Update: Read Part 2 here. Also, the crisis has ended: details here

Update: A video recording of one face-off between the politicians and Choudhary is up here.

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TinyOwl co-founder Gaurav Choudhary is being held hostage at the company’s office in Pune by employees who have been laid off. Choudhary, 24 years old, has been unable to leave the office for the last day and a half, and the situation is grim.

At the TinyOwl office, which MediaNama visited yesterday and today, chaos reigns. Yesterday, upon entering the office, we found a group former employees gathered around in a cluster, discussing developments angrily, while some were taking printouts and others were writing on the whiteboard. They remained unaffected by members of the police force walking in and out of cabins. Choudhary was nowhere to be seen.

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In the above image: “Don’t trust IIT’ns”

“They say the F&F (Full and Final settlement) will be sent within 45 days, but how do we trust them when they haven’t paid the previous employees?” one employee asks me, adding, “We have a mail from the HR saying that F&Fs won’t always get settled within 45 days.” Some of the employees present at the office are from the previous round of layoffs which took place on the 31st of August this year.

In the current round of layoffs, employees were told that the Pune operations were being shut down, and that they needed to follow up with TinyOwl’s Mumbai office for settlements on the 2nd of November. Our query about whether the salaries were being paid in accordance with clauses in their offer letters received a loud ‘No’ as a response.

Members of the admin department have taken away the employees’ laptops and SIM cards. All that remains in the office is a scattering of desktops, some bean bags and chairs. “We were promised appraisals; we were sent an email saying “Future directions of TO”. We have a 100 such mails but nothing to show for it in real life,” a woman said.

Another said, “If you’re being laid off, the salary has to be credited into your account immediately. During the last layoffs, salaries were credited within 48 hours. This time they’re saying we don’t have the money. If you don’t have funds, how can you commit?”

Salaries were expected to be credited into employee accounts by 3:30PM yesterday, but four hours later, that had not happened. Those gathered were asking whether the company was being shut down. Another mentioned that a meeting of the board of directors was supposed to scheduled yesterday, but did not happen. “One of the co-founders is staying in The Hyatt,” another adds, saying that “Gaurav (Choudhary) doesn’t know anything about this office, he doesn’t know the number of employees here, how many people have resigned. The CEO hasn’t even seen this office and is being completely irrational.”

Another employee who had resigned in the hopes of getting her salary said, “They’ve splurged recklessly and vendor payments are pending. They’re least concerned that we’re jobless and its Diwali. We spent lakhs of money on these stickers,” she says, pointing to these:

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Read: Part 2 of the TinyOwl Hostage Crisis: waiting for money in the bank, and a trip to the police station

Why was Gaurav Choudhary in Pune?

When we tried to speak with Choudhary, the (former) employees insisted that MediaNama only speak with him in their presence. Choudhary appeared to be on the verge of crying when he came out of a cabin, followed by the Police. “I don’t feel secure in this office, I want to go out,” he told those present, hearing which the crowd clapped and said, “We don’t feel secure in this office with you, we don’t feel secure with our careers which you ruined.” However, despite calling the police, Choudhary says that no one has threatened him.

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Choudhary told MediaNama that TinyOwl could have sacked people over email, but decided to send one co-founder to each city, in order to do this in a more “human” way. “We don’t intend to hold anybody’s money…” he said. When the police announced that Choudhary had called them up saying he’s been kidnapped, employees responded by clapping and saying that it’s they (the employees) who have been kidnapped.

MediaNama asked Choudhary about who’s coming from the Mumbai office to help him with this situation and what the plan is. “We’re creating an emergency plan, jo sab ke liye sahi hain woh. Wohi hain, wohi option hain (what is fair to all, we’ll provide that, that’s the only option),”  he said. When asked about the status of the employees, and whether they were currently employed or had resigned, Choudhary took a deep breath and said “We were asking the management to do instant (money) crediting on whatever was due. However, it was not possible to do that quickly due to the calculations required and here, it was getting to ‘pehele aap transfer karo, fir hum resign karenge’ (transfer the money first, then we’ll resign) which got very messy. We decided to drop that idea because this was going on in 3 other cities simultaneously where employees agreed to take post dated cheques (PDCs) and left office. If we create an exception for Pune, employees from other cities will hate us. We’ve recently closed funding and we’re giving PDCs for everything. All the city groups united on WhatsApp… the company is not liable to pay dues by today and this is mentioned in the agreements (offer letters).”

When asked why employees who were laid off in the previous round hadn’t received their full and final settlement yet, Choudhary said, “We had an indication from the investor that we’ll close the funding by September end and we gave a 45 day period (for the F&Fs). But due to a bad market, it took time to close the deal and we were extremely cash crunched. So we requested people that as soon as we get new funding, we will shoot (off the payments). We told the old employees that money was coming on the 15th and we’d distribute it the same day.”

Read: Part 2 of the TinyOwl Hostage Crisis: waiting for money in the bank, and a trip to the police station

Enter the politician

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By 8PM or so, local members of political parties had entered the TinyOwl premises, and when asked who had invited them, some of the employees said that they had, followed by others saying “all of us did.” A political party member told the police that they were free to arrest everybody in the room, but they (the employees) were not leaving the office until salaries had been paid.

One of the other politicians said that they were social workers here to sort an issue, and questioned Choudhary’s authority in the company. Choudhary said that he was only a product manager, not the CEO, to which the man leading the political group said, “If you’re only a manager, why have they (TinyOwl) dumped this work on you and run away? Call the concerned person if this is not your headache.”

The local politician told us that they were giving TinyOwl the option to pay one month’s salary, and the rest of the amount as a Post Dated Cheque, since payments had been pending for 2 months. A local journalist told Choudhary, “You’re not asking employees to leave, your company is shutting down, so you owe them not 2 months, but 3 (2+1) months salary,” to which the politician added, “Hum pyaar se kaam karte hain aur pyaar se kaam karwa ke lete hain, dono ki soch ke.” (We work with love and get work done the same way, thinking of both the involved parties.)

Pune calling Mumbai

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The politician asked Choudhary to give him the phone number of the person authorized to make decisions. TinyOwl’s employees had made a list of terms and conditions. Employees demanded that Choudhary give him the number of Harshvardhan Mandad, another co-founder and the CEO of the company. That number was switched off, and had apparently been switched off since the day before. The politician then called Subhashis Chatterjee to discuss his terms and conditions; MediaNama was not privy to this conversation.

By 9:30PM, a new squad of policemen had arrived, a larger group. The politician explained the situation to this squad, adding for good measure that these employees were people from “good backgrounds”, fighting in a very mild manner. “Choudhary complained saying he’s been kidnapped. Where’s the kidnapping in this?” the head politician asked.

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Editing by Nikhil Pahwa