Sahitya Akademi Sacks Woman Who Accused Secretary of Sexual Harassment

Her services were terminated even though the Delhi high court allowed the complainant to take three months paid leave till March 16.

New Delhi: A day before her two-year probation was to come to an end, the Sahitya Akademi terminated the services of an officer who had accused the secretary of the organisation of repeated sexual harassment. The termination order came even though the inquiry in the matter is still pending and the Delhi high court has allowed the complainant to take three months paid leave till March 16.

The complainant, who has been at a deputy secretary-level post at the Sahitya Akademi since February 2018, alleged that she suffered severe sexual harassment of “many forms” at the hands of the secretary, K. Sreenivasarao, since the beginning of her employment. These, she charged, included but were “not limited to inappropriate sexual advances, unwelcome physical and sexual contact, and sexually-coloured remarks”.

She also claimed that since the secretary was her supervisor, he had complete control over her working conditions and used his position to threaten her with “adverse consequences for her employment and career prospects at Sahitya Akademi”, especially given that she was still serving her probation period, which was to end on February 15, 2020.

The complainant also submitted that the secretary was the “senior-most officer working out of the premises of Sakitya Akademi in Delhi” and was “responsible for the overall administration”. Thus, she insisted that he fell within the ambit of “employer,” within the meaning of Section 2(1)(g) of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (POSH Act).

Plea before high court accused secretary of making racist, sexist comments

Just a month after her probation began, the complainant – who hails from Assam – said the officer began harassing her.

In her writ petition before the Delhi high court, she stated that she had listed instances of sexual harassment before the Local Complaints Committee (LCC) at the Office of the District Magistrate of New Delhi District on November 29, 2019. Prior to that, she had also filed a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee of Sahitya Akademi on November 7, 2019.

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She also accused the secretary of making “racist and sexist comments on women hailing from the North-East, particularly from Assam, which is the Petitioner’s home state,” in her petition before the high court.

Her petition before the Delhi high court, as also her complaints to the Akademi, listed the major instances of sexual harassment.

Accused commented on breasts, things he could do to her

The first instance is alleged to have taken place between September 4 and 6, 2018 when the complainant travelled, with the accused, to Leh for the Convention on Contribution of Bhoti Language for the Preservation of Indian Culture. She had recently got married and complained that Sreenivasarao commented that she had grown “big” after her marriage. She thought he was referring to her weight and responded by saying that she did put on weight, after which he gestured towards her breasts and said, “pumping-shumping hua hai (some pumping-shumping has happened)”.

Then, she said, on September 14-15, 2018, she travelled to Assam along with Sreenivasarao for the Convention on Rabha Language, where the latter was gifted a large painting. They carried the painting by placing it before them whilst being seated in the backseat. The woman alleged that then “Sreenivasarao commented that if the painting was a little higher, he could have “done a lot of things with her”.

On November 14, 2018, when the complainant travelled to Gangtok for the Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2018, she said that Sreenivasarao made her travel with him alone in his car on the pretext of some work during the entire trip. One evening, she alleged in her petition, “he ran his hands over the Petitioner’s shoulder and hand, and pinched her. In complete shock, the Petitioner shrieked and asked him why he did that, he said that women from the North-East were supposed to be “cool”.”

Assault in press club elevator

When the complainant and Sreenivasarao were in Ranchi between September 13-15, 2019, for the Convention on Sadri Language, she alleged that he misbehaved with her in the Ranchi Press Club elevator. “On the day of the event, September 14, 2019, around 10:15 am when they were in the Ranchi Press Club elevator alone, K. Sreenivasarao forcibly put his finger in the Petitioner’s mouth, who pushed his hand away and asked him what he was trying to do. He brushed aside her clear disgust at his behaviour and instead asked her why she was so angry.”

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The woman stated that she was “very disgusted and angry at his assault, and then decided to put an end to this ordeal by confronting him about his gross sexual misconduct.” She also “fully realized that her silence at his inappropriate behavior, only to protect her employment, was being taken too far, and if she did not speak out now, she had no idea what he would do next.”

The woman also complained about how, during a meeting on November 5, 2019, Sreenivasarao verbally abused her in front of other Sahitya Akademi employees. “He kept on accusing her of poor performance or not working properly, but it was clear to the Petitioner that he was being vindictive, owing to his displeasure with her for not reciprocating his advances.”

Judge directed that LCC’s order on granting leave be implemented

In her order dated January 29, 2020, Justice Pratibha M. Singh, who was primarily looking at whether the secretary of the Sahitya Akademi was an “employer” under Section 2(g) of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, noted that the contention of the petitioner was that the secretary was an employer, whereas the contention of the Akademi was that the president was the head of the Akademi, and so the secretary is not the employer.

Justice Singh said the petitioner, on the grounds that the secretary is the ’employer’, invoked the jurisdiction of the LCC which passed directions in the matter on December 16, 2020. Noting that the issue as to whether the secretary is the employer or not is still to be adjudicated, she directed that the monthly payments to the complainant in accordance with the LCC’s directions shall not be stopped for a period of three months, irrespective of whether she chooses to attend office.

Noting that the order of the LCC granting the woman three months paid leave while the inquiry was pending was passed on December 2019, the court held that it would operate till March 16, 2020. However, it stayed the proceedings before LCC in the meantime.

Rabindra Bhawan, Delhi which houses the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi and Sahitya Akademi. Photo: Wikimedia

First complaint filed on November 7, 2019

The victim had filed her first complaint with the members of the executive board of Sahitya Akademi on November 7, 2019. In this, she complained about being subjected to “severe sexual harassment and assault at the hands of K. Sreenivasarao” and noted that “in response to my objections to his misbehaviour, he often threatened me with severe consequences, including threatening to ensure my employment is terminated and my post is not made permanent, and also by sending me frivolous and unsubstantiated office memorandums, in order to intimidate me, and make me ‘fall in line’.”

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She stated that “it is the constitutional and statutory mandate of Sahitya Akademi to provide a safe working environment to all its employees, particularly one that is free from all forms of sexual harassment or creation of a hostile work environment.”

However, instead of focusing on the content of her charges, the case got embroiled over the jurisdiction of the ICC and the LCC in the matter on the basis of whether the secretary was the employer or not. The complainant had sought the suspension of Sreenivasrao which did not happen. The Delhi police also did not take any action on her FIR which was registered with the Tilak Marg police station.

LCC found merit in her complaint

It was on November 29, 2019, that the victim lodged a complaint with the Local Complaints Committee, Officer of the District Magistrate (New Delhi District) against Sreenivasarao under the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

On December 16, the chairperson of the LCC wrote to the secretary of Sahitya Akademi about the complaint lodged. It said the panel observed that “on considering the constitution of Sahitya Akademi, duties of the Secretary as mentioned in the Constitution as well as service bye laws of the Sahitya Akademi, prima facie it appears that the post of Secretary fall under the definition of “employer” u/s 2(g) of the above mentioned Act of 2013 and, therefore, the LCC has the jurisdiction to conduct an enquiry into the present matter.”

It also noted that the complainant had requested the committee to provide her with interim relief while the inquiry was ongoing and that she be given three months paid leave as mentioned under Section 12 of the Act of 2013.

Thereupon, the committee held that it “came to the conclusion that she should be granted three months paid leave as provided under Section 12 of the Act of 2013.”

Secretary rejected charges, denied he was ’employer’

In his response to the chairperson of the Committee for Prevention and Redressal of Complaints of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace on December 24, 2019, the secretary wrote: “At the outset I categorically deny each and every allegation in the purported complaint alleging sexual harassment. I state that the said complaint has been preferred with ulterior motives in order to harass and browbeat me and to dissuade me from effectively undertaking my duties.”

He said the complainant was “provided interim relief in form of change of supervisory officer, as requested by her”.

Further, he wrote that she also demanded further interim relief by seeking his removal which was denied on November 9, 2019 “as no action can be taken without establishing the allegations.”

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The secretary also insisted that he was not the “employer” within section 2(g) of the 2013 Act because “the Executive Board is the highest executive body of the Sahitya Akademi; secondly, the Secretary reports to the Executive Board, and thirdly, since the appointment of (complainant) was not by the Secretary”. Thus, he claimed, the assertion that he was the employer was flawed.

LCC letter to Akademi president also directed that victim be granted paid leave

Thereafter, on January 16, 2020, the Local Complaints Committee wrote to the President of Sahitya Akademi, Chandrashekhar Kambar, making a mention of all these communications, including the letter it received from the secretary, and directed him, in his capacity as president, to grant the complainant “three months paid leave with immediate effect”. It said this leave will be in addition to what she was otherwise entitled.

Thereafter, on January 20, the complainant also emailed the president of Sahitya Akademi to comply with the directions of the LCC.

Yet, the Akademi chose to terminate her service a day before her probation was to end.

What the termination note said

It issued an “office memorandum” on February 14, stating that “The Review committee, constituted to review the performance of (the complainant), considered on record the other material (office memorandums and calling explanations, etc.) as also the Annual Performance Appraisal Report 2018 of the officer under review.”

It further stated that “Sahitya Akademi having given ample opportunities for improvement, betterment” found that the complainant “has not shown any interest in implementing the decisions and comply with the minimum essential directions of organising programmes and printing of books/ publications”.

Thus, it said, “The Review Committee recommended that the performance of the officer under review has not been found satisfactory so the services of (the complainant) cannot be confirmed and (she) shall be discharged of her duties.”

The letter also stated that it has been sent with the “approval of the President, Sahitya Akademi”.