By Shilpa Jamkhandikar
(Reuters) – The #MeToo movement in India has gathered momentum in recent days, with more than a dozen complaints of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct levelled online against prominent journalists, actors, movie directors, comedians and other public figures.
On Monday, it triggered an investigation into a leading journalist and questions about the future of India’s top comedy collective.
The Hindustan Times, one of India’s major national papers, said that Prashant Jha, its political editor and chief of bureau, has been asked to step down from all his editorial roles pending an investigation. “This is a case of sexual harassment and an internal committee has been set up,” said the media group’s general counsel, Dinesh Mittal, in an announcement.
Jha was accused by a former female colleague, Avantika Mehta, of sending inappropriate messages. Mehta made her complaint on Saturday in an article on the Firstpost news site and then on her own Twitter account.
Jha did not answer calls or text messages seeking comment. He has not responded publicly to the allegations.
Separately, India’s biggest comedy group, All India Bakchod (AIB), said its future was in doubt following a series of allegations about sexual harassment.
Tanmay Bhat, the chief executive and co-founder of AIB, resigned after saying in a statement on Friday he made a “big mistake” by continuing to work with a stand-up comic even after Bhat knew of allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the performer.
The comic, Utsav Chakraborty, was accused last Thursday by Mahima Kukreja, a fellow comic, of soliciting nude pictures from under-age girls online and sending her pictures of his genitals.
She confirmed to Reuters that he sent her the pictures.
Chakraborty denied asking for nude picture from underage girls. He has said in a statement that has since been removed from his Twitter account that any sexting he did he thought was consensual.
According to a statement from the comedy group, another AIB co-founder, Gursimran Khamba, was also placed on a temporary leave of absence by the collective after an anonymous woman on social media on Monday accused him of “emotional blackmail” and of trying to force himself on her. In a statement, Khamba denied any wrongdoing, saying there was no violation of consent.
He said the two of them “hooked up consensually multiple times”, and that the relationship later became toxic. The woman has also said the two of them were in a consensual sexual relationship, but that he also forced himself on her on two separate occasions.
“At this time, both of our senior partners are immediately stepping away from all business at AIB. Truthfully we do not know what this means for the future of AIB or whether there is one,” according to a statement from the group, signed by Vidhi Jotwani, head of human resources at AIB.
The best-known group in India’s growing comedy scene, AIB has more than 3.4 million subscribers on its YouTube channel.
Hotstar, an internet platform owned by Twenty-First Century Fox’s Star India unit, said it was pulling “On Air with AIB”, a news and current affairs show that still had more than 20 episodes to air and that was hosted by the four founders of AIB. In a tweet on its official handle, Hotstar said the developments surrounding AIB ran contrary to the platform’s values and that it was taking the show off air with immediate effect.
AIB was also developing a show for Amazon. A spokeswoman for Amazon India said the company had nothing to announce about its AIB ties.
The series of accusations follows sexual harassment allegations made by actress Tanushree Dutta late last month against prominent actor Nana Patekar because of his behaviour on the sets of a film they were shooting in 2008. On Saturday, Dutta filed a civil complaint against Patekar with the police, alleging sexual harassment, saying she suffered psychological trauma and was unable to work in films after that.
Patekar has denied the allegations. His lawyer said on Sept. 28 that Dutta had been sent a legal notice, which can be a precursor to a lawsuit, for making a false allegation.
Rajendra Shirodkar, Patekar’s lawyer, told Reuters on Sept. 28 that the notice asked Dutta to apologise to his client or face further action. He did not specify what that action would be.
In a statement to local news channels, Dutta confirmed that she had received a legal notice from Patekar.
On Sunday, movie director Anurag Kashyap said in a statement on his Twitter account that he regretted not acting on allegations of sexual misconduct made against his partner and producer Vikas Bahl in 2015. Bahl is alleged to have engaged in non-consensual sexual activity with a female colleague in her hotel room after a promotional party for a movie in 2015, according to two separate news reports published in the Mumbai Mirror in 2017 and on Saturday by the Huffington Post.
In 2017, Bahl denied the allegations. He could not be reached for comment this week.
On Saturday, Kashyap announced that Phantom Films, the production company he formed with Bahl and two others, was being dissolved. He did not cite any reasons for the company breaking up.
Some other media outlets also have launched inquiries. Among them The Wire, an online news portal, asked for specific complaints to be addressed to its Internal Complaints Committee after its co-founder, Sidharth Bhatia, was accused on Monday on Twitter of sending inappropriate messages to subordinates by a woman who claimed she worked with him. Another woman claimed on Twitter that he had made a vulgar comment about her.
Bhatia denied wrongdoing in a statement and said he did not recall either of the women as employees. He said he was willing to face an independent inquiry.
(Additional reporting by Blassy Boben Jose; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)