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High Spirits Sexism Allegation Case: Conflicting Accounts Emerge; Artists Boycott Venue, Law Experts Urge Women to File FIR

Attendees and former staff detail incidents of molestation and misogyny; regulars stand by owner Khodu Irani; venue denies allegations; Pune police begin suo moto inquiry

Rolling Stone India
Rolling Stone India Oct 23, 2017

A High Cookout show featuring New Delhi band The Ska Vengers at Pune venue High Spirits. Photo: courtesy of High Spirits Cafe

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At a time when people—mostly women–all over the world are taking to social media highlighting incidents of sexual harassment using the hashtag #MeToo, Pune music, comedy and arts venue High Spirits and its owner-founder Khodu Irani have come under the scanner for some shocking reasons. In the past week, as many as half a dozen people, including attendees and former employees have spoken against lewd behavior, verbal harassment and abuse they have faced at High Spirits. Considering the pub is one of India’s best music venues boasting a loyal and enthusiastic audience, these stories of abuse have invited widespread outrage on social media, with people expressing both incredulity and scorn.

Initial allegations

On Wednesday, writer, photographer and stylist Sheena Dabholkar took to Twitter about being shamed on social media by the venue for “calling out sexism,” adding that she had received messages from several women about uncomfortable experiences. She wrote, “Some random High Spirits cronies made memes about me and posted it on their business page. When my friends protested, the owner of High Spirits called each one personally for an hour to prove he wasn’t sexist.”

Irani is currently out of the country and not available for comment. 

Dabholkar shared messages she received anonymously from other women who have alleged inappropriateness from Irani and the venue, including lewd remarks, bullying and molestation. She added in her tweets, “What I want is for perpetrators of abuse to be held accountable and for there to be a zero tolerance policy for harassment.”

Among the chief of allegations leveled against Irani is promoting and enabling sexist behavior. While several incidents and first-person accounts of misogyny have filled the narrative, many sources we contacted were less forthcoming, evasive and unresponsive about talking in detail. No official complaint or FIR has been filed with the police either.

More stories of abuse emerge

A former employee, Divya, wrote about her experience working at the venue between 2010 and 2013, as a personal assistant to Irani, whom she does not name in the post. When Rolling Stone India contacted her, Divya refused further comment on the incident, saying, “I have sought legal and professional advice, and other than what I have contributed on Medium, I do not have any further comment or statement about what has transpired.”

This is what she wrote on the blog:  “Groping (butt and boob), body-shaming, slut-shaming, pinching, bullying, intense verbal and emotional abuse were part of the daily routine.” She adds that there was no one else to complaint to, either. “Why didn’t I speak up earlier? There was no Internal Complaints Committee, or Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee (which I later learned is required by Law). No ‘sensitivity training’. No sexual harassment seminars. Nobody who would take this seriously.”

A screenshot from former High Spirits employee Divya’s blog post.

A Pune-based fashion industry professional told Rolling Stone India that she was harassed by Irani as recently as a couple of weeks ago. “I’ve had conversations with Khodu where he’s asked me to send him pictures of me. I told him, ‘You have a wife and kids; I think you should know where to draw the line’. It kept on building on the back of my mind.” She adds that Khodu eventually blocked her on social media.

Among the most openly sexist traditions are their annual High Prom Night awards, which Dabholkar tweeted about and the fashion professional spoke to us about in personal detail. “Last year, I won the Boob-a-licious award, but I didn’t go. Where you get the Best Butt award or some fucking crap. It’s an invite-only event. The people who go there regularly are invited. Not everyone can attend.”

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Alongside the charges of misconduct and sexism, several women came forward to admit they knew about the “frat boy culture.” A Pune-based media professional says she’s heard “several instances” from friends about Irani’s alleged inappropriateness, even though she has personally not experienced any misbehavior.  She says, “I’ve always felt he’s been sexist or misogynist based on what he’s shared on social media.” While she adds that she hasn’t visited the venue more than once a year in the last five years, she says she’s witnessed “creepy” remarks passed by Irani to her friends and sister.

Former male employee admits to witnessing harassment

Another High Spirits former employee—a male this time—we spoke to confessed that the staff had been complicit in propagating a culture of sexism simply because they thought “it was okay.” He says, “Honestly, he [Irani] justified it because all of us forget about it. Khodu is wrong in every way possible, but 80 percent of what he did–the note that Divya wrote or the stuff that Sheena tweeted, the messages that all the girls have posted, they’re all people I’ve worked with at High–these are the 20 percent of things I did not know. Remaining 80 percent–Khodu groping people, rubbing himself against people, cracking sexual jokes–they were normal for years and they have been normal to a point where we were fine with it. I’m genuinely telling you, we’re as much to blame as him. I’ve been seeing this in front of my eyes for years, and I’ve never said anything about it, because I genuinely thought by now it’s okay. It’s him doing it and he’s like that.”

Artists boycott High Spirits

In what has snowballed into a widespread awareness campaign around sexual harassment and abuse, musicians such as New Delhi electronica artist Dualist Inquiry, Mumbai instrumental rock act Blackstratblues and producer Sparkle & Fade have vowed not to return to the venue. Indian American prog band Skyharbor’s Pune stop on their India tour, which took place on October 22nd, was shifted to nearby club Euriska, while alt/indie band The Koniac Net canceled their October 29th performance at the venue.

At the time of publishing, comedians such as Aditi Mittal have publicly admitted that she stopped taking up shows at the High Spirits last year, owing to the “hostile” environment, citing “comments on our love lives,” “permanent undermining, disdain for women”. Pop artist Zoya, who has performed at High Spirits in the past, says, “I haven’t had any weird experiences. But honestly, I don’t deal with him directly or anyone [at High Spirits] directly ever since my managers are always booking shows for me.” Popular comedians such as Tanmay Bhat, Ashish Shakya, Kunal Kamra and Karunesh Talwar have also vowed not to return.  

‘Women victims must file criminal complaint again Irani’: Law experts

Rolling Stone India spoke with Bengaluru-based advocate Shyamal Mukherjee, a partner at Fox Mandal and Associates, who leads the firm’s advisory and consulting services in the Laws on Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) of Women at Workplace. Considering that none of the women that have alleged harassment against Irani have lodged an FIR, Mukherjee says, “The women victims have to shed their anonymity and come forward to file criminal complaints under Section 354A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 against Khodu Irani for Sexual Harassment at the jurisdictional Police Station at Pune. Without disclosing the identity the women victims will not be able to file a complaint or lodge an FIR. If the identity is not disclosed then Irani is not even morally liable to make a statement let alone be legally  liable and the allegations would be seen as witchunt.”

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A 2013 amendment in Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 mandates that in cases of sexual harassment of women, the statement of the victim is to be recorded by a woman police officer and once the offence is brought to the notice of the police. This will be followed by a recording of the statement of the victim before the judicial magistrate. The offence under Section 354 is cognizable and bailable and carries a sentence of imprisonment from one to three years. Following the criminal justice system, summons will be issued for Irani to appear and on his failure to do so, a warrant of arrest will be issued.  

Mukherjee adds, “Any woman who has been a victim of sexual harassment (whether employee or not including former employee) can  also file a complaint before the Local Complaints Committee (constituted under Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013 (LCC). The LCCs are constituted by the State Government at the level of the office of the District Collector at each district. As the allegations of sexual harassment has happened within the High Spirits Café by its owner Khodu Irani, his act falls within the ambit of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013 and he is liable to pay compensation to the victims.”

Pune police begin suo moto inquiry

The latest development in the case is that Pune police have begun a suo moto inquiry into the allegations, and that it will be reaching out to all the women who have alleged harassment. In a story published recently in Pune Mirror, Deepak Sakore, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Zone 4, said, “For now, it is a discreet inquiry and we are hoping that the women who have been at the receiving end of harassment come to us soon.”

‘Women’s safety is top priority’: High Spirits

In a statement released by High Spirits staff on October 14th, the venue denies allegations raised by Dabholkar. “We are deeply shocked and saddened by the allegations, and completely deny the same. It appears these lies are emanating from a single person, with an agenda, who appears to be a motivated by the desire to tarnish the reputation of a bar that has an unblemished record of not having any issues like this arise in its premises in all 13 years of its existence.”

The release adds that women’s safety has been a “top priority.” “Right from the point when any customer, man or woman, enters the premises until they leave the outlet, we have tried to secure every aspect of their experience. We have female bouncers for security, female administration staff to ensure assistance and vigilance for female patrons, and even screened rickshaw drivers for female patrons, to make sure women get home safe.”

 ‘High Spirits is like home’: Regulars

Venue regulars, former and current staff have come out in support of Irani against charges. Actor/model Madhurima Roy says, “High was always home to me. Khodu has been nothing but a darling. Never experienced anything close to uncomfortable.”

Admin, PR and social media staffer Ziya Bhathena defended Irani on a public Facebook post. “Jokes repeated out of context and misconstrued stories aren’t enough to take away our community and they definitely aren’t enough to tarnish someone that is a deeply caring father and husband. A person that has on countless occasions made sure that all my friends, whatever gender they may be, get home safe.”

This is a developing story.

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