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Gaps emerge in dealing with sexual harassment complaints

At Greenpeace India, it was the failure of due process that led to top-level resignations, three years after separate charges of sexual harassment by three different women were levelled against the same person. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint Premium
At Greenpeace India, it was the failure of due process that led to top-level resignations, three years after separate charges of sexual harassment by three different women were levelled against the same person. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Despite a law that lays down guidelines, the processes for dealing with sexual harassment complaints on the ground remain fuzzy

New Delhi: Allegations of sexual harassment at the prestigious St. Stephen’s College and the environmental non-governmental organization Greenpeace India could be just the tip of the iceberg. But more than the recognition of a recurring malaise, they point to institutional failures to provide redressal and justice.

Mint has learned of another case, this one at public broadcaster All India Radio, where despite the setting up of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and an apparent admission of guilt by one of three accused men, the complainant, a young college student who worked as a freelancer in the sports department, has quit citing lack of faith in the ICC and the inquiry it’s conducting.

In her resignation letter dated 17 June, a copy of which is with Mint, the complainant says she was groped and molested near the water cooler on the fourth floor of New Broadcasting House in New Delhi by three men—a moderator, a permanent employee and a cricket player—while she was on duty as a member of the production team for the third Test match between India and England at about 9pm on 30 July 2014.

On 28 August, the woman filed a formal sexual harassment complaint and also complained to L.N. Bajpai, the then deputy director general. Bajpai, she says, summoned one of the accused to his office on 2 September, where he admitted that the men had indeed been drunk and had molested her. A day later, she says, Bajpai issued a letter apologizing to her for the incident and banned two of the men, including the cricket player, from AIR. The third was transferred out of the section.

But despite the ban, the men continued to be present at the building where the woman worked. Worse, in December 2014, she discovered that the cricketer had been invited as a guest to a show where she had been put on duty. In February, she wrote another complaint to the director general.

In June, the woman was informed that an ICC was looking into her complaint. When she learned that the committee was headed by a woman friendly with one of the accused, she objected.

Ignoring her apprehensions about possible bias and conflict of interest, the ICC went ahead with its inquiry.

At the ICC hearing of 15 June, where the complainant was asked to testify, she says she found a “hostile and intimidating" environment “clearly meant to rattle me and create loopholes in my story". She was asked questions about her personal life, her activities outside work, and whether she smoked and drank. One woman committee member also asked if she had done “anything" that had provoked the sexual assault on her.

When she pointed out that there was CCTV footage of the incident, that one of the accused had already admitted to the incident and that she, in fact, had a written apology from the deputy director general, the ICC retorted by asking her why she was pursuing her complaint if her grievances had already been addressed. She told them that it was because the sexual harassment had not stopped and even the ban imposed by Bajpai was not being respected.

“They were trying to insinuate that no such incidents had taken place and that my complaints were false," the woman said in her resignation letter. The inquiry only “added further insult to injury, by first suggesting that I had made up this entire episode and then attempting to portray me as the ‘culprit’ who had brought this whole incident upon myself," she says in the letter. In response to a request by Mint to speak on the incident, she said she was too “emotionally traumatized" to talk about it at this time.

Confirming that the ICC inquiry is at a ‘preliminary stage’, Vinita Sood, director, administration, AIR, said she was “certain the ICC will address the grievances of the complainant satisfactorily". AIR takes such complaints very seriously, she added, and has “dealt with the proven cases in the past very strictly, handing out penalties on the charged officials". She did not elaborate on how the inquiry would proceed, given the complainant’s resignation and lack of faith in the ICC.


At Greenpeace India, it was the failure of due process that led to top-level resignations, three years after separate charges of sexual harassment by three different women were levelled against the same person. The accused seems to have been a repeat offender, which is what makes Greenpeace India’s failure to take timely action inexplicable.

“We failed in putting in place the right process and systems to deal with this," concedes Greenpeace India interim co-executive director Vinuta Gopal, adding that her organization is undertaking an external audit to “identify gaps and lacunae in the system".

“This is now a priority for the organization," she said.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, clearly defines sexual harassment, sets out clear steps in setting up ICCs, talks of steps to be taken by organizations during an inquiry and even includes a provision for false and malicious complaints.

Despite this, processes for dealing with complaints on the ground remain fuzzy.

Part of the problem is the hierarchy at workplaces, where an accused supervisor is often regarded by organizations as more valuable than an aggrieved subordinate. Add to that, inherent patriarchy and sexism where women complainants are seen as ‘troublesome’ or questioned about possible motives and unrelated lifestyle choices and you have an equation that at the very outset could be biased against women subordinates complaining about a more powerful male supervisor.

By law, an ICC is required to have one external member. The rest are from within the organization. “You can’t run from Caesar to Caesar to complain about Caesar," said Supreme Court advocate Sunil J. Mathew, who is representing the student in the St. Stephen’s College sexual harassment case. “There can be no connection to the institution. Unless you have that mechanism, no woman will get justice."

An online survey of ad hoc staff done by a few Delhi University teachers found that 5% of the respondents said they had been sexually harassed by their superiors. The survey also revealed that 64% of the respondents lived in constant fear of losing their job.

The safety of women employees and students in cases of universities is the responsibility of every employer, said Vibhuti Patel who teaches women’s rights at SNDT University, Mumbai. “Supreme Court demands an inquiry in every sexual abuse complaint within 10 days but that’s not happening," she said.

Dignity vs. livelihood

“When a woman files a complaint about sexual harassment, she simply wants that harassment to stop. She does not want to quit her job. She wants to continue working in a safe environment," said Ayesha Kidwai, a professor and one of the founders of the anti-sexual harassment committee at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Filing a complaint is not easy and often comes at the cost of losing a job or being branded a ‘trouble maker’, said lawyer Monalisa. “It becomes a matter of choice between dignity and livelihood."

In India, complainants often have to wage long personal struggles for the right to an education, the right to a job and the right to live away from home in big cities as paying guests or in hostels.

From Haryana, the 28-year-old research student involved in the case of sexual harrassment at St. Stephen’s is the first from her village to have even dreamt of doing a PhD. Last month, she should have completed her doctorate had things gone on schedule. The woman complainant at AIR too comes from a small town and lives on her own as a paying guest in Delhi.

Some managements also respond with vicious reprisals, including the filing of counter-charges. At a large privately-owned television network, an attempted suicide by a young woman complainant after she was told to “use her good assets" to “socialize" with political sources was quickly glossed over; medical reports were tampered with and a counter-charge was filed against her with, ironically, the Delhi Commission of Women. The woman quit her job and moved to another city.

When women like these face sexual harassment at work, they often don’t know whom to turn to. And when managements are not sympathetic and parents say I-told-you-so, it is often easier to just quit.

At Greenpeace India, one of the three women complainants says she was “discouraged" from filing an official complaint and instead asked to “sort it out" with the accused. “I stopped going to office parties and socializing where men would get drunk and pass all kinds of comments which everybody else seemed to find very funny," she said. “I found that when it came to human rights, particularly the rights of female employees, they were completely clueless. Finally, I just handed in my resignation."

The existing corporate environment of networking, drinks after office hours and offsite bonding are “breeding grounds of sexual harassment cases", said senior advocate Indira Jaising. “There’s a lot of predatory behaviour in many corporates so I am not surprised that managements gang up to ‘handle’ complaints when they happen."

The Vishaka guidelines of 1996, which spelt out how employers should deal with sexual harassment cases, made the “assumption that employers would want to treat sexual harassment complaints fairly and would constitute committees accordingly," said Kidwai.

Unfortunately, this is not always true which is why, she said, JNU’s ICC has 15 members who are elected by students, teachers, employees and staff. “The ICC is completely insulated from top management. Often the vice-chancellor doesn’t even know when a complaint is filed and against whom," she said.

Moreover, JNU has had a Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) since 1999, before even the Sexual Harassment Act of 2013. In the early years, said Kidwai, the university received nearly 60 complaints a year. Now it’s down to about 15, because she said, of GSCASH’s effort in providing a workplace that is free of not just sexual harassment but sexism in general.

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