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Women Not A Chattel- Courts Stringent At Sexual Harassment By The Powerful

Cases of sexual harassment at workplace have become rampant in our Country. But when a lady IPS officer or a lady Judge complains of sexual abuse at the hands of Powerful 'Senior', it is not only Shocking but gravely Concerning.

Every day we read of horrifying incidents where women are raped and harassed by men. Women are still treated as objects and they are subjected to a lot of physical and mental torture at their workplaces, violating the fundamental rights of the women provided under the Constitution of India. In-spite of strict laws, cases of sexual exploitation of women have increased manifold, especially at workplace.

It would be trite to refer to the landmark Judgment of the Apex Court in the case of Vishaka & Ors vs State of Rajasthan & Ors AIR 1997 SC 3011 which has laid down the guidelines to be followed to prevent Sexual Harassment of Women at work place. The Court widened the definition of Sexual Harassment & observed thus:

For this purpose, sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:
  1. physical contact and advances;
  2. a demand or request for sexual favour
  3. sexually coloured remarks;
  4. showing pornography;
  5. any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
Where any of these acts is committed in circumstances where under the victim of such conduct has a reasonable apprehension that in relation to the victim's employment or work whether she is drawing salary, or honorarium or voluntary, whether in government, public or private enterprise such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem. It is discriminatory for instance when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment or work including recruiting or promotion or when it creates a hostile work environment. Adverse consequences might be visited if the victim does not consent to the conduct in question or raises any objection thereto.

Since the guidelines did not provide safety to women against Sexual Harassment, the Government enacted Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. However, the said Act has not been able to contain or minimise Sexual Harassment of Women which is thriving unabated in our country undaunted by the present Laws.

It would be relevant to refer to a Suo Motu Writ of the Madras High Court decided by Justice N. Anand Ventatesh on March 1, 2021. The case deals with a shocking incident impacting the women officers and considering the seriousness of this incident and the monstrosity of the situation, the High Court took suo moto cognizance in exercise of its jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.

The brief facts of the case are that the victim officer an IPS had filed a complaint to the DGP, Chennai. The victim officer was allocated duty on 21.02.2021 in view of the visit of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The Special DGP directed the victim officer to accompany him in his vehicle, and she was told that she will be dropped at Perambalur. On the directions the Special DGP, the victim officer accompanied him in his official car. It is during this travel towards Ulundurpet, the Special DGP indulged in sexual harassment of the lady officer.

The victim officer hurriedly left to Ulundurpet in the available car belonging to the SP to file a complaint with the DGP. Enroute, the official car in which the victim officer was intercepted by a large contingent of police headed by the SP Chengalpet District. A striking force vehicle was stationed right in front of the car belonging to the victim officer and an Inspector and Sub- Inspector of Police got down from the striking force vehicle and took away the car keys with a view to pressurise to talk to the Special DGP and not to proceed further with the complaint.

However, undaunted by the pressure tactics the victim officer submitted a complaint to the DGP, Chennai who directed the DGP, CB-CID, to take up necessary investigation. Thus an FIR was registered for offences under Sections 354A(2), 341, 506(1) of the IPC and Section 4 of Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Woman Act, 1998 against the said Special DGP and SP Chengalpet District.

The Court lamented that it took so much of struggle to file a complaint to the DGP, Chennai. The Court remarked thus:

The Court shudders to think as to what would have happened if the victim was an officer belonging to a lower cadre as that of a Sub-Inspector or Constable of Police. Probably, it would have become impossible for such an officer to have even given a complaint in this case. If that is the position in which lady officers are placed, it is hard to think as to what will happen if such a sexual harassment had taken place on an ordinary lady with no background.

The Court expressed concern about state of affairs in workplaces and the futility of filing FIR thus:
The mere registration of an FIR by itself does not take away the sordid state of affairs that is prevailing insofar as sexual harassment in workplaces are concerned.

The Court was distressed at the plight of women and remarked thus:
There is a faulty gene in men which sometimes make them think that a woman is subordinate to them and that at times she can even be treated like a chattel. History, time and again shows that it is after a very long struggle, and only in the last 25 years that women have somehow managed to get to top levels at workplaces including public service. That by itself, does not place them at a secure position since they are not seen in their stature as an officer or professional but continue to be seen merely with patriarchal eyes.

The Court commented that if IPS Cadre lady officers are going to face situations such as this, it is high time to take cognizance of the same to ensure that these instances do not happen in the future. The Court lauded the courage of the women of the present times and remarked thus:

It is only in the recent past that women have started coming out even complaining against sexual harassment. There was a time where they used to swallow the bitter pill without raising a
complaint about the same, since they feared consequences both in the workplace as well as the society.

The Court ordered stringent measures in case of powerful offenders and observed:

If an officer, due to the power he veils, thinks that he can get over with his power and connections, from any act, this Court is not going to be a mute spectator and this Court will step in and ensure that the rule of law is preserved. Persons by virtue of the position they hold should not get the impression that they can do anything and finally escape from the situation with their power. The more the power that is vested in a person by virtue of the position that he is holding, the more stringent must be the punishment if he indulges in sexual harassment. Whosoever may be the person involved and whatever position he holds should never come in the way of the law taking its own course, more particularly when it comes to cases of sexual harassment.

The Court stressed that a fair and proper investigation into crimes is one of the essentials of the criminal justice system and an integral facet of rule of law. The Court referred to the Apex Court's case of Pooja Pal v. Union of India (2016) 3 SCC 135 wherein the Court emphasized on the requirement of a free and fair investigation as an essential concomitant of Article 21 of the Constitution. The Court ordered for monitoring the investigation itself and observed:

The axiomatic principle that ‘justice must not only be done but seen to be done’ is not alien to the field of criminal investigation. This is therefore, an extraordinary case where this Court is required to step into monitor the investigation to ensure that it progresses on the right lines, and to retain public confidence in the investigation of the alleged crime by ringfencing the interference of the high and mighty in the corridors of power.

The Court finally ordered thus:
In view of the aforesaid, this Court is required to step into monitor the investigation thereby, ensuring that the fundamental rights of the victim to a free and fair investigation is not reduced to an empty ritual. The role of the Constitutional Court in exercise of its jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution to zealously guard the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution is reinforced by a constitutional duty to act as a sentinel on the qui vive.

This is therefore, one of those extraordinary cases where sentinel must raise to the occasion to discharge its constitutional duty and to ensure that the pure streams of criminal justice are not polluted and corrupted by those in the corridors of power.

The Apex Court recently on 26th February 2021 allowed former District Judge from Madhya Pradesh to withdraw the petition filed by him challenging the disciplinary proceedings initiated by the MP High Court over the sexual harassment allegations made by a junior judicial officer. The Court observed thus:

We cannot allow sexual harassment cases to be swept under the carpet like this...
You are walking on a very thin ice you can fall any time.

The brief facts of the case are that the petitioner District Judge sent offensive & improper WhatsApp messages to the complainant lady officer. The Bench had remarked that it is not an acceptable conduct for a judge to flirt with a junior officer.

The Court did not accede to the argument of the petitioner's counsel that the lady officer has withdrawn her complaint under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, and therefore the disciplinary proceedings by the High Court are not maintainable. The bench observed that the woman might have withdrawn the complaint because of some embarrassment and that will not preclude the High Court from initiating separate departmental proceedings on its own.

The Courts are now taking very strict action against the powerful offenders involved in Sexual Harassment of women and therefore it is imperative that those in power should not exploit their women subordinates but treat them honourably else they shall face the ire of the Courts.

Written By: Inder Chand Jain
Ph no: 8279945021, Email: [email protected]

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