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Where The Mind Is Without Fear

In a shocking development, a woman judge from Uttar Pradesh has alleged sexual harassment by her senior in an open letter written to the chief justice of India. Is no woman safe in this country?

By Dr Swati Jindal Garg

In what has rocked the Indian judiciary, a woman civil judge in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh has written to the chief justice of India, alleging sexual harassment by her senior. “I have been sexually harassed to the very limit. I have been treated like utter garbage. I feel like an unwanted insect. And I hoped to provide justice to others,” she wrote in the letter, which went viral on social media. Alleging sexual harassment by her senior in her previous posting six months ago, in her letter to the chief justice she sought permission to end her life, saying she has no hope of getting a fair inquiry, let alone justice.

“I joined the judicial service with much enthusiasm and belief that I would dispense justice to the common folk. What did I know that I’ll soon be rendered a beggar for justice on every door that I go. In the short time of my service, I have had the rare honour of being abused on the dais in an open court.” Alleging that she was pressurised to meet her senior at night, the officer also claimed to have attempted to commit suicide which failed. Stating that all that she ever wished for was a fair enquiry, the officer bemoans that justice is a rare commodity that is hard to find.

The Supreme Court has refused to entertain the plea made by the woman officer and sought a report from the Allahabad High Court on the status of the complaints filed by her. The judicial officer has, in her letter, asked: “working women in India” not to make attempts to “fight against the system”. “If any of the women think that you’ll fight against the system. Let me tell you, I couldn’t. And I am a judge. I could not even muster a fair inquiry for myself. Let alone justice. I advise all women to learn not to be a toy or a non-living thing.”

Strange and hopeless as it may sound to most, this is not the first time that a judicial officer has been sexually harassed at her workplace. The apex court has in the past too, suggested the reinstatement of a lady judicial officer who had resigned from her job following her transfer after she levelled sexual harassment charges against the then judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, Justice SK Gangele. 

The complainant had in the case in question, alleged that she was transferred to Sidhi on July 8, 2014, when she resisted the harassment meted out to her by the accused, and had further contended that this was in violation of the transfer policy of the Madhya Pradesh High Court. She had also added that her representation seeking eight months extension, as her daughter who was in Class 12 and had to appear in the board exams, was rejected only due to the fact that she had not given in to the alleged harassment.

Following these events, she had resigned from service on July 15, 2014, and her resignation was accepted on July 17, 2014. The complainant had then sought justice from the then chief justice of India, who called for remarks from the chief justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The High Court chief justice had then constituted a two-member committee, comprising two senior sitting High Court judges, to inquire into the matter and submit a report.

Though the committee issued notice to the woman official to appear before it, the complainant in her reply sought clarification on the authority of law under which the panel was constituted and raised questions about the fairness of the inquiry to be conducted by it. The complainant had also filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the constitution of the in-house committee. 

The apex court had then gone on to dispose of the petition finding fault in the procedure followed by the High Court chief justice, following which the then chief justice of India had constituted an in-house committee, which concluded that the evidence was insufficient to establish the charges. Another committee was then set up, comprising then Supreme Court judge Justice R Banumathi, Justice Manjula Chellu, who was then the Calcutta High Court chief justice, and Senior Advocate KK Venugopal, who was the then the attorney general for India, to investigate the allegations. In its report, the committee said that the four instances of sexual harassment alleged by the complainant “are not proved beyond reasonable doubt”. On her transfer, the committee said it “is of the view that there has been a total lack of human face in the transfer” and that “in the interest of justice, the complainant has to be reinstated back in the service, if, in case, the complainant intends to re-join service”.

Later, the Supreme Court  asked the High Court to reconsider the issue of reinstatement of the complainant, but the full court of the High Court rejected the representation along with the suggestion of the Supreme Court that she be reinstated and sent on deputation outside the state or she could be adjusted in some other state.

It cannot be denied that harassment is the undue exercise of power by a superior over his subordinate. Time and again, sexual harassment cases have shown that the battle is an uphill and never ending one. Such cases are not only extremely difficult to prove, but also almost always leave a sense of non-completion in their wake. The complainant woman can be someone who is well-versed with the law—like in the cases mentioned above—yet there is no guarantee that justice will be done. Such instances usually raise the question that if such is the scenario with those who know the law, what about those who do not? What happens to the women who are unaware and unsupported, the ones who perhaps suffer the most?

Indira Jaising, one of the leading women lawyers of the country, has said: “Sexual harassment, is the ‘hidden dirty secret’ of the legal profession in India, faced not just by women lawyers, but even women judges.” Armed with a formidable exterior, Jaising is a force to be reckoned with—she is not only a lawyer, but also a leading legal activist. She is India’s first woman additional solicitor-general and the first-ever woman to become senior advocate in the 154-year-old Bombay High Court. Yet, she was allegedly sexually harassed—that, too, in the precincts of the Supreme Court. 

Jaising disclosed her experience in an interview given to the media: “Even now, I experience abuse from male colleagues. They say ‘Oh, that woman is so aggressive’, or they refer to me as ‘that woman’, not bothering to even call me by my name…. Sexual harassment is not related to age. I have experienced it at my age. I have been subjected to sexual harassment in the corridors of the Supreme Court. It happened a couple of years ago. It is a busy place and it is normal for people to bump into you. But you know when it is accidental and when it is deliberate. It was another senior male lawyer. I did not make any complaint, but I stopped him then and there and confronted him about it. I feel it is an adequate way of dealing with it. So, I had to experience it, despite my seniority in the profession and despite my age. Women lawyers and judicial officers who are junior are definitely more vulnerable.”

The senior advocate has also addressed the problem of women lawyers being patronised by the men in the profession. Jaising feels that not enough women are becoming judges primarily because of their inability to lobby. Many women lawyers, she feels, will be able to become judges if they are given the opportunity at the right age, taking their merit into consideration.

Going a step ahead, most people in the legal profession also feel that if more women are encouraged to join the legal field, the workspace will become more democratic leading to a more equal workspace where being a woman would be more acceptable and not be seen as an exception to the rule. 

At the end of the day, as Gretchen Carlson has said: “We are not going to fix the sexual harassment epidemic unless we can acknowledge that this is not a women’s issue, this is a man’s issue. The burden should not be on the shoulders of women only to solve this, because we can’t do it alone and it’s not fair. We’re seeing now the tsunami of all these women coming forward, which is such a blessing. But the tipping point will be when men in the workplace decide to be our allies.” That may be a distant dream judging by the latest case. There’s a long-held truism: “For the women who have suffered sexual harassment at their workplace, forgetting is difficult, Remembering is worse.” 

—The writer is an Advocate-on-Record practicing in the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and all district courts and tribunals in Delhi  

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