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

Srishti Kapoor
·10-min read

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'.

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.

Also See: Plea seeks quashing of Delhi Minorities Commission Act, removal of body chief Zafarul Islam; HC seeks AAP govt's stand

Delhi Police opposes plea in high court seeking transfer of Tablighi Jamaat leader Maulana Saad's case to NIA

Survey of high court advocates exposes fault lines between bar, bench; greater transparency in judicial appointments need of the hour

Read more on India by Firstpost.