No Negotiation On Women’s Right To A Safe Workplace

Newsletter Jan - Apr 2002

For decades, the autonomous women’s movement has fought a long and bitter struggle against violence on women. Battling to bring issues like rape, wife battering, dowry murders, sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, child sexual abuse, incest, molestation, widow immolation and witch-hunting into the public arena, politicising the issue and consistently campaigning through protests and action. Although sexual harassment at the workplace has also been an age-old problem, for long women have dealt with it on their own, or sometimes with the support of colleagues, friends, family or women’s groups.

When the Supreme Court Guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace came into being in 1997, they drew considerable attention from women’s groups, the media and the public. The judgement was a vindication of the struggle to get sexual harassment at the workplace the attention it deserves. It provided visibility to a problem that had until then, been trivialised, negated or ignored. But, experience with legal measures in various campaigns, especially those related to violence against women, has taught women’s groups like Saheli caution. Struggles for legal reform have always been ridden with contradictions: the best of laws lose their teeth in implementation, and are often easily subverted due to the lack of political will, biases in the police and judicial system, or the absence of change in social attitudes and prejudice.

Every women’s group dealing with issues of violence also knows that each case throws up new questions and challenges, and as new aspects of the problem surface, we are confronted with the specific pressures that operate in each working environment. Although Saheli does not handle individual cases of women in distress any more, we found ourselves getting increasingly drawn in to help at least some of the women who came to us with complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace. In this process, we have taken up some cases at various levels, and adopted a range of strategies – some of which have already been written about in earlier issues of our newsletter.1 In doing so, we have tried to help some women negotiate within their places of work, affirm their struggles against such violence, support their courage to speak, and validate their struggle, for them and their co-workers.

In June 2000, when we were approached with a complaint of sexual harassment by a lawyer working in an NGO, we believed that the specific dimensions of the case, the stature and reputation of the accused, and the nature of the NGO sector made it essential for us to extend our solidarity to her. This is a case where the accused is a prominent public personality occupying a significant position of power in both, the legal fraternity as well as within ‘progressive circles’. Moreover, he is the founder-trustee and Director of an organisation which has as its Board of Trustees an eminent panel that is reputed in the field of civil liberties and enjoys considerable credibility in various social movements as legal experts. Yet, with utter disregard for the law on sexual harassment at the workplace, the Board unanimously rallied around its Director, giving him a clean chit and declaring that ‘the charges were unsubstantiated’. Their actions have once again demonstrated that peoples’ professed beliefs in equality and liberal values do not necessarily include a woman’s right to a safe and dignified workspace, free from sexual harassment. This crucial contradiction gives us the impetus to share our experience with others.

We are presenting here, the many aspects of the case, contentious issues that arose relating to the definition of the crime itself and the nature of ‘proof’ available, the gross misuse of power and ‘respectability’, the lack of accountability of the NGO sector, and the absence of any redressal mechanisms for women lawyers who experience sexual harassment at the workplace. At the same time, we would also like to share with you some of the pressures experienced by both, the woman and Saheli while handling this case, and the implications we believe that such a case has for thousands of women working in the NGO sector, and those trying to support their battle against injustice.

The case in brief

Tara (not her real name) is a lawyer, who had been working at Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre (PILSARC), Delhi, as a researcher since August 1999. A Trust set up in 1987 to “provide legal advice, litigation and research support to activists and social action groups in India”, PILSARC has, at the helm of its affairs Dr Rajeev Dhavan as Director, who is a well known Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court who has always espoused the cause of secularism and human rights. Tara was compelled to leave her job in May 2000, not only because of the sexual harassment she was subjected to by the Director but also because once she spurned his advances, she was professionally victimised by him, to the point where it became impossible for her to continue to work at PILSARC.

According to Tara, from the beginning Rajeev Dhavan indulged in unwelcome sexually coloured remarks, asking her intimate questions about her private life, passing remarks about her physical appearance and even making suggestions about the clothes she should wear. He would frequently summon her to his office on the pretext of work. But very soon, the conversation would deteriorate and he would make verbal sexual advances and sexually coloured remarks to her. He would brush aside her protests by saying that they would not be able to work as a team unless she interacted closely with him and they both got to know each other well. Despite her protests, he would give lurid and sexually explicit details of his relationships both past and present with women..

In the first few months of her employment at PILSARC, the Director was very pleased with her work and at the weekly meetings publicly appreciated her work. However once she had categorically objected to his conduct and rebuffed his sexual advances, his behaviour changed dramatically. He would ridicule her work and humiliate her in the presence of colleagues and the staff members even during weekly meetings. He discriminated against her by allotting projects to her and then arbitrarily withdrawing the work. His conduct caused her immense mental trauma and ill health, diagnosed as symptoms of stress. He continued to harass her and made the environment so hostile for her that she had no other option but to leave PILSARC. Time and again, Tara attempted to dissuade the Director’s sexual advances but there was no avenue through which she could formally make a complaint or seek redressal within PILSARC. She then came to Saheli to try and get justice for what she had undergone, and make public the real face of the Director, and to warn other women in the hope that they could be saved from the trauma she had been subjected to in the workplace.

Both sides explore multiple courses of action.

As soon as Tara contacted Saheli for support, she was approached by various people associated with PILSARC. Professionally, she was warned that such a step would be harmful for her career, and on the personal front, pressure was exerted on her family to prevent her from pursuing the case. At the same time, an activist lawyer who had been working at PILSARC (and who also resigned because of this case) was also impressed upon to not let this issue be blown out of proportion.

Yet Tara was determined to go on. So together we explored several courses of action. We considered possibilities of seeking legal remedy. We addressed the need to break the silence on the issue in the public arena, especially within social action groups where the Director enjoys an immense reputation and stature. And we realised that one of the main challenges of this case would be to try and establish its credibility, and even more than that, to get progressive groups and individuals to take a firm stand on the issue. Hence, the first step we took was to bring this case of sexual harassment at PILSARC out into the open at the National Conference Against Death Penalty held in New Delhi on 22 July 2000, where Rajeev Dhavan was scheduled to be a speaker. Among those attending was the Chairperson of the Advisory Board of PILSARC, Justice Krishna Iyer who encouraged Saheli to take the issue up with the Chairman of PILSARC, Mr Govind Narain.

Saheli wrote to Mr Govind Narain, Justice Krishna Iyer and the entire Board of Directors of PILSARC comprising Justice Janaki Amma, former Justice of the Kerala High Court, Prof. S P Sathe, Former Principal, ILS Law College, Pune, Prof. Alice Jacob, former head of Indian Law Institute, Prof. Satish Dhawan, Professor Emeritus, Department of Space, and R. Sudarshan, Sr. Economist, United Nations Development Programme, and in addition, the funding agencies of PILSARC, informing them of the seriousness of the complaint and urging them to take appropriate action. But there was no response from any quarter.

The only ‘action’ that can be said to have been taken at PILSARC was that both, Tara and the lawyer who had resigned in her support were called for ‘an informal chat’ by the Chairman, Mr Govind Narain during which many issues relating to the functioning of PILSARC were discussed in addition to Tara’s complaint. While Mr Govind Narain seemed sympathetic to Tara’s complaint, this was again followed by a long period of silence from PILSARC.

Meanwhile, everything was not quiet on the unofficial front. Saheli received numerous indirect messages that the Director was willing to apologise to Tara, but Tara’s expectation was clear. Rajeev Dhavan should apologise in writing and resign from his post as Director, PILSARC - a demand that she had also placed before Mr Govind Narain.

The Board of Trustees : Not acting above board

While these negotiations were on, Saheli learnt that a meeting of the Board of Trustees of PILSARC had suddenly been called in New Delhi on 29 August, 2000. But despite repeated requests, Saheli was denied the opportunity to present Tara’s case to the Board. Hence, we were compelled to contact most members of the Board individually to apprise them of the case and urge them to take immediate action. But their collective reluctance to address the real issues was apparent.

Despite their eminence and experience, each of the members consistently passed us on to others on the Board. Mr Govind Narain insisted that this was a private matter of PILSARC, and that our role ended with having brought the case to their notice. This is in itself ironical since PILSARC and its director are demanding transparency and accountability of the government, courts, etc. in many matters. Instead of being concerned about a woman traumatised and compelled to leave her job due to sexual harassment at the workplace, the prime concern expressed by most Board members to Saheli was “What will happen to PILSARC if any action is taken against Rajeev Dhavan?” And contrary to all norms of justice, the Board did not to allow the complainant Tara to present her case at the meeting of 29 August (despite the fact that she had repeatedly expressed her willingness to do so), choosing instead to give an opportunity only to the accused Director.

Meanwhile several progressive groups and individuals joined Saheli to express serious concern on the case and demanded the resignation of Rajeev Dhavan from PILSARC. Among these were Jagori, Action India, Forum Against Sexual Harassment (DU), Forum Against Oppression of Women (Mumbai), Gender Studies Forum (JNU), Campaign for Lesbian Rights, Nari Samata Manch (Pune), Ankur, Sabrang (Bangalore), People’s Union for Democratic Rights [PUDR], People’s Union for Civil Liberties [PUCL], Delhi Science Forum, Lok Dasta, Forum for Democratic Struggle, Nirman Majdoor Panchayat Sangham, Workers Solidarity, All India Federation of Trade Unions, Hind Mazdoor Sabha, Action Aid, Kolar Gold Fields People’s Movement, KGF Supervisors Association, Green Peace International and The Other Media, professors from Delhi University, JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia, advocates, journalists, activists, lawyers, film makers and others. This appeal was accompanied by a joint letter from All India Democratic Women’s Association and National Federation of Indian Women stating that ideally Rajeev Dhavan should have resigned from his post as Director on moral grounds, but since he has failed to do so, the Board of Trustees should institute a committee of inquiry as per the Supreme Court Guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace.

Three weeks after the meeting of the Board of Trustees, Saheli received a “Summary Statement” reporting the result of certain investigations having been conducted “in camera”. This is a clear misrepresentation of the facts. Treating Tara’s meeting with Mr Govind Narain as a formal enquiry proceeding and presenting ‘the findings of this one-man committee’ as conclusive is to blatantly whitewash the reality that PILSARC has failed to conform to the law on sexual harassment at the workplace. The letter also cited Saheli’s informal meetings with him and (some of) the other board members as part of the inquiry proceedings, stating further that “a credible case of sexual harassment” by Dr. Dhavan could not be made out on the basis of “these findings”.

Legal trust disregards the law, ignores ethics.

We all know that marginalised sections of society, including women, are rarely able to take full advantage of legal mechanisms because the whole system is weighted against them. But the Board of PILSARC didn’t even give Tara a chance to fight that battle. Not only was their insensitivity to her case shocking and their attempts to protect their friend and colleague blatant, it must be emphasised that they have failed to fulfil the minimal requirements of the law on sexual harassment at the workplace. The least any workplace is expected to do (not to mention, one which has on the Board some of the most respected names in the field of law) is to set up a complaints committee that includes at least one woman and an independent third party. Yet, PILSARC failed to do even this much. It is amazing that an NGO set up with the express objective of supporting public interest litigation in India, has behaved as though the writ of the Supreme Court does not run at PILSARC.

Ethically, the conduct of the Board has been equally reprehensible. Personalities like Justice Krishna Iyer, Justice Janaki Amma, Prof. S P Sathe, and Prof. Alice Jacob have failed to live up to the values we have heard them propound. Instead of trying to support a woman who, at the risk of her career has dared to voice the harassment inflicted upon her by a senior lawyer with a long history of such complaints (see later), some of them argued that Saheli had pre-judged the Director. Yet it is they who pre-judged Tara, refused to meet her or allow her to present her case, and chose instead to rally around an old associate, who by their own admission, they have each known for a long time. In doing so, they have actively protected an influential man, rather than safeguard the interests of the woman who has dared to speak out against all odds. And in defying the law with such impunity, Rajeev Dhavan has behaved as though “some people” are above the law.

Despite all the clichés we heard about PILSARC’s commitment to women’s issues, it is clear that the Board did not stop to consider how much it takes for a woman like Tara to speak out against her Director. To accuse a woman post-facto, of not having ‘proof’ is in itself a failure to understand the nature of sexual harassment. To ignore the appeal of more than 80 social action groups and reputed individuals and counter it with the claim that ‘17 members of PILSARC’ expressed unstinting support for Rajeev Dhavan, is to wilfully overlook the fact that any such expression of loyalty needs to be seen within the complex power equation within the organisation, where the accused is not just the employer, he is an influential person in the profession and the individual on whom the future of the organisation rests.

Mis-information is power.

When Saheli took up the case, we were aware that, as in every case of violence on women, we would have to struggle to help Tara establish her case. Additionally, we knew that we would have to confront the public image of Rajeev Dhavan, his credibility and power. Yet, we had not anticipated blatant manipulation of facts, and a concerted campaign of misinformation engineered to try and protect him. For instance, soon after the case became public, there was talk of how this whole issue was a matter of cultural mismatch wherein Tara, a small town girl had ‘misread Rajeev Dhavan’s behaviour’. When we took legal advice from lawyers, Tara and Saheli were portrayed as puppets caught in the midst of professional rivalry among senior advocates. And when we brought up the fact that Rajeev Dhavan had professionally victimised Tara after she spurned his advances, it was said that he is an exacting task master who was merely reacting to her professional incompetence. As is standard in most cases of sexual harassment at the workplace, the issue was sought to be portrayed as a disgruntled worker seeking revenge –the issue was deflected on to whether or not Tara was a competent worker, and that dissatisfaction or ‘losing temper’ on the part of the Director was being misconstrued as sexual harassment.

Simultaneously, an absolute silence was maintained on issues they just could not deny or defend : that the Director had in fact acknowledged his crime when he offered to apologise to Tara and that following similar complaints, the National Law Schools in Bangalore and ….in Hyderabad, have stopped sending women interns to PILSARC. It should be pointed out here that as Saheli proceeded with the case, we got to know about other women who had left PILSARC because they were unable to tolerate sexual harassment by Rajeev Dhavan, but since they were hesitant to go public about their experiences, we did not include it in our formal complaint.

Subverting the struggle vs. lending solidarity.

It is clear that the reputation and stature of the accused was blurring issues for some in the progressive circuit. Concern was expressed about the veracity of the case. We were urged to meet Rajeev Dhavan in person, as though approaching the Board of Trustees was not enough adherence to due process. Many wanted to be convinced that this was not the only case of sexual harassment that had come up against the Director.

All through the campaign, there was pressure from some liberals not to expose this case to a wider public. Both, Tara and Saheli were repeatedly called upon to consider the consequences of any action on ‘his NGO and the valuable work it is doing’. This is typically the kind of ‘sacrifice to the larger cause’ always expected from women and women’s groups. But we believe that men associated with wider struggles must bear the onus of conducting themselves in a manner that corresponds with the causes they espouse. In fact, this case has also raised the crucial question of how the word ‘progressive’ is defined, and whether it can ever be complete without a commitment to the women’s question.

For the numerous organisations and individuals who supported Tara’s struggle, both in writing and in spirit, it was clear that Rajeev Dhavan, like all men accused of sexual harassment at the workplace, must face the due process of law. And our challenge to such behaviour cannot stop short because of Rajeev Dhavan’s position of privilege. At another meeting at the India Habitat Centre on ‘State Responses to Individual Blackmail: Ethics, Legalities and Compulsions’ held on the 31 October, 2000, where Rajeev Dhavan was again scheduled to be speaker, Saheli was joined by members of some organisations in distributing a public statement and intervening in the discussion to assert that ethics, legalities and values expounded on such platforms must find reflection in personal and professional lives of all participants, especially the speakers. As in the earlier public meeting, Rajeev Dhavan chose not to face us.

At the same time, some groups like Communalism Combat and Hazards Desk ?? which had entrusted public interest cases to PILSARC, withdrew their cases in protest, and some individuals have now refused to share a platform with Rajeev Dhavan. We believe that such actions are a step towards greater public accountability and an unequivocal statement that all forms of violence on women including sexual harassment at the workplace are unacceptable.

NGO functioning: Time for public accountability.

The manner in which the Board of PILSARC has acted with utter disregard for the law is a reflection of how many NGOs function outside any framework of accountability. Contract assignments, low-paid salaries, arbitrary dismissals and unfair labour practices are the norm of NGO functioning in the garb of ‘flexibility’ and ‘informality’. And as the State withdraws from many fields and NGOs enter them, the rights of NGO workers are becoming an issue of greater concern. Despite the growing incidence of sexual harassment of women employees, those at the helm of affairs continue to ignore this menace and often are the perpetrators of such crimes. Ironically, a sector that aims to represent and be committed to the rights of others has not broken ground on issues of its own accountability, evolved systems to address issues of conflict, or created mechanisms to provide redress in instances of exploitation.

Like countless other NGOs, or in fact, many lawyer’s chambers, the atmosphere within PILSARC was not conducive for Tara or anyone else to speak against the Director. Ironically, within an organisation working to raise legal issues of democratic rights, there was no forum to bring up her complaint. Moreover, as the recent suicide of the lawyer Sangeeta Sharma in Andhra Pradesh has amply demonstrated, there is a complete absence of redressal mechanisms within the legal community so women lawyers have absolutely no forum to which they can take any of their complaints, including those of sexual harassment at the workplace. Consequently, Saheli addressed these concerns to the National Human Rights Commission, The Bar Council of India and the Supreme Court Bar Association, and impressed upon them the urgent need to set up redressal mechanisms. But more than six months later, we are yet to receive any response.

The real challenge in fighting sexual harassment at the workplace.

In many ways, Tara’s case has been similar to the struggle of most women who have dared to speak out against sexual harassment at the workplace, and yet her case has opened up many areas of debate, controversy and challenge. And amid the pulls and tensions of the case, it has been sometimes been difficult to keep track of what we have and have not achieved.

This case has forced to Board of PILSARC to re-look at several organisational issues within the organisation. Apparently, some steps have been to try and ‘neutralise’ Rajeev Dhavan’s power within PILSARC. For instance, it is being said that a second rung of leadership is being set up to make PILSARC less individual-centred; it has now been stipulated that PILSARC employees will no longer be expected to go Rajeev Dhavan’s personal office (as was a regular practice until now); and a Complaints Committee now has been set up within PILSARC, (although for reasons beyond our comprehension, it will not look into Tara’s case). However, it remains to be seen whether any of these measures can restrain a man such as Rajeev Dhavan. Equally, we believe that such ‘steps’ have been face-saving manoeuvres because the manner in which Tara’s case was handled, the use of lobbying, misinformation and polarised loyalties is bound to have a long-lasting impact on the present and future equations within PILSARC. They raise grave doubts about whether employees will ever stand up to use these mechanisms, or ever again raise issues of gender justice within the organisation.

Despite PILSARC’s refusal to acknowledge the crime, we managed to establish Tara’s case credibly, to create an awareness of the case in the male-dominated legal profession, to get many progressive groups and individuals to take a stand on the issue against a known and eminent personality, and to make public Rajeev Dhavan’s objectionable conduct with women.

From Bill Clinton to KPS Gill to S.C. Bhatia of Delhi University, men in positions of power have often abused it through the sexual exploitation of women colleagues and subordinates. In this context, the Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace that require the ‘employer’ to institute an inquiry into such cases seem nothing short of a farce, especially in numerous corporations, institutions, NGOs, etc that run like little fiefdoms, especially since there is ample evidence that a substantial percentage of sexual harassment cases are by men in positions of power. Hence, handing over the responsibility for creating a safe working environment to the employer, is much like expecting the head of the family to solve problems of domestic violence or dowry, an expectation which is contrary to the very nature of such crimes.

On one hand, the Supreme Court Guidelines may have provided visibility to the problem of sexual harassment at the workplace but they draw us into a vortex of legalese. Yet, despite our reservations about what legal mechanisms can do for marginalised sections including women, we believe that the only means of ensuring that the law, like any other institution of democracy, functions to affirm democracy is by subjecting it to intense and persistent public scrutiny. And unless we complement that struggle with attempts to create public accountability, there can be little hope to make corporations, companies, factories, professional fraternities, NGOs safe for working women. We need to be cautious that protest is not replaced by applications and petitions. We need to focus on creating awareness, and visibility to the problem. We need to find ways to support women and the strategies they use to survive and protect themselves. Clearly, the need of the hour is for a public boycott of men like Rajeev Dhavan and strong support for women who dare to expose them.

1Previous articles on sexual harassment at the workplace in our newsletter include one on the Supreme Court Guidelines, a report of a Saheli survey titled Another Occupational Hazard, a case study of a woman working in an electronics factory, and a report of the development and performances of our play on the issue titled Mahaul Badalna Hai - the script of which is now available for Rs. 30/- only (including postage costs).