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Legal portal Law Sikho apologises for webinar criticised as being sexist, but fiasco serves as reminder of issues plaguing the industry

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Ramanauj Mukherjee, CEO of Law Sikho: You have come here to tell us what is sexist about this webinar.

Avanti Balachander, fourth-year law student: The fact that you are not letting me finish even one sentence is borderline sexist.

Ramanauj: Is that the only thing? Thank you Avanti, you had nothing to say about our content.

Avanti: Have you asked any women in your life how they think men should talk to women?

Ramanauj: We consented for a question, not a speech.

Law Sikho, a portal that claims to be the “world’s most advanced practical legal training” tool, held a webinar only for men on 15 May titled ‘How can busy professionals have a dating life’.

Kshitij Sehrawat, self-styled love guru, was the guest speaker at the men-only Law Sikho webinar that looked at providing dating tips and advice to "busy professionals".

National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) Kolkata alumnus Ramanauj Mukherjee held this webinar with Kshitij Sehrawat, a self-styled love guru who runs the portal Iron Man Lifestyle. Through the webinar, Kshitij continued to attribute his expertise to “field experience” with women. He also put out a video on Instagram about how men looking for dates should see themselves as “car buyers” and aspire to buy a Mercedes or BMW, and not “settle” for a Maruti.

A sizable chunk of the 90-minute-long webinar saw Kshitij, whose branding includes the claim that he has spoken to thousands of girls, using the “bread analogy” to press upon the need to meet a woman from a dating app within four days, else “the bread expires”. He went on to explain that men tend to send nude pictures to women because “we are visual” and that good grades are not necessary to impress women, as the most popular men are those who are into sport.

Avanti, who is currently studying law at the OP Jindal Law University, was appalled when Kshitij responded to a participant’s question about getting rid of a porn addiction with the suggestion that he should do a Vipassana course. Having posted many comments while the webinar was live and calling out the “blatantly sexist” content of the session, she chose to speak up when Ramanauj asked for questions and opinions. She was cut off constantly and shouted at by an evidently agitated Ramanauj, who said, “I’ll take care of her”.

Meanwhile, when Avanti asked if both the men leading the webinar had talked to the women in their lives about how men should talk to women, Kshitij replied in the affirmative. “I’ve talked to a lot of women. My sample size may be small, but it is bigger than yours,” he added.

Members of the legal community raised their voices against the moderator and guest’s behaviour towards Avanti, as well as the webinar’s content itself. Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nandy said the law student’s bullying was unacceptable. She further dismissed Kshitij’s message that women are flooded with date requests. “Almost all women get harassed, those aren’t date requests,” she wrote on Twitter.

The chorus demanding an apology to Avanti and to women, in general, grew. Lawyers said that the “highly inappropriate” content reveals how “the most vicious sexism comes from quarters of privilege and literacy”.

Avanti later received an apology email from Law Sikho co-founder Abhyuday Agarwal. The email stated that “The company has the duty to be more responsible towards its audience and choose carefully the people it hosts on its platforms,” Avanti said. An initial statement posted by Law Sikho, which was criticised as being gaslighting, was later deleted.

Soon after, the webinar video was taken down, while the issue gained momentum on social media. Two days later, Law Sikho issued a second statement and Ramanauj posted an apology. The statement read, “We, as a company, were wrong to condone and host a webinar that spread such a problematic culture. We are reflecting as a team, on good strong policies to ensure this never happens again. We apologise for all the harm that was generated due to this webinar. We specifically apologise to Avanti for her voice being suppressed.”

The Law Sikho founder apologised to Avanti for his behaviour on Facebook, blaming his outburst on being “targeted viciously through personal messages as well as the public chat with taunts like ‘Ramanauj do you beat your wife,’ ‘why are you such an incel’ and ‘you should just die’”. It wasn’t, however, an unequivocal apology.

He continued to claim that the law student was already triggered when she came on the call. This assumption, Avanti said, takes away from the fact that women are often suppressed. “It was the content that ticked me off. They made it seem like cutting women off is a one-off thing,” she told Firstpost.

Ramanauj also distanced himself from the decision to call Kshitij for the webinar. “I had relied on a couple of colleagues’ recommendations here. My job was to just hold the webinar. I do not really vet people before calling them,” he said in a Facebook post.

In another post, he wrote, “I was sexist. I may not be as sexist as someone else, but I was not even recognizing misogyny where it stared at me in my face.”

However, he maintained that he was not convinced that the webinar was a bad idea or that it was toxic or sexist, adding that it was ‘bad content’, but not a big deal.

Many people, including women, stood in support of Ramanauj, praising him for being “brave” and for presenting a fine example of “owning one’s own garbage”. However, others chose to dissociate from the firm. Leading lawyer Ameet Dutta asked Law Sikho to remove his name from their website, ending his association with the firm as “nothing justifies this sort of conduct”. Lawctopus, a website for law students, announced that it will stop LawSikho/iPleaders ads on its website till an unconditional apology is issued. It also demanded that Ramanauj steps down from leadership roles.

Padmini Baruah, an alumna of National Law School, resigned from Law Sikho because “working in a sexist culture violates everything I stand for,” she said. She joined Law Sikho to lead Project Maverick, where she had “relative autonomy to take decisions on content, webinars and the kind of direction the project”. She wrote on Twitter that she tried to point out the various issues during a group call, and a week later, she ended her association with the firm.

She said she was appalled that a website that reaches out to young people did not do due diligence before inviting a person who projected a “harassment-oriented and misogynistic approach towards women”. Stressing that the webinar was symptomatic of a “very large cultural problem”, she said that there is a clear need for internal sensitisation at Law Sikho. “This entire culture of objectifying women is rampant, as seen both here and in the ‘bois locker room case’,” she told Firstpost.

Padmini also apologised for not being publicly outspoken since the beginning. While calling it unpardonable, she took responsibility for the deleted initial statement put out by Law Sikho; she added that this statement contained excerpts from a previous “excessively toxic” statement she had edited, even though she had not yet seen the video.

Shreya Munoth, an advocate whose work focuses on gender-based complaints and crimes, said the incidents involving Law Sikho and ‘bois locker room’ differ in scale but bring to the fore similar issues. “They are symptomatic of the same underlying problem, which is the lack of gender sensitisation and consent education,” the Delhi-based lawyer said.

Declining to comment on the criticism which pointed out similarities between ‘bois locker room’ and Law Sikho’s webinar, Ramanauj said, “The intent was to teach men concepts like consent, empathy and non-objectification, but the failure lay in not taking help from the right experts.”

Munoth said that apart from Law Sikho’s recklessness in not vetting the speaker, the problem also lay in Ramanauj’s shoddy moderation of a speaker “peddling the narrative that women are achievable”. She said that the portal needs to be held accountable for its choice of speaker and webinar topic. “What is the cultural introspection, reflection and future action and deliberation that Law Sikho has in mind?” she asked.

Not naming the person held responsible for inviting Kshitij for the session, Ramanauj said they have been removed from webinar-related work and they’re seeking legal advice on how to proceed. The organisation now has a process for vetting the guest speakers they call to the platform, he told Firstpost a week after the webinar.

“We have invited organisations and experts working in gender justice to come on board and work with our platform to sensitise our audience about this so that the damage can be undone,” he added and also mentioned in a post on social media. Padmini had suggested organising a counter-webinar to take opinions and questions and discuss what went wrong with the previous one, but Ramanauj said such a webinar was not held to “avoid hasty decisions”. A week later, neither the counter-webinar nor webinars on gender sensitisation have been held.

***

This incident is a reminder of the rampant sexism in the legal industry. The toxic masculinity in the profession came to the fore with the recent sexual harassment complaint against former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, which led to the female complainant losing her job and a false case of bribery being filed against her.

In June 2019, the first female president of the Uttar Pradesh Bar Council, Darvesh Yadav, was shot dead by another lawyer inside the premises of Agra’s Diwani Kachahri, where her felicitation ceremony was to be held, following her election.

In the case of a sexual harassment complaint filed by a law intern against former Supreme Court Justice Swatanter Kumar in 2014, the Delhi High Court passed an order barring the media from reporting on the matter.

Shreya, who has seven years of experience as a lawyer, says that the profession is fraught with sexism; the highest court in the country has had only eight or nine women judges in its history. It is evident in the difference of the behaviour of judges towards male and female counsels, the dismal facilities for women at court complexes and even the hiring and sexual harassment policies at law firms. “Some senior lawyers are known to be predatory, treating women disrespectfully and acting with impunity only because of power and clout they enjoy,” she said.

After sexual harassment cases were filed against two judges, Shreya claims that many senior lawyers stopped hiring women. “Sexual harassment policies are unheard of in litigation chambers. I know of very few lawyers who ensure an environment of gender equality in chambers, but they are not nearly enough,” she said.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH) mandates that any workplace with ten or more employees must have an Internal Complaints Committee. But the guidelines prescribed under this act need to be followed with diligence, to ensure safe spaces for young lawyers.

The inclusion of gender sensitisation courses was recommended to law colleges, but Avanti’s college only started one in 2017. She laments the normalisation of sexism, adding that Ramanauj and Kshitij’s behaviour towards her was met with so much outrage because countless women are subjected to similar behaviour. “The only difference is that this time it got caught on camera and was seen by hundreds of people,” she said.

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COVID-19: India surpasses France, Germany, becomes 7th most-affected country in world

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New Delhi: India is now the seventh most affected country by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic with a tally of 190,162 cases, which includes 5,402 deaths, according to data presented by the worldometer website. 

The United States leads the table with 18.2 lakh cases, including 1.05 lakh casualties. Of these, over 11.18 lakh cases are active cases while 5.36 lakh have been either recovered or discharged from hospitals. At least 17,163 people are said to be seriously critical of the infection in the US. 

Brazil takes the second spot with 5.01 lakh cases and over 28,000 deaths. Here, 2.67 lakh is active cases and over 2 lakh people have been recovered of the illness. Close to 8,300 are critically ill in Brazil. 

Russia is on the third spot with 4.05 lakh cases followed by the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy. 

On May 31, India registered its highest single-day spike of COVID-19 cases with 8,380 new infections reported in the last 24 hours, taking the country’s tally to 1,82,143, while the death toll rose to 5,164.

Just a few days back, on May 25, India took the tenth position on the table with a total of 1.38 lakh confirmed cases, after surpassing Iran, which stood at 1.35 cases.

Maharashtra continues to be the worst-hit state in the country with 67,655 positive cases of coronavirus, as on May 31. Mumbai alone accounts for 39,686 of the total 67k cases of the state. The number of active cases of COVID-19 in Maharashtra stands at 36,040.

Other most-affected states are Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. 

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Karnataka issues guidelines for Unlock 1: Religious places, restaurants, malls to reopen

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Bengaluru: A day after the Center announced fifth phase of the country wide coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown, the Karnataka government on Sunday (May 31) issued its guidelines on the lockdown measures undertaken for ‘Unlock 1’. 

The new guidelines state that all the lockdown measures will remain in force in Karnataka till June 30. 

Whereas places of religious worship, restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality services can funtion from June 8 along with shopping malls and complexes.

The Karnataka government was expected to take a call on resuming the operation of inter-state buses after getting consent from other states though the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) has already assumed operations with several restrictions in place.

Meanwhile, the Karnataka Pradesh Hotels and Restaurants’ Association was elated with the state government’s decision to lift restrictions on the hotel industry.

In a quote to PTI, the President of the association Chandrashekar Hebbar said, “We are fully prepared to resume our business. We will abide by the guidelines such as wearing masks, social distancing, gloves and so on.”

The Centre had on Saturday announced the exit plan for the lockdown dubbed as ‘Unlock 1’ that permits reopening places of religious worshipm shoppping malls and restaurants among other things.

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CIC scolds official for denying RTI data on stranded migrants, asks government to put it online

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New Delhi: The Central Information Commission has pulled up an official for “callous and casual” response in denying data on stranded migrant labourers under the RTI Act, and asked the Labour Ministry to upload on its website as much data as possible on them.

Information Commissioner Vanaja N Sarna came down heavily on the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the office of Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC) who has told RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak that it has no data on stranded migrant labourers.

The CPIO gave the response despite Nayak having quoted an April 8 circular of the CLC, directing its regional office to count within three days every labourer stranded after the imposition of the countrywide lockdown on March 25 to combat coronavirus.

Nearly a fortnight after the CLC circular, Nayak had filed an RTI application seeking to know the state-wise names of districts from which data about the stranded migrant workers were received. But he was told the officer did not have any data.

Nayak then filed a complaint under the Right to Information (RTI) Act before the Commission.

Sarna said the bench is conscious of the fact that under Section 18 of the RTI Act directions for disclosure of information is not warranted.


However, she said, keeping in view the extraordinary circumstances that necessitated the complaint, it was prudent to consider Nayak’s query in the letter and spirit of the RTI Act.

“In doing so, the Commission invokes section 25(5) of the RTI Act and issues an advisory to the respondent authority to maintain a robust and dynamic website for placing all data related to migrant workers therein as and when it is received from different Regional Heads,” she said.

Sarna quoted from orders of the Supreme Court, High Courts and Home Ministry’s press briefings in her detailed direction.

At this point, she said, it is necessary for the CPIO to put his best possible efforts to collect this data from different Regional Heads and place them on their website immediately even if it is done in a piecemeal manner.

“It is also necessary to continue to update this data from time to time as additional data is received from various quarters,” she said.

Underlining that the RTI application raised a very important issue, Sarna said the Commission is not convinced with the fact that when a letter is issued by the Chief 


Labour Commissioner to collect the data on migrant labourers, who are seriously affected by the pandemic, then how it is possible that no action was taken whatsoever.

“It is established beyond doubt that the CPIO has handled the RTI application in a very callous and casual manner. The complainant through his RTI application has raised a very important issue related to the stranded migrant workers,” Sarna said in her stern order.

But to the utmost surprise of the Commission, she observed, the CPIO has given a cursory, flimsy and inappropriate reply to Nayak while totally ignoring the seriousness of the issue he raised.

“The Commission records its severe admonition against the CPIO for such negligent handling of the RTI application concerning an issue of such wide implications,” she said.

Sarna said the officer seemed completely unaware of the provisions of the RTI Act.

Had he been aware, he could have transferred the query to the appropriate authority in the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office to obtain the collated information from them, she said.

“He should note that such poor handling shows complete laxity towards the implementation of the RTI Act which was enacted to promote transparency and accountability in the country and in case such a lapse is repeated in future, the Commission will be constrained to initiate penal action against him,” she said.

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