Rizwan Siddiquee
Rizwan Siddiquee

Rizwan Siddiquee should brace for an impasse. The noted criminal lawyer took the first step towards initiating criminal proceedings against digital entertainment agency The Viral Fever (TVF) founder Arunabh Kumar by filing a complaint against him with the Mumbai Police and the Maharashtra Commission for Women three days ago. But, with no alleged victim of Kumar's misdemeanours having come forward yet, the case could die a slow death, warn experts.

Exactly a week ago, an anonymous blogpost kicked up a storm in the entertainment start-up bubble and started a dialogue on sexual harassment of women in the workplace. The poster — under the pseudonym Indian Fowler, in a reference to techie Susan Fowler, who exposed the culture of sexual harassment and discrimination at ride hailing app firm Uber — made allegations of facing repeated sexual harassment at the workplace from Kumar over two years. That blog opened a Pandora's box. Many other women made similar allegations against Kumar, some anonymously. As of March 15, there were over 50 complaints. But no one came forward, despite a plea by the Mumbai Police, to register a complaint.

Victim's statement must
It was then that Siddiquee rose to the task. The law allows a third party to file a criminal complaint, barring charges in which the aggrieved victim(s)'s presence is mandatory (sections 195-199 of Criminal Procedure Code). "A third party can file a complaint with respect to section 354 (assault or criminal force on woman with the intent to outrage her modesty) of the IPC. The law does not prevent me from filing an FIR. I had filed an FIR against [self-styled film critic] Kamal R Khan as a third party in a similar manner," Siddiquee told mid-day.

At last count, there were over 50 complaints of sexual harassment against TVF founder Arunabh Kumar
At last count, there were over 50 complaints of sexual harassment against TVF founder Arunabh Kumar

Criminal lawyer Rizwan Merchant, however, pointed out that such sexual harassment complaints only allow the police to investigate but not make any arrest. "When a complaint is filed, the police can summon the victim and record her statement. The statement can help figure out mala fide intention, if any." If the victim doesn't turn up, the police either tag the complaint as accurate but undetected, or categorise it as a false case. Either way, the case is closed, said advocates Mihir Desai and Pranav Badheka.

A case in 2013 is a prime example of such a dismal scenario. A photojournalist had captured the molestation of a girl by a crowd during Ganesh visarjan then and a complaint was even filed on the basis of the photograph, but the case had to be shut because the victim didn't come forward. Siddiquee said he is trying to convince two alleged victims of Kumar to approach the police. He also issued a show-cause notice last evening to Shailesh Pasalwad, senior inspector of MIDC police station, Andheri East, for failing to take cognisance of his complaint despite being "duty-bound to immediately file an FIR in all matters under section 354 of the IPC."

The MIDC police, who have summoned Siddiquee to record his statement, said they are still looking into the merit of the complaint. "We are seeking a legal opinion on whether an FIR can be registered on a third party's complaint," said Pasalwad.

Growing numbers
Regardless of how Siddiquee's complaint is taken, the growing number of allegations against Kumar cannot be brushed aside. In just two days of the blogpost going viral, six other women had claimed that he had molested them, too. As of March 15, @Corporatekumar_, an anonymous Twitter handle that was the first to share the post, is said to have received 50 more private messages. The Twitter account user said information of these 50 allegations will be shared publicly only after verification.

When mid-day reached out yesterday, the handler said three to four complaints appeared to be genuine harassment cases, while the others referred to Kumar's flirtatious advances. The user refused to hand over to the police redacted chats from the women, adding that the women had been asked to reach out to Siddiquee. The user was diffident to share more information, saying one of the women whose information he had given to a mediaperson was harangued by TVF.

Inputs from Vinay Dalvi

50
Number of women who spoke out against Kumar as of March 15

70
Percentage of women who did not report sexual harassment by superiors, as per a 2016-17 survey