On Monday, Teach for India, a non-profit organisation working in low-income schools, sent three of its employees on leave after sexual harassment allegations emerged against them on social media. The allegations have come from interns and fellows, both former and current, who have accused their managers of sexual harassment, ranging from bullying and sexually-coloured comments to “inappropriate touching”.

Started in 2009 when it inducted its first batch of fellows, Teach for India works with graduates and young professionals who, after a round of training, are placed in government or low-income private schools to teach full-time. These fellows remain in that position for two years after which they may find jobs elsewhere. A small section may even be recruited by Teach for India itself. It also takes interns to assist the fellows for shorter terms. The organisation told Scroll.in that the majority of its fellows and programme managers “are in their 20s and over 65% are women”.

On October 15, two days after the first set of allegations appeared on Twitter, the organisation made its first public statement saying it has asked three staff members to go on “leave of absence pending investigation”. A former member of staff who now works with a different education organisation, also faced allegations.

The earliest account of sexual harassment at the non-profit emerged on October 9 on Instagram, according to an internal email. Later, two women who were with Teach for India shared their experiences of harassment with activist and webcomic artist, Rachita Taneja, online. After that, Taneja, who is not linked to the organisation, began to collate complaints, inviting other members of the Teach for India community to speak up. Between October 13 and October 17, 16 women who had directly faced harassment had confided in her. In addition, interns, fellows, former and current employees who were witness to or knew of harassment in the Teach for India ranks also wrote to her.

The bulk of the complaints came from two chapters of Teach for India – the oldest, Pune, and Mumbai. It has chapters in Delhi, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Chennai as well, and a staff member at one of these chapters said she “strongly thinks” the problem of harassment is restricted to Pune. Other chapters have been more proactive in handling such complaints, she said. “All other cities take cases of sexual harassment very seriously and have fired people for the same in the past,” she said. “But Pune’s [work] culture has always been rotten for women, it is a boys’ gang.”

On October 13, its co-founder and chief executive officer Shaheen Mistri wrote to fellows and staff requesting them not to air their grievances publicly. Survivors were further angered by what they saw as damage-control. Reminding everyone that Teach for India is “led by and disproportionately staffed by women”, Mistri requested them to direct their questions to the senior leadership – the HR director, chief programme officer and herself – while the organisation looked into the complaints. She wrote: “It is not helpful...to respond publicly...as the facts in the cases have not yet been examined. Doing this runs the very significant risk of damaging the lives and reputations of people involved in the cases, and the credibility and integrity of Teach for India as an organisation.”

Mistri told Scroll.in on Thursday that the organisation is investigating all the allegations, and intends to “make robust some of the processes”. “When general issues arise that do not constitute gross misconduct we err on the side of giving people chances,” she said. “This is a stance we want to introspect on given some of what we understood seems to be graver in substance then anything we were aware of.”

Later on Thursday evening, Mistri sent out an email to her employees in which she apologised for not acting strongly or swiftly enough. “I want to start by saying sorry,” she wrote. “I want to say sorry to every woman who has felt unsafe, who has been hurt, who has been harassed in any way.”

Allegations of sexual harassment

One of the first public allegations came from 22-year-old freelance filmmaker Poulomi Roy who interned with Teach for India’s Mumbai chapter for six weeks in November-December 2014. She shared her story on Twitter on October 14. As a student of Symbiosis Centre for Media and Mass Communication, Pune, completing an internship with Teach For India was compulsory. She was placed under Kapil Dawda, then a fellow and now Teach for India’s Bengaluru city director. She assisted him in his teaching in a government school in Govandi, Mumbai. “[Dawda] sexually and mentally harassed me for a month,” she alleged in a public account of her experience. “He would touch me inappropriately during class. He [would] dig his elbow into my chest while showing me something on his laptop. He would come close enough to place his thigh between my legs when we were sitting.”

Roy was 18 at the time. She told Scroll.in that she did not complain in 2014 because Dawda was getting married that December and she was scared her complaint “would f**k his life up”.

Further, her account suggested she was unfairly punished by Dawda as well. His report on her work was so disastrous that Roy had to face an inquiry in her college. “He said I slept in class, constantly used my phone, was late to work and that I skipped work a lot – all of them were fake,” she alleged. “My college cancelled my next internship. They made me attend remedial classes all summer as punishment and failed me in the projects – our internships make up 60% of the grade.”

Dawda issued a missive to the Bengaluru chapter on the same day that Roy shared her story on Twitter. He wrote: “We value the safety of everyone who works with us. I want to assure you the full support of the organisation to take all grievances or concerns forward. The organisation has a grievance redressal committee that is looking into all matters that have surfaced. You can email them directly if you want to share your concern with them...We’re committed to resolving this fairly and objectively.”

Although Teach for India has not mentioned names, people in the know within the organisation said he was one of the three employees sent on leave from Monday.

Dawda confirmed he was on leave. In an email response to Scroll.in’s questions, he said: “I unequivocally deny all allegations made against me. I am on a temporary leave of absence while the organisation’s internal complaints committee is investigating the matter. I intend to fully cooperate with the process. I am also independently considering legal recourse. I will not be able to comment further at this time.”

Another survivor, a Pune fellow, told Scroll.in about the harassment she allegedly faced at the hands of programme manager, Sachin Paranjape, a few years ago. He is now a senior programme manager with another influential education organisation – Central Square Foundation. She said when she joined, he was already known as “the playboy” in the education non-profit circles of Pune. She said Paranjape had “intimidating body language”, “screamed” at her when she asked to reschedule a “class observation” because the children would be occupied with the school’s sports day, and called “at inappropriate hours under the pretext of giving feedback”.

She continued: “He would also keep asking me inappropriate questions like do I have a boyfriend, why don’t I act more friendly, and if there is a problem with me that I can’t be friendly...Then the inappropriate touching started. A brush of hand here, a hand around the shoulder there. I still recall I would ensure I would show my discomfort. But the inappropriate touching never stopped.”

Paranjape’s email address was not traceable – the Central Square Foundation did not respond to a request for it. Scroll.in called him but his phone was “out of service”. He did not respond to a text message either. Questions were finally sent to him over WhatsApp. He has not responded yet but this report will be updated when he does. Central Square Foundation declined to comment on the matter.

According to people in the know, another employee sent on leave is Abhimanyu Sarkar, now city director, Pune. While one current employee complained of sexist comments and behaviour from Sarkar, another former fellow from the Mumbai branch said women have been talking about him making them “uncomfortable” since 2011.

“I have seen Abhimanyu less than a dozen times and he has said weird stuff every time,” she said. “He stared, made random sexual remarks and said sexist things constantly reminding women of how little they are capable of.”

Sarkar was emailed a detailed questionnaire to which he has not yet responded. This report will be updated if he does.

The third employee of Teach for India asked to go on leave remains unidentified in this story as no individual who spoke to Scroll.in mentioned him or commented on his behaviour directly.

‘Like a cult’

The woman who complained against Paranjape, blamed the organisation’s culture “of blurred boundaries between the personal and the professional” for the situation. She was 25 at the time of her fellowship in Pune. Each programme manager may have around a dozen fellows to supervise and coach. In addition to monitoring, guiding and assessing the fellows’ efforts in the classroom, programme managers are also responsible for their well-being and serve as emotional support. “[Paranjape] was literally the only line of communication I had with TFI [Teach For India],” said the former fellow. “And he is an extremely intimidating and aggressive person. I was scared to report to him because at that time the entire Pune team was filled with people who were related to each other and/or were extremely good friends with each other. Some of them were dating each other. In light of this, I decided not to complain.”

Her description of the “Pune culture” was corroborated by the Teach for India employee from another chapter as well as a former fellow from Delhi who had attended the month-long training programme Teach for India holds for every new batch in Pune. “The entire Pune team is like a boys’ gang with four-five men forming really close cliques and friendships and protecting each other and having each other’s backs for all the wrong things,” said the employee. The former fellow added that it is “like a cult” and “all that was left was chanting”. Fellows and everyone involved were expected to give all their time to the organisation and socialise with its employees outside work hours. “If you chose to stay out, it meant you were not committed to the movement,” she said.

This culture was apparently upheld as a paradigm. “The leadership has always upheld Pune as a beacon of student outcomes and excellence in education,” the employee said. “We hear about Pune all the time – how awesome they are, how cool their culture is, how they all know each other really well, how they stay in office all day, their friends are all TFI [Teach for India] people, they are all married to TFI folks and that the lines [between the] professional and [the] personal don’t exist.”

Clarifications on the work environment at Teach for India were sought from Mistri. She sought to explain how their system is meant to work and where they have found gaps. “When issues come up, fellows have a programme manager they report to,” her emailed response said. “The programme manager reports into a senior programme manager, who in turn reports into the city director...What has been a wakeup call for us is that allegations…are being raised now against both levels of leadership...”

In the email to employees that she sent on Thursday evening, Mistri said the organisation was committed to fixing what was broken. “We’ve already started holding spaces across several of our cities to listen to voices from our community, really trying to understand what broke down, why it broke down, where it broke down, and with whom it broke down,” she wrote. We commit to introspecting, taking responsibility and becoming stronger together.”

‘TFI’s reach’ and the women’s silence

None of the women Scroll.in spoke to had made formal complaints against harassment.

“The manager rates our work and at the time of placements again they are the only ones who give feedback to the companies about the fellow,” said the woman who has spoken out against Paranjape, explaining why she did not lodge a complaint formally. As evaluators of the fellows’ work, managers wield an enormous amount of power even over their futures. Fellows feared being ostracised by other well-known organisations in the education sector. “It is a very tight-knit sector – the organisations in education are known to each other and many are offshoots of TFI [Teach for India],” she added.

The former fellow from Delhi said that Teach for India is a “hiring pool for everybody”. Its fellows come with two years of experience working in the field and are presumed to be sensitive, empathetic. Its fellows and employees have joined or started other organisations such as Pratham, STIR Education, Central Square Foundation and Indus Action.

A former employee from Mumbai who reported a case involving her friend to webcomic artist Taneja told Scroll.in: “I continue to work in education [and] don’t want any altercation that might affect my work.”

Teach for India is “encouraging members of [their] community to raise their issues directly with the grievance redressal committee,” said Mistri. “Our focus is to make compliance processes robust so that no incident goes unaddressed and that our community members don’t feel let down by the process,” she added. “We...are committed to creat[ing] a work environment which is free of any form of harassment. Our intent is to stay objective so that justice can be served swiftly and through a process laid down by law.”

‘Learn to deal with it yourself’

Staff and alumni also scoffed at the organisation’s initial responses to the exposes. On October 13, Mistri organised a meeting for survivors to speak up in Pune, but they were forbidden to take names and were asked to “give the accused the benefit of doubt”, said a former fellow. A deeply critical account of that exchange, accusing Mistri of being “supremely biased” and being “blinded to the trauma” of survivors, was anonymously posted on Medium.com but taken down on October 16 after the three employees were sent on leave.

At a meeting of non-profits in Pune on October 15, Anu Aga, Teach for India’s chairperson, was recorded saying: “There is some harassment, that will certainly be escalated. But don’t expect the outcome to be as you want it. Let the committee independently decide...Don’t get carried away by the MeToo movement to air your views – against men – [about] something [that] happened 50 years ago. Learn to deal with it yourself. All of us have gone through some unpleasant things.”

This prompted another blistering anonymous attack that was posted on Medium on October 17. “You don’t get to tell people when the time is okay come out,” it said. “Even if it was 50 years ago and now is the time someone has the courage to speak up then the least we can do if we’re incapable of lending a listening ear is not be...a dismissive pr**k.”

Aga later told Scroll.in that while she had held a “personal belief...that if women were assertive and empowered at home and at work, it would shield them from harassment”, the reactions to her comments and what she has read of the #MeToo movement since, have “made [her] aware that every woman cannot be assertive and many women bottle up their feelins and that # Me Too is an outpouring of that very same injustice women have suffered over the years.”

“Clearly I was wrong and apologize,” she said. “I do agree that women have a right to report when they feel ready to do so in an atmosphere that allows them to address their grievances. Without meaning to be dismissive, I did sound insensitive and have hurt the women and for that I am sorry.”

Teach for India alumni groups from Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune separately had written angry letters to Mistri and others demanding answers and action. Alumni in Delhi demanded a list of “actions and steps” taken to ensure justice, the Pune team demanded that the senior leadership acknowledge there has been a “breakdown of culture and trust”, initiate a fair investigation from which “personal relationships” are “completely kept aside” and also send the accused on leave to encourage the survivors to complain without fear.

Mistri wrote to the Teach for India “community” again on Monday night, this time with details of the grievance redress committee. She wrote: “The ICC [Internal Complaints Committee] is in the process of reaching out to all the women who have named themselves proactively and will listen to them and communicate to them that they may choose to submit a formal complaint.”

But even these conciliatory letters have not gone down well. A former fellow from Mumbai said: “Shaheen [Mistri] seems continually surprised and heavy-hearted at things, even when she knows they are happening. I have little faith in her grievance redressal mechanisms, because she does not seem to be telling people (in instances where there was an imbalance of power in terms of organisational roles between the harasser and the harassed) that she believes them. Rather, her first impulse has been to believe male staff.”

This story has been updated to include Anu Agha’s response.