations committed to the cause of women.
The access that Stalin has to profiles of prospective interns/volunteers/employees/consultants must be blocked.
VV U.S and VV India need to issue public statements on:
– how it proposes to strengthen the systems in its workplaces to address issues of sexual harassment
– improve accountability of the organisation’s staff policies and operational mechanisms, especially with regard to safety and well being of its women staff.
– systems for review of the safety in the work space – especially with regard to its women and other staff from marginalised communities including those in conflict prone regions, by external reviewers who are known to be experts in this field in the feminist human rights circles in India.
– steps taken for ensuring that complaints (informal and formal) made regarding sexual harassment is treated with a no tolerance policy towards the perpetrator, without penalising or pressurising the complainants and supporting them to take the desired action.
– steps taken regarding the present complaints against the Managing Trustee which will act as a deterrent in the organisation for further continuance of sexual harassment at the workplace that has been continuing for many years now.
People have put their lives on the line everyday to do the work for which VV has gained acclaim. To work at Video Volunteers one always had to put principles and values above everything else. But the manner in which the organisation has chosen to respond to the multiple allegations against Stalin K is a sign that these values have been eroded.
The Video Volunteers Board & Management can no longer operate in hostile denial.
If we have been quiet since Stalin’s ‘stepping down’, it is because we had placed faith in due process. We believed we all share common principles with the Video Volunteers we knew and the organisation’s integrity to follow through. However, it seems to have been a miscalculation at our end.
That said, we will ensure that the courage of the survivors who spoke up against sexual abuse and harassment and against someone so much more powerful than them, will not be forgotten, neither by us nor by others. We will ensure that their unanswered voices will demand accountability from Video Volunteers Management and Board at every stage, at every instance on every platform. We will stand by any and all survivors who choose to take this matter forward in any way that they believe will be impactful.
In solidarity with survivors and those who spoke truth to power everywhere,
Dr. Alice Willatt, Bristol, UK
Shobha R, Human Rights Activist, Bangalore
Shikha L, Bangalore
Shrishti Malhotra, Mumbai
Tania Devaiah, Independent Researcher, Goa
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Endorsed by :
Abhishek Shah, Mumbai
Amol Ranjan , Patna
Amita Kanekar, Goa
Ammu Abraham, Mumbai
Anish Sood, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad
Aruna Chandrasekar, Independent Journalist, Bangalore
Ashim Chowla, Hyderabad
Bindu Doddahatti, Advocate, Bangalore
Chayanika Shah, Mumbai
Diya Deviah, Delhi
Faiz Ullah, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
Gargi Sen, Delhi
Kamayani Bali Mahabal, Mumbai
Mary Thomas, Consultant, Mumbai
Meena Saraswathi Seshu
N. Jayaram, Journalist
Nastasia Paul Gera, Delhi, India
Nikita Sud, University of Oxford
Nithila Kanagasabai, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
Nupur Basu, Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker
Rucha Satoor, Pune
Rene Sharanya Verma, Tisch School of the Arts
Safdar Rahman, Mumbai
Samina Mishra, Independent filmmaker, writer and teacher, Delhi
Sandhya Menon, Independent Journalist, Bangalore
Sandhya R, Bangalore
Seema kurup, Bhopal, Madhya pradesh
Sreedhar Ramamurthi, Environics Trust
Sukrita Baruah, Indian Express
Srishti Raj, Times Internet
Sayan Bhattacharya, Tata Institute of Social Sciences
Shilpa Vasudevan, Tata Institute of Social Sciences
Tanya Dikshit, Jaipur
Teena Gill, Filmmaker and Development Consultant, Delhi
Uma Chandru, Bangalore
Vasudha Sawaiker, Goa
Paromita Vohra, Filmmaker and Writer
Nilita Vachani, Filmmaker/Writer/Educator
Lynne Henry, Mumbai
Timeline of events
May 2017 : Complainant X interns with VV
June 2017: Complainant Y joins VV. and was made to feel uncomfortable by Stalin from the first few weeks itself.
July 2017: Complainant Y- The first incident of unwanted touching by Stalin took place in and subsequently there were several instances up until August 2018.
Feb 2018: Complainant X files informal complaint with ICC — VV.
May 2018 : Complainant Y first approached the ICC with an informal complaint (in writing) against him, after an ICC member reached out to her (in the capacity of a co-worker) because she had noticed inappropriate sexual behaviour towards Y by Stalin at a meeting. Following the informal complaint, Stalin was given a warning and the case was closed in three months.
October 10, 2018: The first public allegation is made on Facebook and Twitter
October 10, 2018: TISS issues a statement
October 11, 2018: VV holds a meeting with its Goa staff
October 11, 2018: Stalin responds to the allegation/s on Facebook and Twitter
October 12, 2018: VV holds a second meeting with its Goa staff
October 12, 2018: VV makes a statement about the allegations on Facebook
October 13,, 2018: Manish (Board member) sends a msg on VV All India WhatsApp group (with all Community Correspondents, Goa staff and state staff) asking people to share negative experiences (with the ICC) and positive experiences (on whatsapp)
October 15, 2018: Y went public with her complaint (anonymously) and subsequently filed a formal complaint with the ICC .
October 11- October 15, 2018: At least seven more allegations came up on Twitter. During the weeks after these public disclosures, multiple ex VV staff and others who have interacted with Stalin wrote to the ICC and some to the Management team at VV with their testimonies highlighting the pattern of behavior observed and demanding action.
October 14, 2018: VV Staff get a mail saying Stalin “stepped down” on October 13
October 18, 2018: VV makes a statement saying Stalin stepped down on October 13, on Facebook and Twitter
(All of the above is summarised on this thread- https://twitter.com/sandygrains/status/1050691640522825728)
October 25, 2018: The ICC forwarded the complaint to the respondent.
November 2, 2018: The ICC confirmed to Complainant Y that they cannot hold an enquiry into the case as it is against the employer. They then asked Y to approach the LCC, which she is now carrying forward. ICC is currently assisting her with the same.
November 13, 2018: Selected staff start to get calls and WhatsApp msgs from Manish about an external evaluation in office the following day
November 14, 2018: The evaluation commences
November 15, 2018: VV Staff get a mail from the Chairperson of the US Board saying that two persons (from KPMG) have been appointed to carry out an evaluation
November 16, 2018: The evaluation ends
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