India’s Startup Ecosystem Rallies Behind Pradeep Poonia, Sued By WhiteHat Jr CEO For Rs. 20 Crore

There’s a David vs Goliath fight currently on in India’s tech space, and the startup ecosystem is hooked.

Controversial ed-tech startup WhiteHat Jr’s CEO Karan Bajaj has sued IIT BHU graduate and ex Cisco engineer Pradeep Poonia for Rs. 20 crore for defamation. Over the last few months, Pradeep Poonia has been single-handedly taking on WhiteHat Jr, exposing what he calls the fake and misleading practices of the company. WhiteHat Jr had initially responded by taking down his social media accounts — Poonia’s LinkedIn and YouTube accounts were suspended — but now appears to have approached the courts to silence him.

This, however, hasn’t gone down well with India’s startup ecosystem, with several prominent personalities throwing their weight behind Pradeep Poonia. Unicon Baba, an anonymous account that has often uncovered unsavoury secrets behind Indian startups himself, called WhiteHat Jr “corporate criminals.” “More power to you Pradeep Poonnia. Not easy to fight corporate criminals. Shame on you investors of @BYJUS,” he tweeted.

Shachin Bharadwaj, who’d founded TastyKhana which was sold to Foodpanda, said the incident reminded him of IIPM. IIPM too had liberally used the defamation law against critics before it was shut down.

GaonConnection founder Neeesh Misra said that WhiteHat Jr had shown its true colours in suing Pradeep Poonia. “Finally, WhiteHat Jr founder @realkaranbajaj shows his true colours. Rather that fixing its huge problems WhiteHat Jr goes after someone who’s been raising them. Corporate goondaism, WhiteHat Jr is an operation that has longterm negative impact on our children,” he tweeted. “There, go sue me,” he added for good measure.

Startup employees too wrote that WhiteHat Jr was committing harakiri. “Whitehat Jr is somehow singlehandedly destroying all goodwill and excitement that Indian consumers had for edtech and it’s incredible to watch,” wrote a user.

“This is not doing any good to inspire confidence on the startup community,” wrote another.

Journalists who cover startups also appeared to publicly back Poonia. Ashish Mishra, founder of Morning Context, asked his lawyer friends to help out.

Shephali Bhatt, who writes for the Economic Times, hinted that WhiteHat Jr was bullying Pradeep Poonia.

Soon the jokes started coming in as well. “20 CRORE is nothing. It’s just basic salary of 13 year old graduate from WhiteHat Jr,” wrote user Trendulkar.

As it happens, it was WhiteHat Jr’s aggressive marketing that set off this entire chain of events. The company had featured a kid named Wolf Gupta — who it now admits was fictional — in its ads, who’d managed to earn some very impressive money with his coding skills. But eagle-eyed social media users, and Pradeep Poonia among them, had realized that the ages and the salaries earned by Wolf Gupta kept changing across ads: his salary increased from Rs. 1.2 crore, to 20 crore, to even Rs. 150 crore in a span of weeks.

Pradeep Poonia had been at the forefront of several such exposes. Over the last few months, he’s claimed that some of WhiteHat Jr’s reviews are fake, created a viral video which showed a WhiteHat Jr’s instructor unable to articulate the difference between Java and Javascript, and led an unstinting campaign against the company. WhiteHat Jr had managed to pull down his social media accounts and posts, but Pradeep Poonia kept resurfacing.

Things appear to have come to a head when Poonia allegedly managed to gain access to WhiteHat Jr’s internal Slack channel. In a string of videos, Poonia has claimed to expose how WhiteHat Jr employees were taking down negative reviews and videos about the company by mass-reporting them for copyright violations. WhiteHat Jr, however, says it was within its rights to do so. “Facebook guidelines clearly clarify  “that people can report potentially violating content, including Pages, Groups, Profiles, individual content, and comments.”  We have as a policy reported defamatory posts, posts that misuse our company’s intellectual property, posts that violate the terms of use of our service (such as those that use content that is unlawfully recorded or recorded without the consent of the teacher during a class),” a WhiteHat Jr spokesperson told OfficeChai.

What was becoming an increasingly bitter battle will now likely be fought in the courts, but it doesn’t appear that Pradeep Poonia is backing down. Soon after he’d shared the news of his Rs. 20 crore legal notice, Pradeep Poonia tweeted yet another alleged screenshot of WhiteHat Jr’s internal chats. A teacher said her student wanted to actually see the facial-recognition app which WhiteHat Jr, in its ads, had been claiming a 13-year-old had made. To this, WhiteHat Jr CEO Karan Bajaj had replied: “need to create that app now,” and added a laughing emoji.

The way things stand, it appears that this battle is only getting started.