Few in the media could believe the news that journalist and PR executive Charudutt Deshpande had committed suicide last Friday at his flat in Vasai. Deshpande had quit his job as head of Tata Steel Corporate Communications in April and was planning to take up another assignment.
But that was not to be. His family and friends believe there was no way he would have taken his life unless there was a good reason. The shocking incident has prompted some senior journalists to send a letter on Sunday to Ratan Tata, chairman Emeritus, Tata Group and Cyrus Mistry , Chairman Tata Group demanding an inquiry into allegations of harassment and pressure that possibly led Deshpande to take this step.
A close family member said, “[Charudutt] had joined Tata Steel last year because that would give him an opportunity to work till he was 60 and he did it for his daughter who had just joined a media course. But he was unhappy with the way things were and he was alone in Jamshedpur without his family. He was a dedicated man and he came out of the job completely shattered.”
Mr Deshpande had joined the Tatas with great expectations and he was a “super positive guy “said the relative. But when he resigned and came back he was a different person.
His close associates believe things took a downturn after Forbes magazine published a story on Tata Steel with a focus on the big succession issue. The letter said that soon after the story appeared, he was in constant touch over the phone with Indrajit Gupta, then editor of Forbes India. He spoke of being confined for over two weeks at Jamshedpur and being harassed after the story appeared. He was not allowed to travel without permission, and articulated his concerns about his cell phone being tapped. Another journalist who spoke to Mr Deshpande said that he kept referring to a mafia which was putting pressure on him. The Forbes story took five months to research and he was facing resistance from within the company on facilitating interviews.
The letter to Mr Tata and Mr Mistry says that, ”From whatever evidence we have gathered until now on the back of conversations with Charudutt in the weeks leading to his demise, and with those who knew him closely, Charu was placed under enormous stress and subjected to harassment by officials at Tata Steel. Our understanding is it was this harassment that prompted him to commit suicide. This letter is an attempt to bring this episode to your attention and seek your intervention into instituting an urgent and independent inquiry into the matter.” In April, Forbes India magazine ran a cover story on the challenges facing Tata Steel at a time when a crucial CEO succession drama was unfolding. The letter said, "The story was based on extensive and independent reporting that lasted more than five months. Soon after it appeared in print though, a distraught Mr Deshpande got in touch with Forbes India and alleged officials at Tata Steel were placing the blame on him for “facilitating” a story they thought inimical to their interests. He was also being subjected to enormous pressure to “admit” to his complicity in “leaking” confidential company documents to the media."
The Forbes journalists who worked on the story on Tata Steel said they were willing to testify that he conducted himself with integrity and responsibility. Deshpande also told his friends that he was being threatened by a mafia, his cell phone was tapped and he was being bullied into signing some documents or bonds after he left the group. The letter also points to what transpired after the suicide. It alleges that there were concerted attempts made by Tata Steel officials and the PR agency to pass off his death as a heart attack, and not a suicide. A senior PR official even insisted that he had visited Charu’s residence and confirmed the news of the heart attack, which turned out to be untrue. Some regional papers even hinted he had embezzled funds. The letter demanded an inquiry to help bring closure to a traumatic episode for Mr Deshpande’s family and his circle of friends and to ensure episodes of this kind don’t occur again. It has been signed by Indrajit Gupta, Gurbir Singh, Charles Assisi, Prince Mathews Thomas, Dinesh Krishnan, Cuckoo Paul, T Surendar, Debojyoti Chatterjee and Dinesh Narayanan.
In response to queries, Dr. Mukund Rajan, Chief Ethics Officer, Tata group in an email said, “ Charudatta Deshpande was a loved and respected former colleague. We are shocked and distressed by his passing away. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time. With regards to your query, we acknowledge the receipt of the letter from Mr. K Ramkumar dated June 30th, 2013. We take the allegations raised in the letter seriously and will establish an appropriate process to ascertain the facts and take action accordingly. No Tata company would condone or authorise any action or behaviour as suggested in the same. We also categorically deny any action by the company concerned and/ or its partners to sully the name of the deceased.”
On Tuesday an emailed statement issued jointly by Tata Sons and Tata Steel said a committee chaired by Mr. Ishrat Hussain, Non-Executive Director of Tata Steel, including Dr. Mukund Rajan, the group’s Chief Ethics Officer, Mr. N S Rajan, the group’s Chief Human Resources Officer, and Mr. Bharat Vasani, the Group General Counsel, has been constituted to ascertain the facts. The committee has been mandated to convey its findings direct to the Board of Tata Steel within the next two months.