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Above: (clockwise from left) Baba Ram Rahim, Bishop Franco, Asaram Bapu and Daati Maharaj

A PIL filed in the Supreme Court cites recent cases of “holy men” sexually harassing women to seek implementation of the Vishakha guidelines in religious and spiritual places

By Sankalan Pal

A slew of sexual assault charges against several high-profile men, most notably former journalist MJ Akbar who was recently forced to quit the Union council of ministers, has once again put the spotlight on the need for organisations to strictly abide by the laws and regulations laid down to deal with such cases. It is in this context that a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court by advocate Maneesh Pathak praying that the Vishakha guidelines be made applicable to ashrams, madrasas, Christian institutions and other religious and spiritual places.

The Vishakha guidelines came into effect in 1997 when the Supreme Court laid down formal guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace following the gangrape of a social worker, Bhanwari Devi, from Bhateri in Rajasthan. Its genesis lay in a Rajasthan-based women’s rights group filing a PIL in the apex court after the rape victim failed to get justice despite a long legal battle. The petition, filed by the women’s group, Vishakha, and four other women’s organisations in Rajasthan, against the state of Rajasthan and the Union of India, resulted in what are popularly known as the Vishakha guidelines. It was a landmark case because, on the 50th anniversary of our independence, for the first time ever, the highest court of the land emphasised the need for laws on sexual harassment and laid down guidelines to afford women protection from predators at the workplace.

There were 12 guidelines that were laid down as applicable to workplaces. According to these, it is the responsibi­lity of the employers or other persons holding such position of authority to ensure that any workplace or any other institution is free from all kinds of sexual harassment. The employers are also expected to initiate and formulate a procedure that is to be implemented in case of commission of any such offence, the solutions, prosecution and other necessary steps required thereof, for the purpose of resolution.

A number of actions were included within the ambit of sexual harassment. They are: (a) physical contact and advances; (b) a demand or request for sexual favours; (c) sexually coloured remarks; (d) showing pornography; (e) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. In his PIL, Pathak said religious places constitute part of workplace as many women are employed there besides those working on a voluntary basis. The petition sought collection of data on religious institutions where women practise and profess religion so that effective steps can be taken on the basis of the guidelines to provide assistance to victims of sexual assault. “If the Vishakha guidelines are extended to religious institutions, it would assist a lot in redu­cing sexually related crimes against women at religious places by various religious gurus or leaders of that particular institution,” the petition said.

The petition also asked the centre to direct the authorities concerned of the particular area, where such religious institutions are situated, to do back­ground verification of religious leaders, especially “new upcoming babas” and heads of madrasas and churches. The petition also prayed that directions be issued to the centre to provide adequate measures for women’s safety at religious places by having periodic checks conducted by state women’s panels.

In religious and spiritual places, many women practise and profess their religion and it is of utmost necessity that their safety is taken into consideration and the 1997 judgment is made applicable to religious institutions. This will act as a deterrent and red­uce sex-related crimes in religious places. In recent times, a lot of self-proclaimed babas, gurus, religious heads in madrasas, churches, etc, have been accused of sexually harassing women by making untoward advances towards them. These religious preachers simply abuse their position of authority and the women who approach them with a pious mindset become aghast when they are subjected to sexual assault and physical intimidation.

Advocate Pathak cited several recent examples to buttress his demand. Among them were the Kerala nun rape case in which the accused is a bishop, the Daati Maharaj rape case, the cases involving Baba Ram Rahim and Asaram Bapu. In Pune, a maulana of a madrasa was reportedly accused of harassing a large number of girl students. What is most shocking is that such incidents are happening in a place where Muslim parents send their children to pursue Islamic studies, in the belief that the maulanas will inculcate the best Islamic values in their children. Even the Kerala case, where a nun was raped by a bishop against whom the police was initially reluctant to file a case, sent shockwaves through the country. Though the bishop is now out on bail, a priest who testified against the bishop was found dead last week under mysterious circumstances.

These “spiritual leaders” had millions of devotees, a majority of them ordinary womenfolk. Such was their blind faith that many of them even left home and hearth to stay in the ashrams, donating large amounts of money in their search for spiritual solace. Their worlds soon crashed as they discovered the true nature of the men whom they considered God. What is surprising is that some of these godmen continue to retain their hold over followers despite being found guilty and being incarcerated. Asaram Bapu and Daati Maharaj are examples of fraudsters masquerading as godmen who have managed to retain their grip over followers even while lodged in jail.

In his petition, Pathak said that keeping in view the many sexual exploitation cases and the number of religious leaders being exposed, the women are in a state of paranoia about visiting these institutions. According to the Vishakha guidelines, right to life and liberty, right to freedom of expression and right to equality are the fundamental rights of every woman as guaranteed by our Constitution. Due to the rising number of such cases, it is necessary that proper rules and policies are framed according to the Vishakha guidelines so that women feel safe in religious places.

A religious place is one which people visit to worship, learn and profess their respective religions. Sadly, the flag-bearers of these institutions are the ones who are increasingly indulging in dastardly attacks on unsuspecting followers. In a country like India where a majority of the people—be they Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or others—are religious by nature and where women form a bulk of the faithful, it is high time that their safety is taken into consideration and the Vishakha guidelines are properly implemented.

So far, most women survivors have refrained from coming out in the open. But in the three weeks since the #MeToo movement hit India, women from across the country have been coming forward to narrate their stories of exploitation. In the process, a minister has lost his job, many high-profile journalists have been forced to quit, big-budget films have been shelved, big-ticket contracts have been cancelled and a noted writer has had to apologise to the girl he alleg­edly made a pass at—and to his wife too. It’s the godmen’s turn next.

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