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At our firm’s virtual cocktail party last evening, I first heard of a webinar on 'Dating tips for young lawyers and law students', hosted by a platform called LawSikho.com. My first reaction was to laugh it off with a flippant “people have really run out of webinar topics”!
But as the conversation unfolded and my younger colleagues underscored their anger and disgust at what they had witnessed in the course of this “webinar”, I instinctively knew that I had to see this for myself.
So, let’s start at the beginning for those of you who’ve been living under a rock like me. LawSikho.com, which claims to have the “world’s most advanced practical legal training”, consciously hosted a manel titled 'How can busy professionals have a dating life', which was advertised “for men only” (obviously women are neither busy, nor professionals).
This tone-deafness was justified by the CEO of the portal, Ramanuj Mukherjee, who was allegedly the moderator of the session. I use allegedly, because he morphed very quickly from a moderator into a speaker and heckler-in-chief.
The officially designated speaker was Kshitij Sehrawat, a self-styled “love guru” whose credentials included “field experience” with women and whose past tweets are titled “The 3 most crucial assumptions to take your game to the next level”, and “drunk South Delhi girls on Indians Vs Foreigners”. He runs a portal called “Iron man lifestyle” which charges a minimum of INR 15,000 to teach you to talk to “the cute girl you see in class everyday”. He has an IGTV video on how men looking for dates should see themselves as “car buyers” and aspire to buy a Mercedes/BMW and not settle for a Maruti. His fee can go up to Rs. 1.5 lakh! He justifies the pricing by claiming that “Before coming to me, a student of mine was a virgin for 25 years of his life. In 3 days, he lost it.”
At the outset, Ramanuj launched into an eight-minute monologue that included words like "toxic masculinity" and "misogyny" – words that his guest speaker at some point asked for the meanings of, while stressing the need for men to be alpha, if they wanted “a woman of beauty”, underscoring that grades didn’t matter as much prowess as in sports did. He claimed that he was best placed to tell men this and how they shouldn’t ask women for advice, as women clearly do not know what other women want.
He went on to claim that when he asked women for advice, he found himself sending good morning and good evening messages and forwards and giving gifts and being a “nice guy”, a “gentleman”, but that clearly did not work. He also used an analogy of “bread” to say that men should “close the deal” within 3-4 days, or else the "bread" will become stale and the attraction will be gone.
And YET, that is not all that was wrong with it.
At about 1:14 into the webinar, an articulate young woman called Avanti chose to ask a question. It wasn’t a question, but a comment on the sexism of what she had heard so far. At the outset, Kshitij tried to hear her out but Ramanuj made it clear that he would brook no criticism. He shouted at her, asked her to complete her accusation, and then wouldn’t let her speak. In the end, they both ganged up and unleashed a tirade against her, mansplained, cut her off, and Ramanuj announced triumphantly that she accused them of sexism, but clearly had nothing to say.
He then wrote a Facebook post two days later which read like Gaslighting 101 (and a second post to better the first one) with comments like:
Even that afternoon he could not understand what was wrong with the webinar because he had a chat with Kshitij about consent etc. Kshitij’s entire USP apparently did not raise any red flags for him.
The chats were distracting, so he shut them off, but some women messaged him saying he shouldn’t shut them off, so he opened up the chats which later turned out to be “the greatest mistake”.
He should have done a better job at addressing problematic content because some of what Kshitij said was sexist and while in most cases he clarified, he missed others.
In his second Facebook post, Ramanuj said that he is ‘not convinced’ that the webinar was a bad idea or that it was toxic or sexist. He also says that it was a ‘bad content’ and not a big deal. By saying this, he discounted the discomfort and disgust expressed by a large number of lawyers and law students in just two days. For a sensitive subject like this, his perception of whether the webinar was fine or not ceases to matter when so many people are saying that they are uncomfortable with such content. He also says the reactions are just ‘oversensitive’ which renders his ‘apology’ disingenuous.
Ramanuj also called Avanti’s comment a “negative female perspective” in his second Facebook post. This is a subdued attempt at implying that girls will obviously be over-sensitive and their opinion should not count. He said sorry for shouting at her and did not give any regard to her comment otherwise. There was no owning up to what he actually did. Just defensive justification that he was enraged due to the comments.
The “hate” came from unknown people who judged him and LawSikho based on a 3-minute clip circulated by a few.
That this was intended to be an experiment – how he wants to model LawSikho on the Oxford Union by giving a platform to “less palatable” people.
I was deeply troubled by not just a mainstream legal portal believing that it is kosher to host such an event in 2020, but equally by what followed. Apart from the nameless, faceless trolls who took on the women who raised their voices on social media, there were even lawyers who made objectionable comments.
Thereafter, a third post followed, about Ramanuj’s credentials as a champion of gender equality and how he was laying himself bare and healing (as he is clearly the victim in all of this). As if on cue, folks (carefully curated from both genders, several of whom work with LawSikho.com) rushed to defend Ramanuj, to celebrate his bravery and honesty and praise him for his past work, none of which have any co-relation to what happened, and firmly telling everyone to “drop it”.
So why am I writing this?
The reason is simple. There is a culture of toxic masculinity prevalent in our profession which we have all battled as young professionals. Unfortunately, the lesson we were always taught is to ignore it and look the other way. Even now, misogyny is not a subject that you see a lot of senior lawyers calling out or flagging. The culture of silence is deafening, and it is time to let younger lawyers and law students know that some of us have their back. That we will neither ignore nor condone this. That LawSikho is a platform that needs to be condemned, not because it hosted a controversial speaker who went rogue on an experimental subject, but because its CEO and moderator was as much an active participant and perpetrator in this misogynistic exercise.
In an endeavour to create safe spaces for young men and women who are entering the profession, we need to actively and consciously do far more than we are doing right now. And I say this as the Managing Partner of a firm that has a gender-neutral sexual harassment policy, that these conversations should under no circumstances be stifled, nor “apologies” whether sincere or otherwise, be used to sweep the underlying issues under the carpet. Defenders of content and comments such as these, today, are the potential sexual harassers of tomorrow.
As one step to creating an atmosphere of zero tolerance, I welcome the suggestion by some folks in my alma mater that records of the Sexual Harassment Committees of law schools should be considered while making hiring decisions. All it needs is for an employer to seek a clean chit from the internal complaints committees (ICCs) of law schools before making a decision to hire a potential candidate, irrespective of gender.
Similarly, the so-far meaningless Certificate of Good Conduct that we sign up to with the Bar Council needs to factor in back-up documentation where enrolment ought to be refused if there is a conclusive finding of guilt against a candidate by the ICC of their university. If the system has checks and balances that are rigorous and transparent and have the potential to impact a candidate’s career, then the propensity for perpetrators to indulge in casual misogyny will certainly see an impact.
Postscript: Before sending this out, I sent this piece to my colleague Eva Bishwal. I am adding a couple of her thoughts here:
1. LawSikho has a no dating policy for its employees. In the Q&A section, somebody asked about that and Ramanuj justified it by saying that dating in a professional space is problematic due to possible conflict of interest, politics and because most sexual harassment cases emerge from personal relationships in offices. This is an extremely problematic generalization to make which perpetuates the dangerous trope that “women complain when consensual relationships sour”.
2. As we are going virtual, and online content is increasing in general, clickbait, inappropriate content, and cyber bullying is increasing. This is an institutional concern and the Bar Council of India should step in to hold legal professionals accountable (in addition to the existing regime of internet regulations and statutes like the IT Act).
The author is the Managing Partner at Fidus Law Chambers.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Bar & Bench.