In India, Even Women Employed by Central Ministries Aren't Safe From Sexual Harassment

An employee of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India – affiliated to the health ministry – was sexually harassed for an extended period of time by a senior official, who has gone entirely unpunished.

New Delhi: In 2012, a female employee of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) – which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare – was sexually harassed by a senior officer (a director) repeatedly.

A complaint was filed by the victim’s family in 2013, addressed to the chairperson of the FSSAI. When the complaint was made, the organisation, which is affiliated to a central ministry, did not have an internal complaints committee (ICC) – as is required by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 – to enquire into the matter. The ICC report dated June 2015, a copy of which The Wire has, admits to this fact, stating that the complaint filed in 2013 was received by the presiding officer of the ICC only in December 2014. Thereafter, the ICC was quick with its enquiry.

The victim was kept under duress for an extended period of time, with the director making unwelcome advances and demanding sexual favours in exchange for which he offered to use his influence to advance her career.

Despite the victim’s repeated refusals, he continued to harass her for several months. The ICC report lists, in sickening detail, the several ways in which the director misused his power over the victim.  As per the 2013 Act, sexual harassment includes “physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature”. From the victim’s testimony recorded in the ICC report, it would appear that the director was guilty of all, except “showing pornography”.

The persistent harassment led to the victim growing more intimidated by the day, which affected her mental health. She was pressured into inappropriate conversation and forced to live in fear. Drawing from the letter written by her family, the ICC report said she “faced him with calmness and after this, tried her best to escape him, but he kept reminding her that she was made the Designated Officer due to him and if she listened to him she would rule.”

Professional discrimination

The director made repeated attempts to meet the victim, which she eluded to the best of her ability. In July 2012, she had made excuses and fled, to which the director had replied – as recorded in the report – that she was a “chust and chant ladki” for managing to escape. Thereafter, he threatened her saying that she would not be able to escape similarly the next time. He had also insisted that she not meet the chairperson without his permission.

The victim’s persistent resistance to the director’s advances soon translated into discrimination, with the latter using his power to negatively affect her professional life. As per the report, the victim’s family had written to the chairperson of FSSAI in October 2012, when the victim was suddenly and inexplicably transferred. FSSAI claimed to have received this letter only in February 2013. The letter asked that the victim be transferred back to her original place of work, in addition to outlining the director’s misconduct.

“After being unsuccessful in his designs he started to get angry and annoyed…..and threatened her [the victim] that he would remove her” from the post she occupied at the time, the ICC report recorded from the complaint. Her family also alleged that he made the atmosphere so fearful and isolated the victim to such an extent that she couldn’t speak to anyone.

Thereafter, allegations of corruption and other charges were levelled against the victim, while simultaneously she was told that the complaints against her would go away if she adhered to the director’s wishes. When it became apparent that these allegations had no basis, the director resorted to transferring her with increasing frequency, actively scuttling her professional prospects.

Guilty but scot-free

Predictably, the director responded to the allegations by calling them “blatant lies”. As per his response recorded in the ICC report, he suggested that the allegations against him were meant to distract from the charges of corruption against the victim. In a letter to the presiding officer of the ICC dated March 2015, he claimed that the victim had made similar allegations “against other officers in the past and has a history of blackmailing her seniors to get desired postings.” He also saw the two-and-a-half year delay in initiating an investigation as a sign that a conspiracy was at work to malign his reputation.

The delay, though, was explained by the victim – in 2013, the perpetrator was transferred to the home ministry, and only then did she feel safe enough to approach the FSSAI with her statement. Tour diaries, call records and other evidence collected by the ICC (attached as annexures to the report) clearly substantiate the victim’s account. The ICC conducted a detailed enquiry of all the events, considering both sides of the story and tallying evidence. Its verdict was damning. The report concluded:

“The Respondent had a bad intent for the complainant and to fulfil his evil intentions on the complainant, he started crafting and designing circumstances to firstly entice and lure her to fall for his devious intentions failing which he created an atmosphere to pressurise and threaten the complainant using his influence in the FSSAI. When even that failed he actually started harming her in more ways than one, including her uncalled for transfer. He went to the extent of using his influence both on his junior and senior officers to harm the complainant and conspired with others to commit various serious offences under the Indian Penal Code including interpolation and forgery on government records.”

The report also accused him of obstructing the procedures of the ICC and slandering its members. It recommended that an FIR should be lodged against him under sections 354 and 509 of the IPC (assault and criminal force to a woman with intent to outrage her modesty) and also for conspiring and fabricating evidence and obstructing justice by destroying evidence.

The report found the perpetrator guilty in June 2015. However, even today, there has been no action against him of any kind. He retired from service in September 2016, but will apparently aid the health and family welfare ministry in an advisory capacity.

Justice denied

Sources in the FSSAI told The Wire that the ICC report dated June 2015 was stayed by the Central Administrative Tribunal earlier this year and a fresh ICC inquiry was ordered under a new presiding officer – one that can possibly be influenced by the perpetrator.

Furthermore, two separate cases of criminal defamation have been filed against her by the perpetrator and his associates – one in January 2017 and one in April 2017 – clearly suggesting elaborate collusion. It appears several legal intricacies are being exploited to stall the case and harass her further.

Though legally, sexual harassment is a serious offence, prevalent attitudes in India still consider it a mamuli baat or trifling matter that is easily pardoned as masculine indiscretion. Informal ‘compromises’ out of court are often encouraged by the police, betraying a tendency to treat these cases as private matters outside the purview of public institutions.

However, as more and more women enter the public sphere in India, institutions can ill afford to dismiss sexual harassment and confine it to the private realm. India has witnessed too many allegations of men in power misusing systemic might to target women – from TERI’s R.K. Pachauri and Infosys’s Phaneesh Murthy, to Tehelka’s Tarun Tejpal and most recently, TVF’s Arunabh Kumar.

The Vishakha Committee Guidelines clearly state that sexual harassment is a violation of several fundamental rights. Legally, the onus is on the employer to ensure a safe working environment. However, it would appear that the government itself is failing to take the law against sexual harassment seriously.