The Week Magazine, June 6, 1999
Controversy: More and more women  
are now speaking out about sexual  
harassment in the workplace  

By V. Radhika

Liar, inefficient, psychologically disturbed, the labels flew thick and fast at 34-year-old Mridula Karhadkar right from the moment she complained to the National Commission for Women (NCW) of sexual harassment by G.K. Malik, the honorary director of Chowgule Sishu Vidya Mandir in Delhi. She was an accounts clerk in the school and almost two years and three inquiries later, her battle is far from over.

Crime that dare not show its face: A victim of sexual harassment. In the background are her colleagues protesting against their superior accused of harassment

"Every day is as traumatic as the other," said Kala Devi, who works in a factory in Ghaziabad. "The supervisor loses no opportunity to use foul language, make obscene gestures and brush against us." With two kids and an alcoholic husband she can't quit the job.

It is a lonely battle for the women who choose to fight. "One would expect women to rally around the complainant, but they don't," said Kala. "It is the fear of losing their job, harming their career prospects, or what their families would say."

Little wonder then that sexual harassment has not been talked about and much less, become an issue. When a few women decided to break the silence, the reaction was a predictable, "It happens only in that particular industry or in that kind of a job", said Soma Dixit of Sakshi, an NGO in Delhi. But in the last few years IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj, airhostess Shehnaz Sani of Saudi Airlines and telephone operator-cum-receptionist of Steelage Industries in Mumbai, Pervin Anklesaria, have demolished the myth that sexual harassment is sector or post-specific.

Sexual harassment was treated as "personal problems" until August 1997, when the Supreme Court ruled that it was a criminal offence as it infringed on a woman's fundamental right of "gender equality" and the "right to life and liberty".

Though the majority of female work force, employed as they are in informal sector, is outside the purview of the judgment, it is significant. It established guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment (which are legally binding till necessary legislation is passed) and also directed that every organisation should have a complaints committee headed by a woman and half of whose members are women. It should involve a third party which is familiar with the issue.

Ironically, Mridula's travails began a few days after the judgment. In her complaint she alleged that Malik deliberately brushed against her and tried to caress her fingers on the pretext of taking a file. Malik refuted the charges: "Mridula is my daughter's age and there are 60-70 women working in that school and no one has complained against me."

The Maratha Mitra Mandal Society, which runs the school, held two inquiries without following the Supreme Court guidelines and till date Mridula has not received the report. A third inquiry was held in which an NGO was involved, but Mridula said she was not informed in writing and hence was not sure about the NGO's credentials.

"Mridula's charges are baseless," said school principal Usha Pandey. If that was the finding of the inquiry why wasn't she sacked? asked Mridula's supporters.

The recent incident involving the principal of the prestigious Delhi Public School, Faridabad, has blown the myth that teaching is a "secure" job for women. Two teachers, Jayashree Kannan and Shayista Raza, and a former receptionist Shirni Kaul have accused the principal, U.S. Verma, vindictiveness because they spurned his advances. The teachers, who have resigned, accused Verma of spreading canards against them and scuttling their job prospects.

"Initially when he patted my shoulder or put an arm around me I thought it was an appreciative gesture by a 63-year-old man," said Jayashree who joined DPS in 1995. "But I realised soon that his physical conduct was not decent and he openly started demanding sexual favours." It was the same with the other two and when the women complained they were allegedly victimised. Jayashree said her seniority was brought down, while Shayista's child was denied admission.

Verma refuted these allegations as "false, baseless, fabricated and motivated by vested interestes," and said the charges had been levelled by the staff to hide their professional incompetence. An inquiry by the vice-president of DPS society found prima facie evidence against Verma, but no action has been taken against him. The adminsitration has refused to set up a committee as per the apex court's guidelines. The National Commission for Women and IFHSA (Interventions for Support Healing and Awareness), a women's organisation, have taken up the case.

Beena Rani, a cleaner in Delhi University's Hindu College, was more fortunate. A committee was set up a fortnight after her complaint against caretaker Ram Karan in 1996. She accused him of dragging her into the staff room and abusing her. "The committee threatened Beena for demanding an SC representative on the committee and that half the members be women," said lecturer Tripta Wahi. "It was a cavalierly conducted inquiry with no leads followed. The report, submitted a year later, blamed Beena for not compromising on her demand." Beena moved the SC/ST commission which directed the college to constitute a complaints committee as per the Supreme Court guidelines, and submit a report within three months. The report is still awaited.

Besides pressure from the accused to withdraw the case, almost all eyewitnesses have retracted their statements. "Three years is a long time and they have succumbed to pressure and inducement," said Wahi, who is fighting a court battle against a reader in the physics department for abusing her. A college inquiry said that "the incident was unfortunate and all parties should exercise restraint". She went to the Crime Against Women cell which, she said, "dropped investigation". The matter is pending trial. Interestingly, even the accused did not deny abusing her, maintaining that he did it under provocation.

"It is a lingering battle and can be fought only with the support of either the family, colleagues, union, or the organisation itself," said NCW's Member Secretary Binoo Sen. "That's why few women fight it out."

A decade ago the Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC), Delhi, dismissed the chairman's private secretary A.K. Chopra after an inquiry into a complaint against him from a clerk-cum-typist. The High Court revoked Chopra's dismissal, but AEPC went to the Supreme Court. "We were convinced that there was justification for penalty because both morals and morale were involved," said AEPC Additional Director-General D.K. Nair. The court upheld the dismissal and observed that the respondent's behaviour did not cease to be outrageous for want of an assault or touch.

But not all organisations act so decisively. Recently, when Mahima, a nurse, complained against V.K. Arora, director of the T.B. Hospital at Mehrauli, the health ministry offered to take her off night duty. Arora pleaded innocence and alleged that Mahima, who was found snoozing on duty, had complained at the union's behest. "The judgment on sexual harassment is being misused to malign me," he said.

Remarks like "women are going to use this as a pretext to shirk work and settle personal scores", can be heard in all offices. "Is the possibility of misuse enough ground to rubbish the judgment?" asked Soma Dixit.

The apex court's ruling and subsequent efforts of the government (which has modified the conduct rules governing its employees), NGOs and the NCW has encouraged women to break their silence. An NCW survey early last year found that 85 per cent of women were not aware of the judgment, but in the last four months it has received 22 complaints from employees of government and private organisations around Delhi. This is significant, considering that for three years from August 1995 the figure was 134.

While an inquiry is one of the remedies available to a sexually harassed woman, according to leading lawyer Naina Kapur, who is also the Director of Sakshi, "it is tantamount to misconduct and all the available remedies follow". These include reprimand, censure, transfer, demotion or dismissal at the organisation level. A police complaint is another option.

The accused did not deny abusing maintained that he did it under provocation. --Dr Tripta Wahi

A common thread that runs through most sexual harassment complaints is a superior-subordinate relationship. "It is the powerful position that emboldens the man to harass women employees," says NCW member Saeeda Hameed. As in the case of an IAS officer who was "shifted out of a good desk to a bad one" when she told her boss and snubbed the male colleague who allegedly harassed her.

Power may be an important dimension, but the male attitude is significant, said Dixit. "It is not always the bosses who harass women. It could be the colleague sitting next to you," said Veena Arora, an employee of the Bureau of Indian Standards in Delhi. She has complained of sexual harassment against a senior colleague and believes that "such behaviour can be explained only through their attitudes towards women in general and working women in particular".

Men's approach towards women colleagues is ambivalent. On the one hand they are forced to accept the reality of working women, but they are also rooted in patriarchal ideology of male dominance. And any woman who does not "conform" to their image of a "good woman" is the target of "unwarranted attention".

That explains why single or divorced women are the most vulnerable. "There are several notions about a woman who does not have a 'protective male shield', she is available, vulnerable and so on," said a senior executive with a leading multinational software concern in Hyderabad. "Ever since my divorce two years ago, I am on my tether trying to ward off unwarranted attention."

Perhaps nowhere is the "power angle" more evident than in academic institutions. Three years ago five medicos of Maulana Azad Medical College's (MAMC) department of skin and venereal diseases complained against their head of department for sexually harassing them. Though the accused was shifted to the Dean's office for a short period, one student had to repeat a term. They were shunned by the faculty and even by the students whose initial enthusiasm gave way to career concerns. The girls continue to do the rounds of courts and are a bitter lot, having turned villains, at least for the 40 students who were booked along with them during the agitation. They would advice women to find their own solutions rather than get into protracted battles.

There are also women like Beena, Veena and Mridula who are determined to fight it out. The war has cost them dear, personally and professionally and the wounds suppurate. But their spirit is unscathed.
The call that spelt doom 
It began with a phone call. On a March afternoon last year a woman employee of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) in Delhi was reportedly called by deputy librarian R.S. Saini to "attend a call from home" in the director's room. When she went there and found nobody at the other end, the colleague said the line had probably got disconnected. 

Awaiting justice: Veena Arora with husband 

The lady checked at home and found that no call was made to her office and confronted Saini. She said Saini, along with two other male colleagues, Madan and Dhan Singh, abused her as well as a few of her colleagues who intervened. The women wrote to the complaints committee set up by BIS. "We received no response despite sending several reminders and in the meantime we were abused by the male colleagues and also started receiving threat calls at home," said Veena Arora, one of the complainants. The correspondence continued till June with no response from the committee. However, in May, Saini and Dhan Singh were transferred to Sahibabad and two of the complainants including Veena were transferred to other departments, but within the office! 

Saini was allowed to continue in the same office for three months apparently on health grounds. Failure to get redress from the office made the women turn to the National Commission for Women (NCW) which forced the BIS to order an inquiry. The women alleged that the one-man committee did not record their statements completely. The NCW refused to accept the inquiry because the committee had no NGO representative. 

So, another committee, constituted in August, found all the three men guilty. The organisation subsequently transferred them out of Delhi. But Saini, who was transferred to Chennai, obtained a stay from the High Court. The women said the BIS was not interested in vacating the stay. Saini also slapped a defamation suit on the women saying they accused him of rape. The women denied levelling such an accusation. 

According to Veena's husband Yash Mohan, a State Bank of Patiala employee in Delhi, the women's families had received threat calls and once a glass piece was thrown at Veena in the office. 

Saini, however, claimed he was being framed. "A simple telephone call is being blown out of proportion," said Saini's wife in defence. "My husband's only fault was that he received the call and called the girl. All these women are misusing the sexual harassment judgement." Attributing the women's complaint to professional jealously and office politics, she spewed venom at the NCW which she alleged "played a partisan and unjust role". 

Lone crusader
It is indeed hard to believe the soft-spoken 60-year-old Dr Sushma Merh when she says she would rather bury her head in books than fight for a cause.

Vindicated at last: It took 14 years for Sushma Mehr to get a fair deal

For, that is exactly what she did a few years ago in Delhi University's department of adult and continuing education. Sushma, through a complaint of sexual harassment against head of department Dr S.C. Bhatia, brought to light the trauma of her women colleagues.

Sushma's painstaking collection of evidence to prove her charge made history: It was the first instance of a university dismissing an employee on charges of sexual harassment. However, the university is yet to vacate the stay order on the execution of this decision taken three years ago.

The harassment included physical advances, request for sexual favours and verbal harassment. "Before I joined these girls would not even talk about it," Sushma said. "But as I was much older to them, they started confiding in me. Bhatia would lure some of them by promising foreign trips or to advance their academic career. He even forced a girl to break off her engagement."

The first stand-off between Sushma and Bhatia was on service matters. "Everyone in the department was either an ad hoc or temporary employee and Bhatia kept it that way so that people would remain under his control," said Sushma. "But I started raising the issue of irregularities in the department and this threatened him."

That was when the harassment began. "He would use offensive language and harass me in several ways," she recalled. Gradually the women in the department shared their experiences, she says, and decided to act. "And we had to start from scratch, right from defining what sexual harassment is." Things reached flashpoint when an ad hoc employee was dismissed. The staff rose in protest and demanded an inquiry into the department's affairs.

The university's inquiry committee headed by Justice Wad, said Sushma, "put me and my colleague Elizabeth in the dock by saying that we should prove the charges of sexual harassment first and then the university would look into other allegations". The two women got down to the task and produced a 90-page statement with 150 supporting documents. Within two months the Wad committee found that there was a prima facie case of sexual harassment against Bhatia.

Then came the actual inquiry. It marked the beginning of a tedious process of getting witnesses. Sushma, who was then based in Shimla for a project, traced her former colleagues. Some girls had got married and Sushma had to convince their in-laws on the girls giving evidence. A few had gone abroad and she got written statements from them. Finally she produced 12 witnesses.

The committee found Bhatia guilty. Now, the university had to act. Its executive council, for the first time in history, held a secret ballot on whether to dismiss him from service or demote him. He was demoted. The decision enraged the academic community which agitated for his removal until the President asked the council to reconsider its decision.

Bhatia moved court for a stay pleading that since he had already been punished once by being demoted he should not be dismissed. The court refused to interfere with the council's decision but granted a stay on its execution. But the university is yet to get the stay vacated. Bhatia continues to draw his pay without coming to the department. As vice-president of the Indian University Association of Continuing Education, his official address continues to be the department.

That the matter was not taken to its logical conclusion will remain a sore point with Sushma. The fight has also taken its toll. "I have high blood pressure and palpitation," said Sushma. "My personal life was destroyed. In the last 14 years I have not had a peaceful meal. First it was Bhatia, then there was some problem with my retirement benefits."

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