Home  |  Life  |  Family  |  Interests  |  Views  |  Gallery  |  Contact 


Sexual Harassment and to fight against it

P.E. Usha does not go to office any longer. Her colleagues at Calicut University, where she works as an assistant, and the state have ensured that. Her husband has abandoned her. She has been forced to move with her 10-year-old daughter to faraway Thiruvananthapuram.

Usha's crime was she tried to bring to book a man who sexually assaulted her inside a bus. Ten months after she filed a complaint, she may be a familiar face in a state which boasts of high social indices and empowerment of women. But she has been consistently harassed and ostracised and justice is nowhere in sight. The university authorities issued a circular banning the newspaper Malayala Manorama from the campus for publishing Usha's first-person account of her traumatic experience.

On December 29, 1999, while returning home from Kozhikode at 9.30pm, Usha was sexually assaulted by a co-passenger. ``The man masturbated on my body. I cried out for help and requested to stop the bus,'' says Usha. With fellow passengers coming to her help, the bus was taken to the closest police station.

But she was in for a shock. ``The policemen were very keen to know the graphic description of the act and they even demanded that I remove the semen-stained dress then and there itself, '' she says. The police filed the complaint but not before asking her embarrassing questions. The accused, an employee of the Regional Engineering College, Kozhikode, was taken into custody and remanded for a night.

A week later, when Usha returned to work, life had changed. Colleagues had turned hostile after, she alleges, leaders of the powerful CPM-backed employees' union spread false stories. Usha had taken on the union earlier on some issues.

The university administration wasn't willing to help. ``My boss, a woman, declined to take up the complaint saying it would vitiate the office atmosphere and create problems for me. So I had to go to the registrar directly to file the complaint as per the Supreme Court guidelines,'' says Usha.

The university instituted an inquiry committee which, Usha says, comprised mostly pro-CPM people. Another committee of the university syndicate found her case ``not strong enough'' and rejected the plea for want of ``enough evidences.'' Usha went to court. Her case is pending with the Kerala High Court.

Meanwhile, she alleges, some of her colleagues unleashed a wave of canards.

Subsequently she charged Prakashan, a male colleague, with making sexually colored remarks about her in their workplace. Prakashan is said to have propagated a distorted version of the incident, i e, that it occurred with Usha's consent and cooperation. Usha registered complaints with the registrar of the university and the Kerala Women's Commission (KWC) seeking action specifically under the provisions of the SC judgment. It bears mention that while Prakashan was a member of the CPI(M)-led employees union (EU) and Usha belonged to the much smaller Calicut University Employees Forum (CUEF), not affiliated to any one party. According to Usha this factor has informed the delayed and blatantly partisan proceedings of the university on her complaint. For their part Prakashan and EU functionaries maintain that Usha's complaint was motivated by union rivalry.

With considerable prodding from Usha, the university announced on January 27 the formation of an anti-harassment committee, under the UGC guidelines (University of Calicut (UC) Order no GAI/GI/1881/99). The announcement referred neither to Usha's complaint nor to the SC judgment. The committee had the head of Prakashan's department (the dean of students welfare), a male, as the convener and six of its eight members were affiliated to the CPI(M). It met on March 7, but resolved unanimously not to proceed with the complaint as one of the employees unions had questioned its jurisdiction on a complaint filed by a non-teaching employee [Syndicate Inquiry Report (SIR) 2000].

Three months after the incident in mid-March 2000, Usha moved the high court questioning the formation of the anti-harassment committee and seeking remedy against Prakashan. The university then announced the formation of a four- member syndicate subcommittee and placed the complaint before it; on April 17, Usha gave evidence and on May 5 five witnesses were interrogated. The section officer of the department in which she worked and another co-worker testified for Usha; the other witnesses were the president and two vice-presidents of Prakashan's union. The manner in which this committee went about its task is instructive. The Syndicate Inquiry Report states that the committee resolved to allow Prakashan to engage a legal practitioner for his defense since the case involved many legal questions, no mention here of Usha. Usha points out that she was not given a similar opportunity. The committee considered two issues, (a) whether the allegations made by Usha could attract the provisions of the SC judgment; and (b) whether Prakashan had made sexually colored remarks about Usha. On the first issue the committee found that the complainant was silent about what was the sexually colored remark made by the accused by which they seem to suggest not that Usha failed to reveal the content of the statements but that she had failed to make apparent what was sexually colored about the statement!

It is also worth mentioning that at no stage the authorities considered the complaint as one which made against sexual harassment as evident from various memos and orders issued in this regard (sic). The complaint was treated as false propaganda (sic). The committee is of the opinion that since the alleged sexually colored remark was not communicated to the complainant directly but to her colleagues it could not attract the SC judgment [SIR 2000].

As against this the committee dismissed the evidence proffered by Usha's witnesses:

Out of the five, three witnesses [office-bearers of the EU] did not support the complainants alleged story. First witness Zainaba [section officer of Usha's department] admitted that Prakashan had not communicated anything directly to her. But she overheard while the accused was talking with Abdul Kareem [Usha's second witness]. On the other hand, Abdul Kareem stated that immediately after Prakashan's remarks he asked Zainaba about it and she replied to the effect that she already has information about the incident. And also he was not sure about the statement of Zainaba that she overheard the conversation to be true (sic) [SIR 2000].

Abdul Kareem (Usha's witness) testified that Prakashan had made sexually colored remarks against Usha directly to him. The committee dismissed his account on the following grounds: as Abdul Kareem had admitted that he was no friend of Prakashan there was no reason for the committee to believe that the latter had made these remarks to him; Abdul Kareem was an active worker of the CUEF, of which Usha was an office bearer. Besides Usha and Kareem were its senior leaders in the eastern block, where the incident occurred. In the above circumstances we feel that it is not safe to rely entirely on the evidences of Abdul Kareem in the absence of any material or oral evidences to corroborate (sic) [SIR 2000].

She took leave and stopped going to office. ``I was all alone to fight this. Those who supported me got frustrated after hearing the propaganda against me. I was pictured as a sexual partner to the research scholars. Auto rickshaw drivers refused to take me to my quarters".

Usha moved to Thiruvananthapuram in July 2000 on long leave from the university. She has pointed out that it had become impossible for her to continue on campus as she had started receiving threats of violence against herself and her 12-year-old daughter."Even my daughter was not left out. I was threatened over the phone that she would be kidnapped, raped and killed. I totally collapsed, '' Usha says.

It bears emphasis that by this time, she had exhausted all legal remedy at the university, had moved to the high court and the KWC and even attempted to speak to Left party functionaries. Usha then formally approached the Kerala Stree Vedi, a statewide network of women and women's organizations, and with their support in late August, she spoke to the press and the story appeared first in a popular Malayalam daily. If this sparked off wide publicity and considerable public support for the issue and had an important role in bringing pressure to bear on legal and quasi legal authorities to take note of the case, it has also led to charges from the mainstream Left that the issue was entirely the production of the popular media.

The KWC turned its attention to the complaint in September 2001 (the complaint was made in early January 2001). Its inquiry requires some elaboration if at least because its verdict against Prakashan reversed the Syndicate Inquiry Committee findings. The KWC considered the evidence of seven persons, besides the complainant and the accused. Two vice presidents of the EU (Sadasivan Pillai and Velayudhan) and Abdul Kareem, who were examined also by the earlier committee, maintained their positions. Both EU office bearers maintained that they had learned of the incident from posters that were put up on campus denouncing the campaign against Usha and from news reports. The report also presents the evidence of four other non teaching employees, two members each of the EU and CUEF. A woman member of the EU maintained that she had heard Velayudhan tell Usha not to take seriously the rumors that were being spread by Prakashan for he was known to indulge in such gossip. Velayudhan admitted speaking to Usha but denied the content. The three remaining witnesses, including another EU member, pointed out that Prakashan had narrated offensively a version of the incident on the bus [KWC Report 2000].

The KWC held Prakashan guilty of indulging in unfair practices against Usha. They recommended to the government and university that Prakashan should be suspended; Usha should be offered an option of transfer. However, the decision of the KWC was not unanimous. In fact the delay in taking up the issue itself has been attributed to internal differences. Besides, one of two CPI (M) members of the commission put in a dissenting note to the final recommendations, asking instead for a fresh inquiry. CPI(M) member of the commission, T Devi, accused the chairperson, Sugatha Kumari, of taking special interest in the case and taking external legal advice (Deshabhimani, November 11, 2000).15

The KWC report and recommendations were forwarded to the social welfare department on November 11, 2001. On January 15, 2001, the department of higher education forwarded the KWC recommendations to the university and sought information on the action taken. Meanwhile, in December, Prakashan had obtained a stay from the high court on the order to suspend him. This was vacated by a division bench of the high court on February 2 with the stipulation that Prakashan maybe given an opportunity to present his grievances before the department of higher education about the procedures adopted by the KWC. This was completed on April 25 and an order revalidating the earlier one of January 15, 2001 was forwarded to the chief ministers office, where it languished till after the elections.

Meanwhile Usha had made public her intention of going on indefinite strike from April 18 before the university administrative office. On April 19, Prakashan went on strike along with his wife and infant son. On April 30 Usha converted her strike into an indefinite fast, was arrested on the fourth day and moved to the medical college. Human rights activists tried to intervene by holding talks with the vice chancellor, who at first agreed that he would take action if he received the report from the higher education department. They contacted the department, which required a request from the university. When asked to send the request, the vice chancellor backed out with the comment that he would consider it but took no action. (Mathrubhumi, May 7). Usha called off her fast on the ninth day after mediation by Justice Krishna Iyer and on the assurance that the minister of education had told the press that he had signed the government order. The university has since suspended Prakashan. In June 2001, it constituted a complaints committee in formal accordance with the SC judgment.

Kerala has seen the number of sexual harassment cases going up from 562 in 1990 to 1,809 in 1999. Though the entire state has been talking about Usha's case, there are few organizations willing to support Usha.

``It is not my prestige or my family life or my job that I have lost. What I have lost in this struggle is me -- myself. With the little courage and conviction that has left in me, I am now waging my last fight for justice,'' says Usha. ``I thought if I admit failure it would be a failure for working women at large.''

The governments response to this affair maybe characterized as a tactics of calculated delay. This is not the equivalent of frank neglect; it is rather a strategy of keeping together the Left support groups. Its effects however have been two: one, it has pandered to entrenched sexism in the university in general and unions in particular; two, it has attempted to discredit feminist groups as participants in the Malayalee public sphere. As one observer noted, if Usha's strike was against the denial of her right to work (by denying a safe working environment) by a public institution, Prakashan's was with the support of these institutions.

Copyright © 2006 Jishi Samuel