How many times do you really think before updating your status on Facebook or commenting on any social media platform?
In the aftermath of the dastardly attack on CRPF convoy in Pulwama, resulting in the death of 40 jawans, as one’s timeline was flooded with condolences for the martyrs, those who mocked the incident paid a price for it.
Almost a dozen professionals employed with different companies have been suspended following their ‘insensitive’ comments about Pulwama terror attack on social media.
While some were employed as marketing executives with distinguished pharma companies, even professors and news editors were lambasted for not being mindful enough while voicing their opinion.
Here’s a list of those who were pulled up by their employers for allegedly posting ‘anti national’ messages on Facebook and/or Twitter:
1) Riyaz Ahmad Wani: Suspended for ‘Surgical Strike’ Post
On 14 February 2019, a few hours after the terror attack in Pulwama, Riyaz Ahmad Wani, a medical field representative with Mumbai-based Macleods Pharmaceuticals Ltd, wrote on Facebook, ‘Athh wanaaan surgical strike (This is called surgical strike).’
Wani was suspended the next day for the ‘anti-national message’. He had also updated his status to ‘feeling happy’.
Wani, who is a resident of Srinagar, received a letter of suspension, dated 15 February 2019, signed by his superior, Rajeev Mishra, President (Field Operations & Sales Admin) stating:
“Because of your anti-national message on the social network, the Company has started receiving furious comments/reactions, which are not only defaming our organisation but tarnishing our image and questioning us as to why such anti-national elements exist in our organisation.”Riyaz Ahmad Wani’s suspension letter
The letter further directed Wani to explain in writing, within seven days, “as to why his services shouldn’t be terminated with immediate effect for anti-national attitude.”
Speaking to The Quint, a member of the legal team at Macleods said, “He (Wani) had appreciated the terror strike on our convoy and that is in violation of the code of conduct.”
This representative of the legal team at Macleods further confirmed that right after Wani’s post on Facebook, “People started calling us, we were inundated with calls.” Though the organisation does not have a ‘formal social media policy’, Wani’s action had violated the Model Standing Orders.
What do the Model Standing Orders state as far as the online behaviour of employees is concerned?
Here’s what The Quint’s Associate Editor (Legal), Vakasha Sachdev, had to say on the intricacies of employer-employee relationship in the backdrop of Pulwama terror attack:
What are the Model Standing Orders? Is it applicable on private sector companies?
The Industrial Employment Act 1946 is a key labour legislation. It applies to all industrial establishments (which includes factories, construction services, transport services, and anyone contracting for them) with a hundred or more employees. This law requires workplaces covered by it to have ‘Standing Orders’ in place to set out policies on leave, misconduct, attendance, etc.
Since many organisations don’t have their own policies on these issues, the governments of each state are supposed to prepare ‘Model Standing Orders’ which apply till they prepare their own policies. This means that if a private company doesn’t have a policy of its own on misconduct, the relevant Model Standing Order would have to be followed to see what behaviour would be considered misconduct and how it should be punished.
Do social media posts also come under the purview of the Model Standing Orders?
The Quint has reviewed available Model Standing Orders including those applicable in Mumbai, where Macleod is based. These do not include anything specifically on online behaviour or social media posts.
This could fall within the purview of ‘misconduct’ for which employees can be suspended or terminated under the Model Standing Orders, but social media posts that are allegedly anti-national wouldn’t automatically fit any of the types of misconduct listed in the Model Standing Order for Mumbai.
If the company considers a social media post to constitute misconduct, the employee needs to be informed of this in writing and given a chance to explain themselves – punishment (including suspension) can only take place after this.
2) Iqbal Hussain: Suspended for ‘Surgical Strike’ Comment
Within an hour of Riyaz Ahmad Wani updating his Facebook status on the Pulwama terror attack, a mutual friend, Iqbal commented on his post.
Hussain who works as a Marketing Executive at a pharma company named German Remedies Ltd, wrote, “This is called as real surgical strike.”
On 15 February 2019, Zydus Healthcare, the parent company of German Remedies issued a letter of suspension to Iqbal.
“Because of your aforesaid anti national comments on social network the company’s name and image got tarnished and the management has also started receiving furious reactions and questioning why such anti national elements exist in the company. In view of the above, the aforesaid antinational act on your part is serious and gross act of misconduct.”HR Manager, Zydus Healthcare Ltd.
When contacted, the company’s spokesperson said, “We do not wish to offer any further comment on the matter.”
3) LIC Employee Suspended for Comparing Soldiers’ Martyrdom with Killing of Kashmiris
Employees of Kashmiri origin were not the only ones who received show-cause cum suspension notices from their organisations, it seemed anyone whose opinion on the terror attack differed from the ‘majority’ was at the receiving end.
Soon after the news about 40 CRPF jawans being martyred in the Pulwama terror attack was confirmed, Krishnendu Sengupta took to Facebook to lament about the killing of Kashmiris by the Indian Armed Forces. Sengupta works as an Assistant at Durgapur branch of the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) in West Bengal.
Screenshots of Sengupta’s status began to be circulated on social media with people asking LIC “to take action against traitor Krishnendu Sengupta.”
On 16 February 2019, LIC issued a suspension letter to Sengupta, citing Regulation 24 and 36 (1a) of its Staff Regulations (1960).
What does section 24 of the LIC of India Staff Regulations (1960) say?
This section elaborates on how employees can help in promoting the Corporation’s interest. It says, “Every employee shall serve the Corporation honestly and faithfully and shall use his utmost endeavours to promote the interest of the Corporation and shall show courtesy and attention in all transactions.”
As per the suspension letter, Sengupta was barred from entering ANY office of LIC, wasn’t allowed to leave headquarters without permission and would draw Subsistence Allowance during the period of inquiry.
The official twitter handle of LIC announced its decision of action against one of its employees.
Confirming the strict action taken by LIC, a person close to Krishnendu Sengupta told The Quint:
“LIC claims that it has a formal social media policy for its employees but it was not circulated.”
Sengupta has deleted this ‘controversial’ post, with his status update dated 16 February 2019 saying, ‘Attachment Unavailable’.
These days, Sengupta has changed his profile picture to that of a goat and continues to share articles critical of the government regarding national security.
4) Three Sun Pharma Employees Suspended for ‘Anti-National Stance’
Disciplinary proceedings in the name of ‘anti national’ stance became the norm after the Pulwama terror attack with screenshots of ‘unpopular posts’ being circulated on social media demanding that the respective person be shown the door.
On 16 February 2019, three employees of Sun Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd received show-cause cum suspension notices for “anti national posts on social media.”
One of them was Sheikh Shabir Ahmed who works as Sales Executive at Srinagar. He was suspended for “posting a celebratory dinner message.”
A person close to Ahmed did confirm that he is not going to work anymore. He also told The Quint on condition of anonymity that “If there is an SOP regarding social media, then it was never mentioned in the contract.”
This reporter was also told that the said posts have been deleted by all three men who had received the suspension notice.
Similarly, Ronak Bashir Bhat, a resident of Srinagar had tweeted, “Yesterday, we watched Badlapur in Kashmir. RIP (Mirzapur Version).”
In a letter sent by the Senior General Manager (Human Resources), Bhat was “instructed to explain in writing within 4 days from the receipt of this show-cause notice as to why an appropriate action should not be taken for publicly displaying insensitive and anti-national stand.”
Arif Bashir, employed with the pharma care division of Sun Pharma, was suspended for posting, “Dil, Garden Garden Hogaya” on Facebook.
When contacted, a Sun Pharma spokesperson confirmed to The Quint:
“We have issued a show-cause and suspension notice to three employees based in Srinagar who made anti-national posts on social media.”
5) Zaidul Islam Sofi: Suspended for ‘Pant Geeli Ho Jayegi’ Comment
It is indeed strange why a majority of employees who got suspension letters within 24 hours of posting a comment on social media belong to the pharma sector.
Zaidul Islam Sofi who works as a Business Executive at Intas Pharmaceuticals Ltd, received a suspension notice on 16 February 2019 for the “derogatory act” of posting the following “anti national” message on Facebook:
“Ghantaa war karega ye too aek ne haal kiya jab saare aajyege pant geeli hojayegi geeli (What war? This is what one has done, if there are more, you will piss in your pants).”
A friend of Sofi, however, claims that it was his younger brother who was logged in at that time and had responded to a comment, “Modi aayega, war hoga (when Modi will come, war will happen),” by another user. Around 999 comments had been posted in response to a news item on Pulwama terror attack. The said comment has been deleted by Sofi after the online furore.
Those close to Sofi say that he has apologised to the company in his letter to the bosses and is keen to join back. However, they also raise the question of how a company can regulate an employee’s behaviour in the social media space.
Can Companies Punish Employees for Anti-National Stand?
A common feature in the suspension letters issued by different pharma companies is an attempt to hold the employee responsible for “tarnishing” the organisation’s image.
Can a company penalise an employee for a social media post that is not in sync with the general mood of the nation? This is what The Quint’s Associate Legal Editor, Vakasha Sachdev had to say on the matter:
Can companies monitor social media posts and thereby issue diktats regarding the same?
This is a tricky issue since it could potentially violate the freedom of speech of an employee. However, because social media is so important to businesses and allows for making public statements which could also affect a company, many employers have made a social media policy part of employment contracts or contracts for work.
Once such a policy has been made known to an employee or worker, they are contractually bound to abide by it. If they post objectionable content on social media, the company can ask them to take it down, and the company could also treat such posts as misconduct, if the contract allows this.
But what happens if there is no social media policy? The Kerala High Court has recently had to deal with such situations. According to them social media posts can consitutte misconduct as generally defined in the contracts, but before a company does this, it needs to conduct an inquiry and give the worker/employee a chance to explain themselves. Failure to do so means the company can be taken to the labour courts or tribunals or even the high courts.
How can employers decide what is an ‘anti national’ stance and/or message?
This brings us back to two things: (a) what the does the company policy say? (b) who decides what is anti-national or not?
A term like anti-national is extremely vague, so courts are likely to look at whether or not the posts violate any law (say, for example, sedition) or incite communal hatred. Companies can have a lower threshold of course, but this would need to be clearly defined. In the absence of a clear definition under which the post would fall, the company or the courts will have to see if the post violates any other general type of misconduct.
It goes without saying that all of this requires a proper inquiry, and a chance for the employee to defend themselves.
LIST OF EMPLOYEES SUSPENDED FOR ONLINE POSTS
- Nidhi Sethi (NDTV): Had commented on Facebook, “Where a grisly 44 has been proven to be greater than the mythical 56 #HowstheJaish.”
- Surabhi Singh (CFAR): Had commented on Facebook, “If attack on armed soldiers is cowardly... Attacking unarmed civilians including hapless children must be act of bravery.”
- Mohammed Ikram Ajmeri (principal of a government school in Rajasthan’s Pratapgarh district): Suspended by state government (under Rajasthan service rules 1958) for making an insensitive comment while students were trying to organise a condolence meet for soldiers.
- Chitradip Som (history teacher, North DPS Kolkata): Had commented on Facebook that he was not in favour of calling the soldiers killed, ‘martyrs’.
- Papri Banerjie: Had commented on Facebook, “45 brave young men were killed yesterday...This was not war...They didn’t get the opportunity to fight back...This was cowardice of the highest order...It would break the heart of any Indian...But But But What have not the security forces done in the valley? You rape their women...You maim and kill their children...You slaughter their men....Your media constantly demonises them...And you expect no retaliation?? You know what? The terrorism may be Islamic, But KARMA is a very Indic, very Sanatana Dharma concept..Go chew on that!”
Why No Action Earlier For ‘Insensitive’ Comments On Kashmiris
Following a spate of suspensions by pharma companies, some doctors in Srinagar have decided to disengage with the medical representatives who call on them with information about latest medicines.
Khawar Khan Achakzai, a doctor at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, is at the forefront of a campaign urging pharma companies to reinstate Kashmiri employees who have been suspended.
In a telephonic interview with The Quint, Achakzai explained the rationale behind shunning medical representatives from the said pharma companies:
“At the individual level, a group of doctors, including myself have decided to bar the entry of employees from these pharma companies into the hospitals. Killing of 40 CRPF personnel is something that goes against humanity. But when pharma companies are taking action against employees for social media posts, it amounts to hypocrisy.”
Raising concerns about ‘insensitive’ comments from ordinary folk about Kashmiris when it comes to stone-pelting and human rights violation in the valley, Achakzai points fingers at the double standards of India’s corporate sector.
One of the recent examples is that of the December 2018 encounter in Pulwama in which seven Kashmiris, three militants and one soldier were killed, while dozens were injured. Screenshots of comments on news stories related to the encounter shows people lauding the army for civilian deaths.
Were the Suspended Employees Victims of Online Vigilantism?
What is bizarre in all the cases of suspension is the way in which confidential letters such as the show-cause notice cum suspension have made their way into the social media. Some were even circulated in family WhatsApp groups.
Right after the Pulwama terror attack, many Facebook pages had emerged as the dropbox for the so-called ‘anti national’ posts and suspension/termination letters of people across the country.
Dignity for human life should be the ethos for any company and those working in the organisation should abide by it. But in a frenzied atmosphere where a governor is calling for a ban on everything Kashmiri, did these companies bow to public pressure?
At a time when the Supreme Court has to step in for ensuring security of Kashmiri students, perhaps these employees will also have to take the judicial route to undo the ‘wrong’ done by their employers in the heat of moment.