Recently, Hon’ble Justice Asha Menon of Delhi High Court delivered a judgement concerning sexual harassment at workplace, also dwelling on the seriousness of the issue.
The appellant was an Assistant Director of Finance and the respondent, Verma was a Deputy Director with ESI Hospital at Gurgaon. Allegedly, the appellant was being subjected to sexual harassment repeatedly by the respondent by passing lewd comments and sexual advances in front of other employees.
After a similar incident on 7th July 2011, she made a written complaint the following day. Accordingly, an Internal Complaints Committee was constituted. The Committee submitted a report in January 2012 stating that the incident of 7th July did happen.
However, other incidents could not be established in the absence of substantive evidence as there were no direct witnesses. Thus, the benefit of the doubt was given to Verma and immediate relocation of both parties was ordered.
A writ in 2012 was filed, upon which in 2019 the learned Single Judge held that the written complaint from 2011 appeared to be false, due to the petitioner not being able to recollect any witnesses and none supported her allegations. She did not disclose the comments made by the respondent, neither to the committee nor to the court. Thus, the writ was found to be filed with an ulterior motive behind it, exemplary costs were imposed and liberty was granted to the respondent to initiate action against her for filing a false complaint.
Feeling aggrieved an appeal was filed before the Division Bench seeking an independent departmental inquiry and criminal prosecution against Verma.
The counsel for the Appellant:
- Pointing to the report of the committee stated that the respondent had accepted the incident and his comments made on 7th July 2011. However, the only reason benefit was given to him was him stating that his words had been “misunderstood”. He also did not question relocation.
- The report justified the complaint but could not recommend serious action as for the absence of corroborative evidence; yet found that his presence in the workplace harmed the working environment thus recommended relocation. Also, relocation of the victim was uncertain as no one had alleged misconduct on her part.
Decision of the Court:
The court set aside the impugned judgement, by stating the following:
- The report showed that the respondent indeed had been misbehaving by making statements with sexual overtones.
- Even if she was subjected to penalties, there was nothing to show that the respondent was targeted by her by filing a complaint of sexual harassment. The learned single judge may have relied on the penalties and thus gave his decision.
- Since the respondent has already retired five years ago, there was no merit in directing independent inquiry against him. For the criminal prosecution, the appellant could have done so any time from the occurrence of the incident and since such was not done, a criminal prosecution would be unfair.
Sexual Harassment at Workplace: A serious issue
Before parting, the court stated that Sexual Harassment at Workplace was a serious issue and must be addressed at all workplaces urgently and sensitively.
“Women are valuable human resources. Their contribution in all spheres of life can never be belittled, whether at the home and hearth or away from it, in more impersonal office spaces. In either sphere, they are entitled to a congenial and dignified environment to live their life fully and attain their full potentiality.”
Gender-conditioning is a serious issue, which a woman doubts her capacity and this starts very early in life. “It is impossible not to notice all around us, how easily the “common woman” is put down by the “common man”. Less said the better of what happens to the Third Gender!”
The Hon’ble Judge further stated that such gender conditioning leads to severe ill-treatment of women. Every institution and organization must not tolerate gender insensitivity. The general public and especially women must be made aware of resources available to them through the law. This will not only empower women but also safeguard men in cases where there are false allegations made.
It is also very important to have internal complaint committees that will provide a safe, confident and unbiased environment. The absence of eyewitnesses cannot reduce from the truthfulness of the complainant. There must be some sensitivity shown by it while recommending action, keeping in mind the dignity of the complainant.
Lastly, one must be conscious of their verbal impact regardless of whom they are speaking to. “Greater understanding leads to greater mutual regard and respect and greater harmony leads to greater efficiency and productivity, ensuring to the benefit of all.”
Story by Sai Kulkarni- Intern