Print edition : December 27, 2013

Tarun Tejpal (centre) being escorted out of the Sessions Court in Panaji on November 30. Photo: AFP

Students and women's organisations at a protest rally in New Delhi. The increased public outrage over sexual assault and rape cases may embolden women to be more vocal about such crimes. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Sexual harassment at the workplace is a universal but unacknowledged phenomenon. The Tarun Tejpal case has brought out into the open a range of issues never publicly debated before.

ON December 16, it will be one year since the infamous gang rape and murder of the 23-year-old physiotherapist in Delhi. But before that, one of the darkest secrets of the workplace, one involving the media and also high places like the judiciary, came tumbling out of the closet, throwing the spotlight on a range of issues never debated before. That people in positions of authority and power, whether in the media or elsewhere, are as much susceptible to such behaviour as the ordinary person on the street was a reality that began to sink in. At the same time, the incredulity among sections of the media, the political class and the legal fraternity regarding the veracity of the charge of sexual harassment and assault against their colleagues was baffling. All this and more was happening even as the prime ministerial designate of a leading political party also came under the scanner for having allegedly ordered the surveillance of a young woman.

It is a fact that beyond a cosmetic and cursory acknowledgement that such harassment exists, by and large, most organisations have been reluctant to set up institutional mechanisms for redress despite the existence of Supreme Court guidelines and the notional presence of an Act, which is yet to be notified. The reasons have ranged from lethargy to a lack of understanding of the importance of such mechanisms for women to an irrational fear of the law being misused.

The sensational case of the alleged sexual assault involving Tarun Tejpal, one of the founders and the editor-in-chief of Tehelka, has thrown up a range of issues. It also invoked strong political reactions and protests by leaders and activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who probably felt that Tejpal ought to be punished severely because the magazine had conducted a sting operation in 2001 implicating the then BJP president Bangaru Laxman in a bribery scandal. He was convicted and sentenced in April 2012 for four years.

Political reaction

Even as the BJP held a press conference demanding Tejpal’s immediate arrest and charged him with “rape”, the Congress chose to play it down considerably, focussing more on the revelations of a recent sting operation that had allegedly implicated Narendra Modi and his confidant and former Minister of State for Home Amit Shah for using state apparatus, the Anti-Terrorism Squad specifically, to snoop on a young woman in Ahmedabad. This was, observers felt, nothing less than stalking under the amended Indian Penal Code (IPC) besides being in violation of the Indian Telegraph Act. The Gujarat Police desisted from filing a first information report (FIR) and it merely set up a two-member inquiry committee to look into the matter.

Meanwhile, Tejpal, considered one of the leading lights of sting journalism, found himself in an ineluctable position. He was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting a junior employee twice in the lift of a Goa hotel during a programme organised by the magazine. He subsequently apologised in a letter to the managing editor and co-founder of the magazine for what he felt was a situation that he had grossly misread and misunderstood. His apology, or acceptance of guilt, later turned into defiance.

The complainant, a young journalist, had narrated with deep anguish the details of her ordeal to the managing editor, a woman herself, who often seemed to appear as the voice of the “Left” in certain television programmes. The managing editor felt that an apology was what the complainant desired and, in her wisdom, failed to look at the gravity of the complaint. There was no reason for the complainant, she perhaps reasoned, to feel dissatisfied as Tejpal had expressed serious atonement for his act and had recused himself from chief editorship for six months. Clearly, the act of repentance was not acceptable as the nature of the complaint was serious. And it was not in the hands of Tejpal to punish himself in such a manner; nor was it the mandate of the organisation to decide on this particular course of redress.

A series of emails written by the complainant, who was apparently dissatisfied with the redress mechanism adopted by the managing editor and the initial denial of her request to set up a complaints committee, were leaked to the media. Tejpal’s apology letter itself was a little bit of an apology. And it became clear that the reason for Tejpal’s recusal announced in a letter that was circulated by the managing editor to the employees had been written because the complainant had confided to her colleagues the details of the assault. The matter took a curious turn as Tejpal and a section of the Congress argued that the charge of sexual assault was a “political conspiracy” as the incident had occurred in Goa, a State where the BJP was in government.

With public pressure building up and as more and more emails tumbled out indicating the nature of the assault, the complicity and the cover-up, an FIR seemed inevitable as it was legitimately felt that the complainant’s version and the confession by Tejpal were sufficient for the state to step in, notwithstanding specious arguments for “independent” and “individual agency”.

It also transpired that not only did the magazine not have any internal complaints committee as mandated under the Vishaka guidelines to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, but the managing editor also chose not to set up any committee in the aftermath of the case even though the mandate of the committee could not have included investigating the alleged offender, the principal employer in this case.

The journalist fraternity reacted with a rare solidarity, with senior editors and editorials in various newspapers taking the position that no one was above the law of the land. Four of the complainant’s colleagues resigned in disgust. The managing editor too put in her papers subsequently, probably realising that continuing in that position, where she had been accused of “covering up” for the editor-in-chief, was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and untenable. Her argument that she did exactly what the complainant wanted was not accepted as the complainant herself had expressed dissatisfaction over the course of self-correction and atonement that Tejpal had offered, ostensibly to “settle” the matter.

Some reactions from within the media were disproportionate in apportioning a degree of culpability to the dramatis personae in the episode. The ugly protests organised by a Delhi BJP leader outside the house of the managing editor, even preventing her from leaving her premises, was also condemned by sections of the media fraternity. That the BJP was showing a disproportional interest in the matter raised serious doubts about the party’s own attitude towards women, as it had maintained a stoic silence on the alleged stalking matter. Besides, it was also pointed out that the BJP had never pushed women’s issues actively, including pressing for the notification of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, and the framing of the rules.

Meanwhile, as debates increased on the urgent need to constitute internal committees and local committees as mandated by law, some representatives of other political parties even went to the extent of stating that organisations would cease employing women.

Women employees in the media, however, reacting to the Tejpal episode, pointed out in the course of discussions that such tendencies were widely prevalent within the media. While some Human Resource (HR) professionals Frontline spoke to felt that most internal committees were ill-equipped to deal with sexual harassment cases, some others felt that women employees often fall back to the option of an amicable settlement rather than go in for the punitive provisions of the existing guidelines. Often, many end up settling for a compromise or an apology rather than jeopardise their careers and job prospects like promotions. Many even feel guilty for having complained when they were told of the consequences it may have on the accused and his family.

Besides, women who complain often earn the tag of being “trouble-makers” and are either sidelined or find it difficult to get placements elsewhere. Needless to say, multiple pressures are in operation, including the most important one, that of the precarious nature of the terms of employment that most women find themselves in. The Tehelka complainant too had pointed out in her letter how Tejpal had advised her to cooperate as that was in the best interests of her career.

A senior editor with a reputed television channel told Frontline how she was intimidated by her employers and threatened with legal action for having defamed them as she went public on the social media. The complainant had endured verbal harassment of a sexual nature on the day she went to submit her resignation. Taking justifiable offence at sexually coloured remarks, she took the matter to the top management, urging them to at least set up a proper inquiry committee to investigate her charges of sexual harassment. She maintained that there were other women who had suffered similarly and had quit their jobs in frustration. She was also told by the HR executive that the complaint did not seem plausible as she had been seen interacting “normally” with other colleagues and had even participated in the cutting of a cake.

Similarly, the complaint of the law intern that was posted in a blog alleging sexual harassment from a retired judge of the Supreme Court, who is now the chairperson of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, was received peculiarly by a section of the legal fraternity and the political class. While Subramanian Swamy, who joined the BJP recently, declared that there was no need for A.K. Ganguly, the judge in question, to step down, former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee and former Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir expressed their indignation and disbelief at the charge, indicating that a mere allegation need not necessitate stepping down from the post. The Supreme Court set up an inquiry panel subsequently, the inefficacy of which has been pointed out by observers who feel that the matter was beyond the jurisdiction of the inquiry panel and should be investigated by the police.

Global phenomenon

Sexual harassment at the workplace is a global phenomenon. It exists even where there are laws that protect everyone, including men, from sexual harassment. A survey of employees by a law firm and quoted in The Guardian revealed that one in eight women left their jobs because workplace harassment made them uncomfortable. The same report also said that 40 per cent of men also reported similar experiences of harassment and that 60 per cent of women kept it to themselves. The scarcity of decent employment was one of the reasons for not complaining. Most perpetrators were much older and experienced and were in a position of authority over the complainants.

It is apparent that while grievous forms of crimes against women still continue to a be matter of concern, the so-called milder forms also have severe potential to damage individuals, reflections as they are of unequal relationships at the workplace, made worse by the precarious nature of employment as well.

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