"All in a Day's Work: Sexual Harassment at the Workplace"
Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan
"Innovating jurisprudence to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace"
Facts of the Case:
Bhawari Devi, a social worker in Bhateri village, Rajasthan, was employed in the
'Women Development Project,' initiated by the state government in 1985 to combat
child marriage. Despite her efforts, a marriage of a 9-month-old girl proceeded.
On September 22, 1992, Bhawari Devi and her husband were attacked by five men,
leading to her brutal gang rape.
When she sought help at the police station, little assistance was provided, and
the medical examination was delayed. The court's verdict in November 1995
acquitted all five accused, citing Bhawari's husband's alleged inaction during
the assault. Media coverage prompted the state government to appeal.
Name of the Case: Vishakha and Ors. v. State of Rajasthan
Citation: AIR 1997 SC 3011
Date of the Judgment: 13 August 1997
Petitioner: Vishakha & Ors.
Respondent: State of Rajasthan
Bench: J.S. Verma (Chief Justice), Sujata V. Manohar, B.N. Kirpal
Statutes/Constitution Involved: Indian Penal Code, 1860 & Constitution of India,
Important Articles: Article 14, 15, 19 & 21
Arguments from the Petitioner's Side:
- Whether the trial court's decision violated Bhawari Devi's fundamental rights
under 2 . Articles 14, 15, 19(1), 21 of the Indian Constitution.
- The role and responsibility of the employer in sexual harassment cases.
- The necessity of formal guidelines for preventing sexual harassment in
Organizations, including 'Vishakha,' filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL)
emphasizing that workplace sexual harassment infringes upon fundamental rights.
They urged the court to establish guidelines for preventing such incidents,
emphasizing the true meaning of gender equality.
Argument from the Respondent Side:
In an unusual move, the solicitor general, with the respondent's consent,
supported the petitioners. The respondent collaborated with the court to devise
a practical strategy to combat sexual harassment and formulate rules for
The Vishakha Guidelines:
- Employer's Duty: Employers must prevent sexual harassment and establish mechanisms for prosecution and resolution.
- Prevention Measures: Employers should take preventive measures, including explicit prohibition, penalties, and conducive work conditions.
- Proceedings in Case of Misconduct: If the offense falls under the Indian Penal Code, the employer must take prosecutorial action.
- Appropriate Disciplinary Action: Violation of service rules requires appropriate disciplinary action.
- Redressal Mechanism: Organizations must have a redressal mechanism regardless of criminality, and the committee must comprise women, with its head being a woman.
- Redressal Committee: This committee, with counseling facilities, should collaborate with NGOs and submit an annual report to the government on addressed issues.
Chief Justice J.S. Verma delivered the judgment in the case, emphasizing the
significance of fundamental rights enshrined in Article 14(2), 19(1)(g), and
21(4) of the Constitution of India. The court asserted that every profession,
trade, or occupation must ensure a secure working environment for its employees,
as it directly relates to the right to life and the right to a dignified life.
The ruling held that women possess a fundamental right to freedom from sexual
harassment in the workplace. The court outlined specific guidelines for
employers to adhere to, aiming to prevent the sexual harassment of women within
Furthermore, the Supreme Court provided a clear definition of sexual harassment,
encompassing actions such as physical touch, the display of explicit material,
unwelcome taunts, misbehavior, or any expression of sexual desire or favoritism
towards women. The judgment, therefore, established a robust framework to
address and prevent instances of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Emergence of Sexual Harassment in Indian Workplaces
The discussion begins by highlighting the prevalence of sexual harassment in
various sectors of the Indian economy, despite the increasing participation of
women in the workforce. The Vishaka guidelines and subsequent legislative
developments are presented as responses to this pervasive issue.
Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan: Judicial Activism and Global Perspectives
This section delves into the landmark Vishaka case, emphasizing its significance
in bringing sexual harassment under public scrutiny. The gang rape of Bhanwari
Devi serves as the catalyst for a public interest litigation, leading to the
Supreme Court's intervention. The court's reliance on international treaties,
including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women (CEDAW), is discussed, showcasing a creative approach to address a
Vishaka Guidelines: A Judicial Response to Legislative Inaction
The Vishaka guidelines, issued by the Supreme Court, are analyzed in detail. The
guidelines, considered as a form of judicial legislation, provide a
comprehensive framework for preventing and addressing sexual harassment at the
workplace. The authoritative definition of 'sexual harassment' in an Indian
context is explored, along with the duties imposed on employers and the
establishment of complaint mechanisms.
Horizontal Application of Fundamental Rights: Shaping Legal Landscape
The analysis extends to the horizontal application of fundamental rights,
emphasizing how Vishaka represents a departure from the conventional vertical
enforcement against the state. The section explores the application of
fundamental rights in cases involving non-state actors and discusses the
implications of this horizontal approach in the context of sexual harassment.
Post-Vishaka Developments: Courts as Guardians of Gender Justice
Examining subsequent cases that reference the Vishaka guidelines, this section
illustrates the impact of the Supreme Court's proactive stance. Cases such as
Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra and D.S. Grewal v. Vimmi Joshi
highlight the courts' efforts to ensure compliance with Vishaka guidelines,
setting the stage for a shift in the judiciary's approach to sexual harassment
Challenges and Misuse: Vishaka as a Double-Edged Weapon
Addressing concerns of misuse, the analysis explores cases like Usha C.S. v.
Madras Refineries, where the court recognizes Vishaka as a 'double-edged
weapon.' Instances of alleged misuse are examined, and the courts' role in
distinguishing genuine cases from those driven by ulterior motives is discussed.
Judicial Legislation or Legislative Domain? Critiques and Pending Questions
The section critically examines the argument that the Supreme Court encroached
on the legislative domain with Vishaka. The conflicting views within the
judiciary, as seen in University of Kerala v. Council, Principals', Colleges,
Kerala and Ors., raise questions about the competence of the judiciary to frame
binding guidelines and the constitutional validity of such 'judicial
Legislative Inaction: The Need for Comprehensive Legislation
The discussion shifts to legislative developments post-Vishaka, including the
National Commission for Women's Code of Conduct for the Workplace and draft
bills. The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill,
2010, is analyzed for its progressive measures, while acknowledging its
limitations, such as the exclusion of harassment against men.
Deep Analysis of Zia Mody on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace
Zia Mody, a prominent legal expert, has provided a nuanced perspective on the
issue of sexual harassment at the workplace in the context of the Indian legal
landscape. Her analysis delves into the historical and judicial aspects,
shedding light on the complexities and challenges associated with this pervasive
Vishaka Case and Judicial Activism:
Mody acknowledges the significance of the Vishaka case, a landmark decision by
the Supreme Court of India, which brought the issue of sexual harassment to the
forefront of public discourse.
She recognizes the proactive role of the judiciary in addressing a legislative
void, showcasing a form of judicial activism that aimed to protect women in the
absence of concrete laws.
International Framework and Constitutional Interpretation:
Zia Mody underscores the court's reliance on international treaties and
conventions, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This international framework was invoked
to interpret and apply fundamental rights within the Indian Constitution.
She explores the constitutional stance on international treaties, emphasizing
the court's purposive approach in incorporating global standards to fill
Vishaka Guidelines as Judicial Legislation:
Mody critically examines the Supreme Court's issuance of guidelines in the
absence of specific legislation, highlighting the intersection between judicial
activism and legislative vacuum.
She contends that the guidelines, though transitory, function as de facto laws,
emphasizing the binding nature of the court's decisions and their
Horizontal Application of Fundamental Rights:
The analysis addresses the concept of the "horizontal" application of
fundamental rights, emphasizing how Vishaka expanded the scope beyond state
action to include non-state actors in preventing and addressing sexual
Mody navigates the constitutional nuances, noting the ambiguity in the wording
of fundamental rights and the evolving jurisprudence in this regard.
Legislative Inaction and Need for Comprehensive Laws:
Mody discusses the ongoing legislative inaction despite the Vishaka guidelines,
pointing out the gaps in their implementation and the need for a comprehensive
The critique extends to the limitations of Vishaka in addressing the entire
spectrum of workplace harassment, including its non-inclusive approach towards
harassment against men.
Zia Mody's Position on Judicial Legislation:
The analysis presents Zia Mody's perspective on the constitutional validity of
"judicial legislation," as raised in the University of Kerala case. Mody
navigates the fine line between judicial intervention and legislative
The Double-Edged Nature of Vishaka:
Mody acknowledges the potential for misuse of the Vishaka guidelines, citing
cases where allegations of harassment were deemed baseless. The term
"double-edged weapon" is explored, emphasizing the need for balance in
implementing anti-harassment measures.
Call for Comprehensive Legislation:
Zia Mody advocates for comprehensive legislation to replace Vishaka, pointing
out its limitations and the changing dynamics of the modern workplace. A
critical examination of recent surveys and statistics reinforces the urgency for
a more robust legal framework.
Critical Analysis of Vishakha Judgment and Zia Mody's Views:
- The Vishakha judgment addressed a critical issue of sexual harassment at the
workplace, acknowledging the absence of specific legislation.
- The court's reliance on international standards, particularly CEDAW, showcased a
progressive and inclusive approach.
- The guidelines provided a much-needed framework for employers to prevent and
address sexual harassment, emphasizing the duty to ensure a safe working
The judicial activism exhibited in framing guidelines was necessary due to
legislative inaction. However, it raises questions about the separation of
powers and the court's role in creating laws.
The guidelines, while impactful, lacked the force of legislation, leading to
concerns about their enforceability and the potential for misuse.
The focus on women as victims, while crucial, may be seen as limiting the scope
of protection, especially regarding harassment against men.
Impact and Legacy:
The judgment's immediate impact was significant, bringing attention to the
pervasive issue of workplace harassment and prompting discussions on legal
The Vishakha guidelines set a precedent for subsequent cases, influencing the
approach of the judiciary towards sexual harassment in the absence of specific
Zia Mody's Views:
Acknowledgment of Judicial Activism:
Zia Mody recognizes the necessity of judicial activism in the absence of
legislative action. She acknowledges the court's role in addressing pressing
issues to safeguard the rights of individuals.
Critique on "Judicial Legislation":
Mody critically examines the concept of "judicial legislation," raising valid
concerns about the encroachment on the legislative domain. This critique aligns
with broader debates on the separation of powers.
Horizontal Application of Fundamental Rights:
Zia Mody navigates the complex constitutional terrain of applying fundamental
rights horizontally, acknowledging the evolving jurisprudence in this area. This
analysis adds depth to the constitutional discourse.
Double-Edged Nature of Vishakha:
Mody's acknowledgment of the Vishakha guidelines as a "double-edged weapon"
demonstrates an understanding of the potential for misuse. This highlights the
need for a balanced approach in implementing anti-harassment measures.
Call for Comprehensive Legislation:
Zia Mody's call for comprehensive legislation reflects a pragmatic approach,
recognizing the limitations of Vishakha in addressing the evolving dynamics of
workplace harassment. This aligns with the changing nature of work environments
and the need for updated legal frameworks.
The Vishakha judgment, while a landmark in addressing workplace harassment,
necessitates a critical examination of the balance between judicial activism and
Zia Mody's views add valuable insights, emphasizing the need for comprehensive
legislation to replace Vishakha and address the gaps and limitations in its
The ongoing dialogue on the separation of powers, constitutional validity, and
the evolving nature of workplace dynamics requires continued scrutiny and
adaptation of legal frameworks.
The Vishakha judgment stands as a watershed moment in addressing the pervasive
issue of sexual harassment at the workplace in India. Chief Justice J.S. Verma,
along with the bench, delivered a landmark ruling that not only acknowledged the
lacuna in legislation but also took bold steps to provide immediate safeguards
through the Vishakha Guidelines. These guidelines, a form of judicial
legislation, set the stage for an extensive discourse on workplace harassment
and gender equality.
Zia Mody's nuanced analysis adds depth to the understanding of the Vishakha
case. While recognizing the proactive role of the judiciary in the absence of
legislative action, Mody critically examines the challenges posed by what she
terms "judicial legislation." Her call for comprehensive legislation reflects
the evolving dynamics of the modern workplace and the necessity for a robust
legal framework that addresses the full spectrum of harassment issues.
The Vishakha judgment and subsequent discussions underscore the delicate balance
needed between judicial activism and legislative action. The double-edged nature
of the guidelines, as highlighted by Mody, emphasizes the importance of a
nuanced approach to prevent misuse while ensuring a safeguarding mechanism for
The call for comprehensive legislation becomes imperative to adapt to the
changing landscape of work environments and uphold the principles of justice and
equality for all. In conclusion, the legacy of Vishakha extends beyond its
immediate impact, shaping ongoing dialogues and inspiring a continued pursuit of
legal reforms to create safer and more inclusive workplaces in India.
- Zia Mody
- 10 Judgments that Changed India
- SCC Online