Tehelka Case Shows India Takes Little Notice Of New Law Against Workplace Sexual Harassment

 @AmruthaGayathri on November 25 2013 7:05 AM
  • Tehelka
    Indian hairdresser Shivarama Bhandary (L) designs a new hairstyle that says "Tehelka" for his client in Bombay on March 21,2001. Reuters
  • Tejpal_Protest
    Activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), linked to India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), holding posters of Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief of India's leading investigative magazine, shout slogans as police try to stop them during a protest in New Delhi on Nov. 22, 2013. Reuters
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Tarun Tejpal, the firebrand founding editor of Tehelka, a magazine famous for investigative reporting, has been caught in the middle of a nationwide outcry after stepping down temporarily over a colleague’s complaint that he sexually assaulted her on two occasions.

The senior leadership of the publication, which gained popularity running high-profile exposés targeting the country’s top politicians and business leaders, has also drawn criticism for its decision to allow the founder to “atone” for his actions for six months.

"A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for... I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further," Tejpal wrote in an email to Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka’s managing editor.

Tejpal, who stepped down last week, has not been arrested though police in the western state of Goa, where the alleged incident occurred at a media convention attended by celebrities and newsmakers from around the world, have pressed rape charges against Tejpal.

Chaudhury admitted last week, in an interview with Wall Street Journal, that the magazine -- which actively covered the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in the national capital of New Delhi in December 2012 -- was not equipped to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, and that it lacked an official process to address the issue, as mandated by a set of Supreme Court guidelines and a law enacted in April 2013.

Law  Of The Land

It has been more than six months since India adopted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill 2013 to address workplace harassment, amid a countrywide uproar demanding action after the Delhi gang rape and the victim’s death, which attracted the attention of the world’s media.

But, the rules specified under the legislation have not come into effect, pending an official notification, and lacks effective mechanisms to enforce it, such as a central database to register the number of complaints received.

Ironically, India’s apex court, which laid down the initial guidelines against workplace harassment back in 1997, drew criticism this November for the lack of its enforcement, after Stella James, a law graduate, described her experience working as an intern for a recently-retired Supreme Court judge.

James, in a blog post, claimed she was sexually assaulted at her workplace in New Delhi, around the time when the city was swept up by protests over the gang rape. It was only after her blog post -- published online by the Kolkata-based Journal of Indian Law and Society – came under the glare of the local media that the Supreme Court instituted a three-judge committee to look into James’ allegation.

A week after James’ complaint, another law intern accused the same judge of sexual harassment charges.

“Five years of law school had taught me to look to the law for all solutions – even where I knew that the law was hopelessly inadequate – and my reluctance to wage a legal battle against the judge left me feeling cowardly,” James wrote.

“As a conditioned member of the society, I had quickly “gotten over” the incident. But was that what worried me: that I had accepted what was essentially an ‘unacceptable’ situation.”

To Complain Or Not To Complain

The law’s merits were questioned in October too, when three female employees of India’s state-owned broadcaster, Prasar Bharati, leveled sexual harassment charges against a senior official in Doordarshan, the television network division of Prasar Bharati.

Notably, the women came forward only after the accused was suspended earlier in the same month on similar charges raised by another employee. The three women claimed they were too afraid to file a complaint earlier and were unaware of protective laws at the network.

“While the new law has already been enacted, there is lack of clarity on the effective date,” Veena Gopalakrishnan, a senior member of the Employment Law Practice at Nishith Desai Associates, a legal and tax consulting firm based in Mumbai, told International Business Times.

“It appears that the government is in the process of framing the rules to the new law. Once the rules are finalized, the new law is expected to be made effective.”

There also are some examples of employers being proactive in addressing such complaints although such instances are rare, experts say.

“My company provided emotional support by providing me leave with pay, during entire period of investigation,” a software engineer in Bangalore, who raised a sexual harassment claim against a colleague, told IBTimes, declining to identify her employer.

Anecdotal evidence aside, women’s rights activists say women continue to be deterred by the prospect of unpleasant consequences to their careers stemming from harassment complaints.

“In the private sector, including multinational companies, women continue to be victimized and blacklisted in the employment market,” Sonya Gill, secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association in the western state of Maharashtra, told IBTimes.

“They are relieved of their posts and their work records are withheld, quashing their prospects to find another job. For women, it’s very complicated and confusing to raise a complaint about sexual harassment.”

In 2006, an accountant at KPMG, one of the Big Four auditing companies, was fired after allegedly claiming that she was sexually harassed in her office.

As the case attracted media attention after the complainant was fired, the company constituted an internal committee to address sexual harassment complaints. However, the woman reportedly refused to appear before the committee stating that because her services were terminated, the committee did not have the authority to investigate her allegation.

Are State-Run Companies Better Than Private Corporations

Female employees and rights activists provide differing perspectives on the workplace dynamics of private-sector and public-sector companies.

“I think the situation is better in the case of PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings) where women can bring the issue to the notice of a senior employee, in most cases the head of their department. In PSUs, people know who they can approach with such a complaint,” Gill said.

Nevertheless, recent incidents show that government-run organizations can also be apathetic to women’s rights.

The state-run Prasar Bharti waited until Nov. 1 -- weeks after several women employees in Doordarshan and another one of its constituent organization, All India Radio, or AIR, raised sexual harassment complaints -- to issue a circular to review existing procedures “in the light of provisions” of the new law. The circular directed both Doordarshan and AIR to “give wide publicity among the employees” about the issue.

India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting set up an internal complaints committee, also in November, six months after such a committee was mandated by the new legislation. The committee was constituted to address a string of complaints at state-run media companies in October.

“There is also a lot of confusion, especially among state governments, on whether the law can be implemented without the central government notifying the rules,” Anagha Sarpotdar, a doctoral scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, in Mumbai, told IBTimes. “But, organizations need to start implementing the law as much as possible,”

According to Sarpotdar, formal complaints of sexual harassment, including rape, molestation and domestic violence maybe on the rise because of a greater focus among the general public, establishments, and the media, in the aftermath of the December gang-rape in New Delhi.

Bangalore-based Wipro, the country’s third-largest IT services company with a significant presence in the U.S., in an effort to prevent the harassment of women, includes training modules to make employees understand what behaviors constitute sexual harassment, Priti Kataria, chairperson of Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee at Wipro, and the company’s global human resources head, told IBTimes in an email.

Kataria said the company’s policy “sensitizes managers to be extremely careful of the choice of words,” and also “ensures that there are no sexist pictures around on desktops, soft boards, conference rooms etc.”

The new law has at least served to improve awareness about the obligations of employers and rights of employees in case of workplace sexual harassment, Gopalakrishnan says, adding that, “we have not witnessed nor do we expect any substantial difference [between the public and the private sector] in tolerance to workplace sexual harassment.”

What About Men In The Workplace

Meanwhile, the law is accused by men's rights activists of ignoring the predicament of men facing sexual harassment at work, who also note that the new law discourages companies from enforcing a gender-neutral policy at the workplace.

“At least in the Indian context, men are increasingly being portrayed as predators,” Wasif Ali, a New Delhi-based men’s rights activist associated with the Save Family Foundation, told IBTimes.

According to Ali, about 10 percent to 15 percent of men in India may have faced harassment at the workplace, but almost all of the complaints his NGO’s helpline receives each month are linked mainly to domestic issues such as dowry-related complaints and children’s custody cases.

Even if a man raises a sexual harassment complaint, “nobody believes him,” Ali says, and “that remains the most fundamental problem” in addressing the issue.

But, where the law has failed, some private sector companies seem to be making up for it with gender-neutral policies of their own.

“Along with our female employees, the policy (against sexual harassment) is also extended to our male employees,” P.V. Venkatesan, director of Human Resources at ManpowerGroup India, told IBTimes.

Meanwhile, the female journalist who complained against Tehelka’s Tejpal has received huge support, with Sagarika Ghose, deputy editor of television channel CNN-IBN, tweeting: “Young Tehelka journalist is courage personified: so many of us women journos have faced harassment from so many we have kept quiet from fear.”

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