From Visaka Guidelines to Conciliation on sexual harassment –  (In)justice in High Court

The issue of sexual harassment at workplace is taking center stage in oppressive politics all over the world. In India, this has started a vigorous discourse on the absence of justice via established institutional processes for women, be it in academia or even in private spaces – our own homes. As the debate rages on, there seems to be mounting evidence of institutional failure to fight this oppressive power hegemony, especially given the way  Chennai High Court has chosen to deal with an issue of harassment within its own premises.

Comrade Seetha, a law college student and an activist with Revolutionary Youth Association, had formally made a complaint to the Registrar of Chennai High Court on 25th April, after she was propositioned by another lawyer, Ragavan on the same day for sexual favors. In the complaint she had also documented that, she and her comrades had confronted the lawyer later in the day, in which the lawyer not only used abusive words but indulged in physical attacks. This is said to have happened in front of witnesses. The CISF personnel, who are in charge of security, were called and led Raghavan away. Comrade Seetha, along with Comrades Shankar and Bharathi, representatives of Democratic Advocates Association(DAA), had filed a formal complaint against Raghavan to the Registrar, who had assured them of appropriate action.

Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 was an outcome of protracted struggle led by women’s movements and working class movements. Even after the famous Bhanwari case moved the Supreme Court to define Visaka Guidelines in 1997 for dealing with sexual harassment at workplace in the absence of any legal framework. The law was finally promulgated only three years ago. Even though the Act mandates that the Internal Complaints Committee complete its enquiry within 90 days, information on proceedings has not been shared with the complainant, according to a statement released by the complainant. On November 8th, Comrade Seetha has alleged that the complaints committee member had asked her if she was willing to settle as the accused was willing for conciliation. Even though, the law permits a conciliation to take place between the complainant and the respondent, it cannot be carried out if the woman who makes the complaint does not wish. In this case, Com.Seetha expressed her unwillingness for conciliation and insisted that an inquiry be conducted as per law and appropriate action be taken..

Since then, the Bar Council and the Court Administration have targeted the supporters of the victim, Comrade Shankar and Comrade Bharathi, who had helped her case. As per notice sent to Comrade Bharathi and Shankar after November 8th, a FIR had been filed against them on charges of assault by the CISF personnel. Based on this, the Registrar had filed a police complaint dated 22nd September. This FIR, according to DAA, has not referred to the sexual harassment case by Comrade Seetha. Simultaneously, the Bar Council has also issued notice to the lawyers supporting Comrade Seetha. The timing of these allegations and actions by State and Judicial institutions, are rightly questioned by DAA especially as there was no prior information about these charges. Coincidentally, the Bar Council is said to have sent a notice on 9th November, a day after the conciliation offer was rejected!

The angst among a section of feminist community has been that the institutions, whether it be academia or state institutions, act as male fraternities to protect those who harass women who access these spaces, Hence due process cannot be followed in such spaces. In cases where women demand justice, these institutions go a step further in the name of institutional honour, to vilify the victims and entrench the same power hierarchy that are challenged through these quest for justice.

It was the judiciary which formulated an institutional process for dealing stringently with sexual harassment meted to women at workplace, after  Bhanwari Devi was raped by community men for doing her work of stopping child marriages. The same institution does not seem inclined to set example in meting out justice when sexual harassment is alleged at its own doorstep. Rather, it has resorted to turning justice into conciliation and compensation. Conciliation and compensation only allow those accused to get away with such actions because the cost may not be high. This is something that is often seen in violation of safety norms in workplaces where the cost of compensation of violating safety norms are miniscule (even when there is negotiation involved with unions) compared to implementation of safety norms. However assurance of justice in a civilized society demands that steps are taken to prevent such occurrences in society. The proceedings in the judiciary only imply that the concept of justice is alien to even those who have been entrusted to ensure the same.

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