Do political parties truly protect women’s rights?


Way back in 1988, the then Special Secretary (Finance) Rupan Deol Bajaj, an IAS officer of the Punjab cadre, took up the issue of sexual harassment by the then Director General of Police (Punjab), KPS Gill. After a seven year legal battle, she won her case in 1995. Since retired, Ms Bajaj taught every working woman that certain kinds of behaviour should never be tolerated, and must be fought against.

This was long before sexual harassment at the workplace broke the bounds of silence and spoke its name. In 1997, the initiative of a non-governmental organisation, Visakha, saw the Supreme Court of India formulate the Visakha Guidelines to grant all working women a safe and secure environment to work in. The decision was prompted by the gang rape of a saathin, Bhanwari Devi, in Rajasthan, when she tried creating awareness on the issue of child marriages in her village.

As per the Guidelines, organisations were required to have Sexual Harassment Complaints Committees in place, comprising both men and women, and headed by a woman activist or social worker who was not connected to the organisation, to look into all complaints related to sexual harassment. Every such complaint was to be investigated into; and if need be, a complainant was to be legally assisted to file an FIR with the police.

But 16 years down the line, surveys proved that little had been done to implement the Guidelines. Surveys prove that the Guidelines have hardly been followed by organisations. The sunrise IT/ITeS industry proved the worst in this respect.

A “Workplace Sexual Harassment Survey”, carried out by the Centre for Transforming India, found that nearly 88 per cent of the working women in the IT/BPO sector companies reported having suffered from SHW, with close to 50 per cent having been subjected to physical contact and sexually abusive language. Yet, as many as 47% employees did not know where to report, while 91% did not report for fear of being victimised.

The media industry proved no better. A survey by Social Access and the NGO, Population First conducted last year showed that as many as 17% employees in the media had been witness to their colleagues being sexually harassed. Although many knew what to do about it, few reported it. The survey found 9% of the women having been subjected to inappropriate physical contact and 7% to improper sexual advances, while 50% of the media houses lacked internal Sexual Harassment Complaints Committees.

The media and the IT sector were the biggest culprits here. Nearly half the media organisations surveyed were found to be devoid of these committees. Women often preferred silence, and even if complaints were made, they were suppressed with impunity. What was worse, complainants were often shown the door whenever they took up the matter of sexual harassment.

Often, media houses closed ranks where sexual harassment was concerned, and even when press conferences were attended, very little would be reported about any such case in a rival media house. Investigation into a complaint would take years; the case of Sultana Rao who had reported SHW at Sahara TV is a case in point. Sultana, who has since won in the courts, had to wait around 7 years for an investigation into her complaint, which was ultimately completed in 2011. In another case involving anational newspaper, the investigation was never done, even though public pressure saw an internal committee set up by said organisation.

In many cases, organisations have hurried up to set up such committees when a case of SHW has cropped up. Tehelka and Sun TV are cases in point.

Many years down the line, women in India have become aware of the laws relating to sexual harassment at the workplace. Thanks to several women who have decided “enough is enough” and stood up against the pernicious practice, there is a lot of awareness of the existence of laws that can be fallen back on to protect individuals against workplace harassment.

Last year, the government even enacted the The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 Act to deal with the issue. With the rules having been framed, the Act is now in operation. A month prior to the Act being passed, a senior journalist won a 10 year legal battle against illegal termination arising out of a complaint of sexual harassment at the workplace. This was followed by Sultana Rao winning her battle against sexual harassment after 9 long years.

Notwithstanding these successes, a couple of incidents proved that not much had changed at the workplace for the Indian working woman.

In late 2013, the alleged molestation of a young journalist by Tarun Tejpal , the Editor-in-chief of Tehelka, showed the normative trend of publications reporting on sexual harassment cases without adequately addressing the same in house. Worse, Tehelka had no internal complaints Committee in place. When a botched attempt to suppress the matter by Managing Editor Shoma Chowdhury fell on its face, the magazine tried some fire-fighting by announcing that a Committee under feminist and publisher Urvashi Butalia would look into the matter. Ms Butalia’s refusal to steer such a Committee saw the law take its own course. Tejpal has since been jailed for what, under the amended laws, amounts to rape.

But there are many more cases emerging into the open.

Close on the heels of that incident, a blog written by a law intern recounted the harassment she had been subjected to by legal luminary, Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, in 2012. The trail of events that were set forth has ultimately seen the judge resign his position as the head of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission.

As this goes to print, allegations of sexual misconduct have been made against an ex-Supreme Court judge and head of the National Green Tribunal, Justice Swatanter Kumar, by another young intern. The demand for a probe into these incidents calls to question the very prestige of the August body, which has since been found to have ignored its own Guidelines.

In most of the cases cited above, political parties rallied for and against the organisations involved have been extremely active in delivering their coloured judgement on the cases.

No attempt has been ever made by any political party to look at the issue of workplace harassment and pronounce a strong verdict in favour of women. This, in spite of women comprising nearly half the electorate, and for whom, a 33-1/3 per cent reservation has been mooted in parliament. Our Constitution guarantees women equality and the right to life and dignity. Women have the right to practice any profession or occupation, trade or business in a safe environment.

Sexual harassment is humiliating and in contravention of the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. It is a human rights violation that needs to be addressed.The Visakha Guidelines, in the absence of an Act, were legally binding in every organisation. And yet, no organisation thought it fit to follow them. The absence of a Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee, as Supreme Court Advocate and rights activist Naina Kapur observes, can be challenged as a human rights violation by any employee. Yet, nobody dared or cared to do so. Although we could ascribe this to a fear of losing one’s job, the prime factor would actually be the lack of legal awareness.

Has any political party, in power or otherwise, cared to take up the cause of creating awareness among women of their legal rights?

A lot is made of the BJP trying to gain political mileage by taking prompt action against Tehelka’s Tarun Tejpal for having molested a young staffer from his organisation at a Goa event. But the BJP had no role in Tejpal’s misdemeanour; if Tejpal did wrong, he had to be punished.

The Trinamool Congress certainly had a grudge against Justice Ganguly, given his judgements in the Prof Ambikesh Mahapatra and other cases. One could also find fault in the trivial reasons regarding his visit to Pakistan being cited to have him discredited.

But shouldn’t a legal luminary heading a human rights body be above board in his conduct? Why should only one single political party, and not every other party, condemn such behaviour on the part of any person holding a high office? There is also a crying need to address pending cases filed prior to passing of the SHW Act, and ensure Orders for compensation of the victims harassed are forthwith complied with.

Recently, the Aam Aadmi Party’s Maharashtra unit called for transparency in the appointment of Chairpersons and members of the State Women’s Commissions. This should strengthen the Commissions and ensure greater efficiency in dealing with gender issues. In comparison, this is a great initiative embarked on by the AAP. Let us see some more political outfits take up the cause of women, and the violence that they face at home and the workplace. Only then should they be accepted as our rightful representatives in Parliament.

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