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Above: A CCTV camera helps to make working women feel secure/Photo: bytebacklawredesign.lexblogplatform.com

In a move to curb sexual harassment, a judge of the Madras HC has “recommended” CCTV cameras in judges’ chambers and rooms of bureaucrats in TN. How will this be implemented?

By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

In a path-breaking order aimed at eradicating sexual harassment of women in workplaces, the Madras High Court has “strongly recommended” to the chief secretary to instal CCTV cameras inside the  rooms of all bureaucrats in Tamil Nadu. As a first step, Justice SM Subramaniam issued a directive to the High Court administration to install CCTV cameras in his official chambers within two weeks. He told the government lawyer: “You (police) are promoting CCTV cameras in public places as well as in private campuses to curb crimes. This being the preaching to the citizen at large of this great nation, what about the offenders and black sheep in the police offices, chambers and office rooms of the higher officials? What measures you had taken to nab such offenders inside the police department and other public offices and institutions?” He then quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.”

The issue cropped up during the hearing of a case related to sexual harassment of a superintendent of police (SP) attached to the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption of the Tamil Nadu police. Her complaint was against the inspector general of police (IGP). Iron­ically, the SP was chairperson of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) when she lodged the complaint.

Initially, a committee was formed by the government to probe the complaint. Then the Crime Bra­n­ch Criminal Investi­gation Department (CBCID) of the Tamil Nadu police in a parallel exercise registered an FIR to investigate the matter. The ICC did not make any headway and later was reconstituted with a new team headed by a woman additional DGP and comprising two women pol­ice officers, a male police officer and a woman advocate of the Madras High Court.

When the case came up before Justice Subramaniam, he expressed displeasure over the slow pace of investigation and said: “The insensitiveness shown by the authorities on receipt of a sexual harassment complaint from the woman SP against her superior, who is an IGP, cannot be appreciated by this court. The registration of an FIR is not infirm and the same is in accordance with law and further investigations and prosecutions are certainly warranted in view of the fact that the allegations set out in the complaint are serious in nature.”

Dismissing the arguments of the concerned IGP that the two parallel investigations (inquiry by the ICC and by the CBCID) cannot be done simultaneously, the judge said: “The action under the Sexual Harassment Act by the employer is independent and complaint registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and its subsequent inquiry by the CBCID is also independent. The twofold actions are permissible with reference to the sexual harassment complaint. The employer is empowered to constitute the ICC and proceed with the inquiry and based on the report, initiate all further actions under the provisions of the said Act as well as under the Service Rules which are in force. That apart, the FIR registered by the CBCID under the relevant IPC sections must be proceeded separately and criminal trial must be conducted in accordance with law. These two separate actions are independent, unconnected and permissible.”

In what can be seen as mollifying words to the aggrieved police officer, the judge added: “As far as the person agai­n­st whom the complaint was made, registration of an FIR was also a ground to initiate departmental disciplinary proceedings. Thus, if the investigation was commenced by the CBCID, then all appropriate actions were to be initiated under the relevant service rules, enabling the Investigating Officer (IO) as well as the ICC to proceed with the matter in an unbiased manner and fairly.  All such required actions were to be initiated by the State as well as the Head of the Department to conduct free, fair and unbiased inquiry.”

Regarding the nature of the complaint, he said: “When a woman police officer in the rank of SP, is making such a statement, this court was of the considered opinion that such a statement requires a serious consideration warranting deeper inquiry and appropriate action against the person the allegation was made. On a plain reading of the complaint it is sufficient to note that the allegations raised are affecting the modesty of a woman and therefore, registration of a criminal case under the IPC is just and necessary.”

Justice Subramaniam concluded: “Thus, registering a criminal case is her [concerned SP] fundamental right ensured under the Constitution of India.  Such a valuable right cannot be taken away interpreting the provisions of the Sexual Harassment Act, that it is a precondition to conduct an inquiry by the ICC. Accordingly there is no infirmity in respect of the registration of an FIR by the CBCID at the inst­ance of the ICC, even before conducting an inquiry under the Act.” The judge posted the case for further hearing to March 6.

Coming to the judge’s directive of installing CCTV cameras in the rooms of all bureaucrats, it’s not clear how the Tamil Nadu government will resp­ond. The judge said he was “str­o­ngly recommending” this move to the chief secretary; it is not a directive.

The response of bureaucrats to this judgment was mixed. K Balachandran, a retired IAS officer, told India Legal: “I welcome this move. The very fact that there are CCTV cameras will instil confidence in the minds of women employees. But there are places, in the rooms of top police officers, especially those looking after intelligence, where you can’t fix CCTV cameras because visitors there include police informants. As the police has to protect their identity at all costs, CCTV cameras are not desirable there.”

Even women officers, for whom this judgment should have been like music to the ears, were none too happy about it. Gokila (name changed), a middle-level officer of the state government, told India Legal: “There are over 12 lakh state government employees spread over 33 districts. Already, there are CCTV cameras in a few departments. But it is not hunky-dory for women employees. We cannot relax at times as our male superiors object to the manner in which we sit by observing us from CCTV footage. Those who are ill tend to stand or go to the rest room or walk in the corridors to relax. This leads to male superiors passing lurid comments about them. Fixing CCTV cameras may not eradicate sexual harassment of women staffers. It may bring it down, though. These cameras inside bureaucrats’ rooms also may not help much as a rogue officer can always play around with them.”

Interestingly, after this judgment, not a single judge of the Madras High Court expressed willingness to install a CCTV camera in his/her chamber. Another issue is that for any physical alteration of any part of the High Court, the permission of the chief justice is a must. It’s not clear whether the High Court administration has sought the approval of the chief justice to install CCTV cameras in Justice Subramaniam’s chamber. Also, there is the question of allotting funds for this venture, which too can only be done by the chief justice.

There are other issues too which would need to be sorted out. A senior lawyer who did not want to be named told India Legal: “Installing the CCTV cameras will require a nodal officer to manage the control room. Also, in judges’ chambers, judgments are dictated by the judges to stenographers. If the camera zooms in, judgments can be read by outsiders, especially those sitting in the control rooms. Confiden­tiality will be compromised. To my knowledge, CCTV cameras are not installed in any high court of the country. I am amused by this order.”

Has a hornets’ nest been stirred?

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