Brand consultant Suhel Seth has been uncharacteristically silent since a storm of sexual harassment allegations broke against him on social media this month. He has not posted a single tweet since October 10, when two women publicly accused him of forcibly groping and kissing them. Since then, five other women have spoken about his alleged misbehaviour. One woman said she hit back by biting his tongue and squeezing his genitals.
To these accusations, Seth, who is never at a loss for words in TV debates, has offered no response. He did not reply to Scroll.in’s emails and text messages. His phone was switched off.
Several men accused of sexual harassment this month have faced serious professional consequences – some have resigned from their jobs, a few have been served notices by industry associations. In Seth’s case, other than his silence, the impact of the allegations against him is unclear.
This is partly because Seth’s work is not easy to pin down. He is the founder and managing partner of Counselage India, which advises CEOs on how to build their brands. But his influence stretches far beyond the firm. On Twitter, where he has around 4.85 million followers, he describes himself as a marketing maven, actor and author. “Some people are famous for being famous. Suhel Seth is famous for knowing the famous,” journalist Mihir Sharma wrote in a review of Seth’s 2011 book Get to the Top: The Ten Rules for Social Success.
While Seth flaunts his friendships, his client list is not public. So far, the only acknowledgement of the allegations against Seth has come from the Tata Group. A spokesperson for the conglomerate said it would decide a future course of action after examining the recent reports about Seth’s conduct.
In the larger public sphere, the allegations against Seth have not elicited any surprise, barring a defence by columnist Tavleen Singh, who said his reputation had been “unfairly smeared”. Part of the reason is the image Seth has cultivated. In 2003, he celebrated his 40th birthday by cutting a breast-shaped birthday cake, journalist Sagarika Ghose wrote in The Indian Express. In a blog published by the Economic Times in 2016, Seth boasted about the benefits of travelling as a single man. “Single men get great rooms in hotels. Because we are nice to the bird at check-in,” he wrote. An interview he gave to The Times of India in 2015 begins with an introduction: “Suhel Seth may feel like he is 21, but in reality, he is 52 years old. He believes in Churchill’s saying that a man is only as old as the woman he feels. So, when we asked him how old was the youngest woman he had been with at the age of 52, he immediately said 22.”
Most of Seth’s accusers are young women in their 20s and 30s. They have recounted at length, both on social media as well in interviews to Scroll.in, how Seth allegedly harassed them in incidents that took place between 2009 and 2017.
Questions emailed to Seth did not elicit a response for four days. The website of Counselage India showed an error message. The only available email address for Counselage India turned out to be that of its audit firm, which responded to say it was not “in way involved with the internal functioning or day to day operations of Counselage”.
This story will be updated if a response is received from Seth or Counselage.
From Kolkata to Delhi
Born in Kolkata in 1963, the story that Seth tells of his childhood in the interview to The Times of India is of growing up as the child of a chemical factory-owner, who went out of business “because of unions and strikes and the naxalite movement”. His younger brother, Swapan Seth, wrote in a blog that Suhel was packed off to Nainital overnight for schooling at the age of eight because the workers in their father’s factory posed a threat to his life.
Seth returned to Kolkata, and by all accounts, passed out of La Martiniere School to study English literature at the Jadavpur University. He was active in debating and theatre circles in the mid-’80s, said an acquaintance who has known Seth since his school days and went to university with him. “His claim to fame was staging IS Johar’s controversial play Bhutto [on the execution of the Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto],” the acquaintance told Scroll.in. “He later went on to marry the daughter of a corporate honcho and that is believed to be his ultimate entry into the social circles of the rich.” Seth said in an interview he was married from 1989 to 1993.
Professionally, Seth worked in the advertising industry. His first job was at the agency Response. “Until the late 1990s, Seth was a Calcutta advertising executive of middling importance who had managed to impress a few locally powerful clients, foremost among them Russi Mody of Tata Steel,” wrote Sharma in the book review published in Caravan magazine. After a stint with Ogilvy & Mather, Seth set up an agency of his own, called Equus, in partnership with his brother in 1995. Rising on the back on connections he established in the Bharatiya Janata Party, Seth was hired to design material for Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministerial campaign in the 1999 general elections. In 2002, he set up Counselage India.
Barely three years after he left Kolkata, Seth briefly became the biggest shareholder in India’s largest television news channel in 2003, after he bought 30% stake in the company that ran Star News in India. That year, the Indian government had imposed a new rule prohibiting foreign investors from owning more than 26% stake in news broadcast channels originating in India. Star News, which was owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch at the time, set up a new company in which Murdoch’s Star India owned 26% stake and the remaining was owned by different companies and individuals, including 25% owned by Kumar Mangalam Birla and 5% by Suhel Seth. When rival news channels accused Star of setting up a front company, Birla backed out and Seth bought out his entire 25% stake. A few weeks later, Kolkata-based ABP, owned by Seth’s friend Aveek Sarkar, bought all of the 74% Indian shares in the company.
As early as 2008, when Narendra Modi was still widely shunned as the riot-tainted chief minister of Gujarat, Seth described him as “a transformational leader”. Two years later, Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata moved the manufacturing of the Nano car to Gujarat.
Over the years, Seth has become a ubiquitous face in elite social circles, on national television, at literary festivals. “This is the time in our history that belongs to men like Suhel Seth; a time when, just as intemperance is intellect and fervidity is profundity, such ubiquity is unquestionably success,” wrote Sharma.
The latest sign of success: in March this year, the Adani Group hired Seth as its brand consultant.
The recent allegations
One of the first women to publicly accuse Seth of sexual harassment was freelance journalist Mandakini Gahlot who said in a tweet thread on October 10 that Seth forcibly kissed her at a post-conference party in Goa in July 2011. “I felt his tongue inside my mouth,” she wrote. “I do not remember what he said, but I will never forget that he laughed, and even worse the people in that group laughed. In the end, I did not file a complaint...I was too young, trying desperately to rise in my career and Suhel [Seth] was just too powerful to take on.”
Gahlot, 33, said she was inspired to go public by the anonymous accounts on social media describing alleged sexual harassment by Seth. “People were debating whether to believe the anonymous accounts,” Gahlot told Scroll.in. “I had no trouble believing them because of my own experience. That’s when I decided to speak up and name him.”
On the same day as Gahlot, film director and entrepreneur Natashja Rathore, 27, tweeted about meeting Seth on the request of her boss. Offering to take her to Janpath for icecream, Seth took her to his apartment in Gurugram, where he kissed and groped her. “You shoved your tongue down my throat,” she wrote in her tweet. “I whacked your head and said ‘behave yourself’”. The incident happened a little over a year ago, Rathore told Scroll.in.
On October 11, journalist Ishita Yadav, 33, posted a Twitter thread claiming that Seth sent her indecent messages on Facebook after “friending” her on the social media site in 2009. At one point, she claimed Seth invited her to his residence over drinks. She said she was unaware of his “predatory behaviour” until he started messaging her about getting her picked up by his driver, and asking her to take a bath and brush her teeth before coming over to his place. After speaking to a friend, Yadav said she declined Seth’s invitation and blocked him on Facebook.
Yadav told Scroll.in that she has now met several women who have been sexually harassed by Seth. “Everyone ignores it because it’s just seen as normal [behaviour],” she said. “I called him out to expose his predatory behaviour thinking that it would prevent him from behaving in the same manner with more young women in the future.”
By mid-October, prominent names in the literary, fashion and entertainment industries started sharing their experiences with Seth. On October 13, author Ira Trivedi alleged in a first-person account in Outlook that Seth often made “loud, inappropriate and lewd comments” at women during parties and would become physically over-familiar with them. Trivedi told Scroll.in that she took it as her “moral responsibility” to write about her experience after she came across three other accounts of sexual harassment by Seth on social media.
Model and actor Diandra Soares also alleged in a Facebook post that Seth once forcibly kissed her at a fashion week party in September 2012 at Amby Valley in Maharashtra. While Soares was dancing on a couch at the party, she claims Seth put his hands in her blouse. She responded by pinching his ear and twisting it. Then, she claims, Seth proceeded to “shove his tongue down my mouth”. “I immediately bit his tongue...really really hard with all my might and anger,” Soares wrote in her Facebook post. “I also grabbed his balls and squeezed it hard and refused to let go.” In response, Soares says Seth looked “bewildered” and hurt and told her in a “baby voice” that she had bit him “really hard”.
Soares told Scroll.in that most people at the party, instead of confronting Seth, took her aside and asked her to calm down. “Everybody in the Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta party circles – the elites, the fraternity – they know this,” wrote Soares. “I would like to call out all those people who enable this behaviour through their silence and give predators like this more and more courage to do this. You are hypocrites.”
Encouraged by Soares’s decision to share her story, homemaker Jasmine Divekar also took to Twitter to share her experience with Seth at a friend’s house party in Mumbai in January 2017. Divekar, 44, alleged Seth groped her breast when she greeted him. She claims she screamed and pulled out her phone, asking him to do it again “so I could record it”. This led him to start abusing her to which she retaliated .“Other people didn’t say or do anything. Most people are spineless that way,” said Divekar, who left the party with her husband soon after the incident. “I chose to speak out just to support other women... And I am looking for him to be shamed and to not repeat it with some other women.”
UK resident Jasmine Sheikh has also accused Seth of harassment when she met him at a hotel in London in 2012. She was 32 at the time. According to Sheikh, Seth invited her to attend some events with him, and since he was surrounded by many women, she did not find anything suspicious. However, things took an uncomfortable turn at a party when Seth allegedly began touching, kissing and forcefully cuddling her. Sheikh said she put up with his behaviour because they were in a social setting. “He knows everybody, and it’s difficult [to object to him] because nobody seems to object to him doing that,” Sheikh told Scroll.in.
After the party, Sheikh had to go to Seth’s room to collect her coat and bag. In the taxi, she alleged he began touching her breasts even though she was leaning away from him, “dazed by shock and anger”. Sheikh finally managed to say push him away and leave when he began kissing her on the sofa in his room. She said she decided to share her experience after she came across Ishita Yadav’s allegations against Suhel Seth on Twitter.
Scroll.in asked Seth for a response to these allegations. No response has been received.