As the #MeToo storm rages across the country, provoking anger and outrage, and also for the first time a creeping fear in the hearts of serial sexual predators who operated till now with carefree impunity, one woman is watching the developments with quiet satisfaction. From her residence in Chandigarh, retired IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj is delighted that after 30 years, her 17.5-year-long struggle to punish the powerful man who sexually harassed her is resonating in the stories flooding social media.
Her oppressor was the all powerful K.P.S. Gill, Director General of Police in Punjab in 1988, who had a sense of “untrammelled power and arrogance” in the days when his force was battling terrorism. “Today the women speaking out have safety in numbers. When I called out the behaviour of Mr Gill, I stood all alone, threatened with death, slander, given punishment postings and a blighted career,” said Bajaj in an interview with The Wire. Excerpts:
What advantage can the women telling their stories of sexual harassment in the work place draw from your case?
I secured a conviction under the archaic Sections 354 and 509 of the Indian Penal Code; the two sections under which no one had ever filed a case since 1860, when the British first drafted the IPC. These sections are usually clubbed with Section 376 for rape or attempt to rape, but never in isolation. This, because offences that fall under these sections are considered too trivial to even merit a FIR, as I learnt the hard way. But they are an affront to the dignity and honour of a woman and can traumatise her for life. Rape falls under the purview of Section 376, but not all women suffer that. I believe that actions that fall under Sections 354 and 509 of the IPC are universal to the extent that almost all women experience it at least five or six times in their lives.
Section 509 deals with words, gestures or actions intended to insult the modesty of a woman and section 354 deals with assault or criminal force with the intention of outraging the modesty of a woman. These are a set of provisions different from physical assault, but which deal with crimes only against women as there is an element of modesty involved. So, all those men who think that unwanted lewd gestures or talking dirty are not offences, need to worry. It was the Supreme Court on October 12, 1995 which upheld the crime against me in this category, describing it as a criminal offence. In doing so, the SC rejected the judgement of the high court which dismissed the case under Section 95 of IPC, a ground that it was too trivial a matter to be considered as an offence. The SC held that Section 95 of the IPC cannot be a shelter in cases relating to outraging the modesty of a women because these are not trivial matters.
Can we go back to that evening in July 1988, when it all happened ?
This was an official party at the house of the home secretary of Punjab and Mr Gill was present in his uniform. The entire top bureaucracy of Punjab was there and Mr Gill called me to come and sit on the chair next to him. I went and was about to sit, when he pulled the chair close to himself. Sensing something amiss, I went back to the group where I was sitting. After ten minutes, he came and stood so close to me that his legs were four inches from my knees. He made an action with the crook of his finger asking me to stand and said, “You get up. You come along with me.” I strongly objected to his behaviour and told him, “Mr. Gill How dare you! You are behaving in an obnoxious manner, go away from here”. Whereupon he repeated his words like a command and said, “You get up! Get up immediately and come along with me.” I looked to the other ladies, all of whom looked shocked and speechless. I felt apprehensive and frightened, as he had blocked my way and I could not get up from my chair without my body touching his body. I then immediately drew my chair back about a foot and half and quickly got up and turned to get out of the circle through the space between mine and another lady’s chair. Whereupon he slapped me on the posterior. This was done in the full presence of the ladies and guests.
It was only later that I realised that most of the ladies in the circle where I was sitting had got up and left because he had misbehaved with them too. In particular was a young doctor from England. He had done much worse with her and she was crying inside. But neither she, nor her mother who was also present, complained about what happened to her that evening. I knew that they would not stand witness in my defence, when they were not even standing up for themselves. Anything like this happening to a woman is considered shameful, something to keep hidden. Then, and even now.
I went straight to the home secretary who was the host and Mr Gill’s boss and said, “What kind of people you have invited?” Gill was without any compunction and stood right there while I complained. By now everyone knew that he had upset the other women too so they put him in his car to be sent home. I remember being surprised to see the commandoes who were hiding in the mango trees to guard him, suddenly falling from the leafy canopies as they rushed to follow his departing car. Years later when the home secretary was called to corroborate the events of the evening, he did not tell the court that I had repeated my complaint in the presence of K.P.S. Gill within minutes of the incident, while Gill was swaying and hearing every word of what I said.
You were a senior IAS officer, a special secretary in the Punjab government, an empowered woman yourself. But the entire system ganged up against you. People averted their eyes.
You know, I did not actually want to go to the police and fight it in the courts….I wanted the government to take executive action under conduct rules for moral turpitude against him. But everyone from the then Governor S.S. Ray to chief secretary R.S. Ojha told me that they will not do anything. The chief secretary said to me, “Rupan these things keep happening. You are not diminished. Consider yourself lucky, it could have been worse…” The Governor, S.S. Ray, very clearly told me to forget it and go home. He would not do anything. I even went to Sarla Grewal, then secretary in the PMO. All this made me angrier than ever. I was keeping it from the media too, but one Mumbai-based newspaper, the Indian Post, splashed the story the day after I met Ray.
When everything else failed, I went to the police as a last resort, ten days after the incident. V.N. Singh, the inspector general of police, who had seen everything as he was also present at the party that day, took my complaint, gave me a receipt that it had been registered. He then put it in an envelope and sealed it. When I asked him why he had sealed it, he said, “It is my duty to register your complaint, which I have done, but what I do with it after that is entirely up to me. We will investigate only when you get a mandamus from the court.” And he very patronisingly told me that his action will somehow save my reputation. I gave a copy of the FIR to the Indian Express because I wanted my version of events to come out instead of the half truths being spoken around. It took me another seven years to get the direction from the SC to prosecute Gill.
How did the incident impact your personal and professional life?
Even as I ran around trying to persuade the government to take action, there was the constant fear that this should not come out in the open. I did not want media coverage. This is the social conditioning we all grow up with. The die is cast once you write it all down in the FIR. Even my highly educated mother dissuaded me from registering a FIR. I was asked to cry over it privately and move on.
Once I drafted the FIR and gave it to the police and the media, I felt liberated and unburdened from the fear of the world coming to know about it. I was an empowered woman but the system and society were conspiring to disempower me. My family and I received death threats. People would call up and say you will disappear and no one will hear of you again. Remember, this was the Punjab of the ’80s when mysterious disappearances were the order of the day.
It is not easy even today for women, 30 years after you blazed the trail…
I am so gratified to see so many women coming out to talk about their trauma. Many are doing so years after they were harassed. Make no mistake, this is the most difficult and courageous thing for a woman to do and no one can doubt her when she finally decides to speak. Donald Trump is saying, “This is a scary time for men.” I say this is a scary time only for those who were at it with impunity for years. Women, who are 50% of the population are believing the #Me Too stories because similar things have happened to most of them at some point of time or the other. It resonates with their own experiences. Majority of men in the society are good, but we also know this to be true.
What would you like to say to the #MeToo warrior women of today?
My case has set a precedent which will benefit them all. For a change women are being believed. They should not back down at all, and if M.J. Akbar and others say they will take them to court, let them fight it collectively; but they must not compromise.
Firstly, the court has defined ‘modesty’ for the first time in my case as it applies to these two sections of IPC. Secondly, the court has laid down that to prove such matters, one witness is enough and the victim herself is the best witness, as long as she is being truthful. Thirdly, in every crime, the prosecution has to prove the intention of the accused. But here it was held that there is no need to prove intention, but just his knowledge of having acted indecently is sufficient to prosecute a person. Fourthly, the court set a time limit of six months in which to complete the trial, so as to ensure that the victim is not deliberately tired out in long-drawn litigation. The difference now is that none of these women need to take the men to court. Their having had the courage to speak on social media is enough for everyone to believe them. It is the single most important validation of the truth. If the accused man goes to court, then my precedent gives them ample ammunition to fight it there.
Chander Suta Dogra is a journalist and author.