Bhopal: In the latest revelation in the sexual harassment case that’s taken the reputed Chennai-based Kalakshetra Academy by storm, ThePrint has learnt that the same lawyer is appearing for the academy as well as Hari Padman, an assistant professor at Kalakshetra who has been accused of sexual harassment by students, raising questions of “conflict of interest”.
Padman has been booked by Adyar Police and is currently in judicial custody.
While Geeta Ramasheshan, the counsel for the petitioner, told ThePrint Sunday that Nithyaesh Natraj argued for Padman at his bail hearing at the metropolitan magistrate’s court in Saidapet on 11 April, R. Thirumoorthy, counsel for intervening petitioner All India Democratic Women’s Association said Padman was represented by Natraj and Vaibhav Venkatesh. “Both Nithayesh and Vaibhav were present in court that day,” said Thirumoorthy.
Venkatesh is also the counsel for Kalakshetra Foundation, the first respondent in a writ petition filed by Kalakshetra students at Madras High Court. This is confirmed in the cause list for Monday, 24 April, available on the Madras High Court website.
Meanwhile, Natraj is the son of R. Natraj, a member of Kalakshetra’s governing board.
In a report published on 21 March, ThePrint had highlighted how complaints of sexual and verbal harassment against “the most influential man on campus”, were initially not entertained by the internal complaints committee of Rukmini Devi College for Fine Arts, Kalakshetra Foundation. Padman was eventually suspended after students protested on the campus on 30 March.
Commenting on the conflict of interest issue, Sana Hakim, partner at POSH At Work, a Mumbai-based organisation, said this (same advocate representing the accused teacher as well as the foundation in separate cases) raises questions about the neutrality of the institute. “This sends a message that in a way the foundation is with the accused. The same person representing the accused brings their neutrality under question,” Hakim told ThePrint.
However, she added that while it’s not a conflict for a governing board’s member’s son to represent the accused, one could put a moral question mark next to it. “I wouldn’t have taken the case. But it’s not professionally wrong either,” she said.
Senior advocate Saurabh Kripal also said the same lawyers representing both the academy and the accused was a clear case of conflict of interest.
“If the writ petition is against sexual harassment at the institute, then the organisation and the accused should not have the same counsel. That’s a clear conflict of interest,” Kripal told ThePrint.
Advocate R. Thirumoorthy, who represented intervening petitioner AIDWA in the bail hearing on 11 April, said he wasn’t aware that the same lawyer is appearing for Kalakshetra as well as Hari Padman.
“In the first hearing I didn’t know that one of the counsel’s father is also a governing board member. That one of the counsels who appeared in the trial court is also representing the foundation is also something I am going to bring to the court’s notice. It’s completely wrong,” Thirumoorthi told ThePrint.
ThePrint tried reaching advocates Nithyaesh Natraj and Vaibhav Venkatesh repeatedly on calls, WhatApp and text messages, but the two blocked ThePrint on WhatsApp when approached for comment.
ThePrint also approached R. Natraj, a former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) MLA and chairperson of Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission, on call, but he disconnected saying “I have no idea what you’re talking about”.
Venkatesh and Nithyaesh have previously appeared together in various cases in the Madras High Court. They also have a YouTube channel together called Nithyaesh and Vaibhav. On LinkedIn, some Chennai-based advocates also mention working at Nithyaesh and Vaibhav Associates and Partners. Chennai-based MatchPoint Tennis Academy also mentions the name and the address of their firm as their legal representatives.
Kalakshetra was earlier criticised for its alleged harsh doubling down on allegations of harassment.
In their writ petition, students have accused the institute and director Revathi Ramachandran of an attempted cover up. The High Court, in an order passed on 17 April, also took note of this and directed the reconstitution of the internal committee constituted under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (2013) at the institute.
“The institutional apathy to investigate actual complaints by the students and cover up resorted to by the first (Kalakshetra Foundation) and sixth (Revathi Ramachandran) respondent created a hostile environment for the survivor to continue their studies or academic career… and constitute secondary victimisation not only was a farce of a suo motu inquiry held to clear the name of Kalakshetra, the said respondents issued a warning to anyone from ‘maligning Kalakshetra Foundation (sic),” the petition reads.
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Sexual harassment allegations
In a report published on 21 March, ThePrint had highlighted how complaints of sexual and verbal harassment against Padman, were allegedly not entertained by the internal complaints committee of Rukmini Devi College for Fine Arts, Kalakshetra Foundation.
On 19 March, the college had even allegedly issued a gag order against discussion of harassment allegations, dismissed as “baseless rumours,” by the administration.
After the report was published, the National Commission for Women (NCW) took cognisance of the matter. On 24 March, a statement signed by Kalakshetra Foundation chairperson S. Ramadorai was released, which said the foundation had given all “facts and the actions that had already been initiated by the foundation on the matter referred to in the magazine (ThePrint)”. It went on to call the allegations a “scullious campaign”.
On 29 March, NCW chief Rekha Sharma visited the campus. Students had then told ThePrint how they felt intimidated by the administration from speaking to Sharma, who they said, had left in a hurry.
Next day, the students protested on the campus, and confronted director Revathi Ramachandran about not taking action on their complaints.
Kalakshetra governing board had later constituted an independent committee to look into the allegations. Advocate Ajeetha B.S., had resigned from the internal committee on 4 April expressing her reservations with the way the administration had handled the controversy, saying she was “disturbed” by its response.
(Edited by Richa Mishra)
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