The politics of workplace sexual harassment has been subject to heated debates over the last few days across news outlets and social media in the wake of a series of allegations against Arunabh Kumar, Co-Founder of digital media powerhouse, The Viral Fever (TVF). The back-and-forth between the accusers and the accused and his company has been enlightening, to say the least, if only to judge male ego in a professional space and the attitude of individuals regarding workplace harassment, prevention and redressal. Not to mention the complete lack of proper information regarding Indian law.
In a society so deeply patriarchal, it’s shameful but not surprising that India has a long, grim record when it comes to workplace sexual harassment. And it’s not limited to any particular section of society either. This is a widespread phenomenon existing right from startup culture to hot-shot MNCs; the media industry to lawyers, consultants, social workers and less pervasively, but still as frequently for labour workers as well. No matter the space or the occasion, the fundamental right to work in a secure environment is denied to women on countless occasions.
Arunabh Kumar is the latest in a string of high-powered individuals being called out for ‘inappropriate’ workplace behaviour, to put it lightly. For many, his case is painfully reminiscent of the case against Manik Katyal in 2015. Numerous women spoke out against the Editor-in-Chief of photography magazine Emaho - there’s even an entire blog called ‘I was harassed by Manik Katyal’ where women, some anonymously, have shared their personal experiences and interactions - who in turn slapped defamation cases against 36 people. The similarities include a tightly-knit community (photography in one, media in another) a shocking volume of accusations post the first, and in both cases—there were whispers of such behaviour about both individuals for a long time before things came to a head. It sounds absurd but this is the reality that countless women across the country face on a regular basis, even with The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, in place - which we will abbreviate to SHWW - which was laid down following the horrific 2013 Delhi gang rape and murder case.
Law Of The Land: The Indian Penal Code & Vishaka Guidelines
SHWW was built upon the Vishaka Guidelines, a landmark case when it comes to the women’s movement for freedom and equality - the first real step towards protecting working women. The judgement came about following the filing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by Vishaka, an NGO, along with other women’s rights groups in the Supreme Court, following the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi in 1992, Rajasthan. Bhanwari Devi was a social worker, in Bhateri, who fought to put an end to child marriage in her village and was sexually assaulted by a group of upper caste men who were angered by the ‘audacity of a Dalit woman’ to challenge them. Trial court judgement let off the five accused as not guilty.
Vishaka’s PIL set the stage for the Supreme Court to provide the first, basic definition of sexual harassment at the workplace as well as all employer’s responsibility when it comes to dealing with related complaints of assault. The Guidelines state that a committee must be formed to address all victim’s complaints. It was, unfortunately, Bhanwari Devi’s experience that brought to the attention, specially that of the government and Supreme court the “absence of domestic law occupying the field, to formulate effective measures to check the evil of sexual harassment of working women at all work places,” as stated in the judgement.
Career Concerns Or Fear Of Embarrassment - Why Do Women Sweep It Under The Rug?
As put forth by Singh & Associates, SHWW proposes the definition of sexual harassment as “any unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication) such as physical contact and advances, demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.”
SHWW calls for the setup of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in organisations with 10 or more employees to address cases of harassment, with an equal number of women as committee members. Yet, according to a survey conducted by the Indian Bar Association this year, of the 6,047 participants - both women and men - 38 percent said they had experienced harassment at work out of which 69 percent did not report it, and 70 percent of the women, fearing the consequences, didn’t report any advances by their superiors.
A cloud of shame and silencing has always loomed over women, especially, when it comes to addressing any kind of harassment, violence, assault, and rape in India. Whether it’s fear of ‘dishonour’ or character assassination, more so for the family than the female victim in question, it’s unsurprising that women choose not to speak up more often. Still, as more and more women step out and voice their experiences, it’s becoming clear that creating a collective effort to speak out may spark tangible changes at different levels of society.
Arunabh Kumar and Manik Katyal’s cases are two we can objectively say have impacted the dialogue around the issue. In that vein, we look at some of the landmark cases that have created waves and changed attitudes when it comes to the recognition, addressal and mindset of people in instances of workplace harassment.
I. Tarun Tejpal (2013)
This was perhaps one of the most discussed and, well, popular cases that caused waves across the country purely due to the status of the person accused. Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka magazine stepped down from his position when he was accused by a young female colleague of sexual assault. With video footage, email chains, inconsistencies in statements and Tejpal’s acceptance of the sexual relation while maintaining his position on consensual nature of it all, the trial is yet to begin, although he was granted bail and the victim remains anonymous.
II. RK Pachauri (2015)
Former Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), RK Pachauri was accused by multiple female employees of sexual harassment, ending a three-decade long career leading the climate think-tank. On February, 2015, a 29-year-old research analyst filed an FIR against Pachauri for sexual harassment and criminal intimidation, that began in 2013 - the 33-page-long complaint held examples in the form of physical advances made by Pachauri, inappropriate and lewd Whatsapp messages and emails. A week after the first complaint was filed, another woman spoke up with similar allegations.
While Pachauri alleged that his computer and phone were hacked, TERI’s ICC found him guilty of harassment.
You can view an entire timeline of events regarding the case here.
III. Supreme Court Judge A K Ganguly
In December 2013, a law intern accused Justice Ganguly sexual harassment and inappropriate advances at a hotel in New Delhi. A tell-all blog post published by the victim went viral, leading to the formation of a committee of three Supreme Court judges to look into the matter for the facts amidst the media hype. The panel found true the allegations of “unwelcome behaviour” and “conduct of sexual nature”, leading to his resignation and stepping down as the head of the West Bengal Human Rights commission in 2014.
IV. Greenpeace (2013)
In 2015, a former female employee of the NGO stated that she was forced to leave her position due to harassment and rape by a colleague. Even having complained to the HR department, action against the offender was not taken, although more women accused the same person of misbehaviour, and when no action was taken, they too quit their job. A member of Greenpeace’s ICC spoke to Times of India in 2015, stating that any suggestion by the committee to remove the serial offender from their post was overturned by the Executive Director of the organisation.
It is said that following the media coverage and growing dissent in the organisation and among ex-employees, the accused put in his papers on his own. Greenpeace’s severe lax in responsible action and redressal drew heavy criticism from the media and activists.
Click here to read more about the case and Greenpeace’s action, or rather, inaction.
V. Mahesh Murthy (2017)
While setting up her own startup, Wamika Iyer, Founder of FrshDay.in, turned to renowned venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy for funding, guidance and mentorship. The conversation turned from business to uncomfortable pretty quick and the entrepreneur spoke out regarding the implicit nature of the conversation with Murthy following a post by fellow entrepreneur, Pooja Chauhan, Co-Founder of Vayuz, on her LinkedIn page that made public a similar conversation with the investor.
YourStory reached out to Wamika who told the publication that the “conversation had taken place a year ago and at that time she had reached out to various media platforms to ‘expose’ Murthy. ‘No one responded to my plea then. I can understand that he is a powerful man and has a lot of influence,’” she said.
Click here to read more about the entire incident.
VI. Phaneesh Murthy (2002)
Rising IT start Phaneesh Murthy was fired from his position at Infosys after a lawsuit was filed by his former executive secretary Reka Maximovitch, followed by another complaint of similar nature by Jennifer Griffith. A multi-million dollar out of court settlement was made, although Murthy continuously opposed all accusations.
In 2013, Murthy was terminated from his position as President and CEO of iGate following an investigation into his unreported relationship with a subordinate as well as a complaint of sexual harassment.
It takes one woman’s voice to break the dam of misconduct and such has been the case in multiple instances of sexual harassment allegations across the country. In many instances, when senior officials and management attempt to save face for the company and hush up complaints, it’s no surprise that more and more women have started to turn to social media for any kind of justice, even if it’s to apply pressure, by the media and the public, on organisations to take proper action. In many situations, it’s the lack of implementation of Vishaka Guidelines in terms of setting up of an Internal Complaints Committee, or the lack of knowledge on how exactly to go about dealing with such complaints in appropriate methods.
Before you jump the gun, know that sexual harassment at offices is not limited to women, although it is women who have been victims in most public cases. Regardless, we are not positing that such guidelines and laws haven’t been abused and misused by female employees, nor is it impossible for men to be sexually harassed either.
We’re posting below important guidelines, handbooks and other information resources related to sexual harassment at the workplace and the proper manner to address, avoid, and redress such complaints. It’s important for all people, regardless of their gender identity, to go through such information. Make sure that, as employers, you are responsibly creating and maintaining a safe work environment, and as employees, you are aware of your rights, the laws and the importance of speaking out. As time has passed, the law, acts and norms are not sufficient to deal with the growing incidents of harassment. More legislation and clearer rules are the need of the hour, in both the organised corporate sector as well as private organisations and unorganised sector. Till then, this is what we need to familiarise ourselves with.
Vishaka Guidelines |The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act | Handbook on Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (for Employers/Institutions/Organisations/Internal Complaints Committee/Local Complaints Committee) | Compliance Checklist For Employers | Formation of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) | Sexual Harassment At Work: A Guide For Working Women On Using The Law