The Constitution of India guarantees us all the Right to Equality, irrespective of sex, religion, caste or creed. This means each one of us is assured of equality of opportunity, equality before the law, and the right to work and settle anywhere. I grew up believing in it, and the strength of our democracy.
As a precocious, brilliant achiever, I saw myself as more than an equal to boys my age, and opted for a profession that I believed (and still do) could change the world for better. I entered journalism in Mumbai (then Bombay) with stars in my eyes, way back in the mid-1980s, when discrimination on the basis of gender was disgustingly rampant. Plum assignments went to males, and those with “pull”, females like me were left to make the most of beats that no one cared for. Yet, my discerning eye found a lot that was under-reported or unreported, and very soon, I found there was a lot to look forward to. Within a decade, I had covered business, politics, education, medical research, public health, film exports, industries like shipping, textiles, labour issues, and the environment. Meanwhile, a UGC doctoral fellowship had helped me earn my doctorate too, before I relocated to Kolkata following marriage. The arrival of my daughter forced me to take a break from work for a few years. In 2002, with my daughter joining regular school, I joined The Statesman in Kolkata as a Senior Reporter. The position did not do justice to my vast experience; but that was the only opening available, and I was desperate to return to work.
I was to work for the city pages; and since I was going to report on the environment and public health, I was more than happy about it. I was to report to the Chief Reporter, and through him, to the News Coordinator. The colleagues were friendly and welcoming; so I felt satisfied. This was in June, 2002. Within a few weeks of joining The Statesman, I noticed that the News Co-ordinator, would keep accidentally bumping into me. The peculiar part of it was – it was not in a crowded newsroom, but along empty, wide corridors that offered enough space to manoeuvre about. I dismissed the first few instances as accidental. Instinct told me soon enough, that these were stage-managed. Moving away would not help. Things got worse; every time he touched, his hands would keep feeling me up. It was the kind of street sexual harassment that one encounters in the worst alleys in India. Only that it was an educated colleague who was choosing to misbehave.
By September, the harassment had reached horrendous proportions. Since I was avoiding him, the harassment became professional. My stories started getting spiked. And then, there came a time, when nothing written by me was allowed to be published if the News Coordinator got his hands on it. That was when I made a verbal complaint to the Managing Editor. However, rather than act on it, The Statesman decided to terminate me. The termination was on Dassera day – October 10, 2002.
Initially, I felt relieved. However, the injustice of it all made me a medical wreck.
But we humans are built to bounce back. And that is what I did. There were hits and misses, though. The first organisation I approached, after being counselled, was a non-governmental organisation, ( NGO), Sanhita, which claimed to especially focus on cases related to sexual harassment at the workplace. But after dilly-dallying over two months, they expressed their misgivings in taking on a media house. Thankfully, they put me through to the newly-formed Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI), which was more than willing to lobby on my behalf through the coordinators – Rajashri Dasgupta and Ananya Chaterjee. On the advice of a journalist friend from the fraternity, Partho Pratim Nag, I approached the West Bengal Commission for Women.
The resultant pressure that built up ultimately saw The Statesman set up an Internal Complaints Committee in keeping with the Vishaka Guidelines. But in spite of several requests from the State Women’s Commission, as also the NWMI, The Statesman refused to investigate into my complaint. In fact, my complaint remains un-investigated to this day.
I had believed that my complaint of sexual harassment would be internally settled by The Statesman. But I was wrong. On the advice of the State Women’s Commission, I lodged a police complaint. I also took up the matter of being illegally terminated with the Chief Labour Commissioner.
In both cases, The Statesman proved intransigent. Since they refused to cooperate with the Labour Department for conciliation proceedings, the matter was transferred to the Industrial Tribunal. My police complaint had to be investigated by senior (IPS) officers from Lalbazar, since they would not cooperate with police officers from the local police station. The State Women’s Commission under Prof. Jasodhara Bagchi did a commendable job in fighting for justice. But as they set out to act, the various lacunae in the law became evident. The Statesman successfully took advantage of the loopholes to delay justice, by refusing to cooperate with the august body.
Although a Bengali by birth, my family had no West Bengal connections. My parents had grown up in the Hindi belt, and I had been educated and brought up in Mumbai. My husband had no Kolkata connection either. There was no network of friends or contacts to fall back on. So matters were doubly difficult.
The Vishaka Guidelines had been formulated by the Supreme Court in 1997; but cases related to sexual harassment were hardly heard of. Senior lawyers I approached were reluctant to take on a case they had no experience of. This was when a chance acquaintance I made at a Maitreyee meeting suggested meeting Sutapa Chakravarty of the Human Rights Law Network ( HRLN) in Kolkata.
Even as I focussed on my legal suit at the Industrial Tribunal, The Statesman and my harasser, (then) News Coordinator Ishan Joshi, slapped defamation suits in Kolkata and New Delhi, respectively. I ultimately won my case of illegal termination at the Industrial Tribunal on February 6, 2013, exactly a week prior to the SHW Act . The Revision Suit filed in the Calcutta High Court too was ruled in my favour. Exactly 15 years after the filing of my criminal defamation suit, I won it in the Patiala House Courts in Delhi.
Without dwelling much on the legal aspect of my fight, I would like to elaborate on the toll that a fight like this can take on the complainant.
The snail’s pace of judiciary
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, or the SHW Act, as also its recent amendment, is certainly full of good intentions. But given the snail’s pace of our judiciary, what justice can a complainant get? I lost 15 of my most productive years fighting for justice. What compensation can I expect for that?
Even when one gets a lawyer, the level of commitment one needs for an issue that is absolutely new and challenging may not be easy, and especially not from senior lawyers. Thankfully, the young lawyers who ultimately agreed to handle my case were highly committed to my cause, though lacking in much experience.
My experience has also set me to question the prevalent hypocrisy in the media. I have seen so-called celebrity journalists and feminists prove totally untrue to the values they cry hoarse about. The Fourth Estate is an important pillar of democracy; committed to upholding the values of the nation’s citizens. It keeps holding a mirror to the wrongdoings in society; but, there is no effort made at punishing wrongdoers within its hallowed portals. In my case, while I could not return to a mainstream media job in Kolkata, and found it difficult to continue with other full-time jobs ( owing to the strain of rushing from one court to another in two cities), my harasser was promoted at The Statesman, and went on become Editor-in-Chief in another publication in Goa.
Decades after the Vishaka Guidelines came into place, there is a #Me too movement in India that has made the authorities take notice. We must thank the Minister for Women & Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, for having prevailed on the Prime Minister to have an offender removed from his ministerial berth following a volley of accusations against him.
This impetus needs to continue. Only then, can women feel empowered enough to justly contribute to nation-building, in keeping with our rights enshrined in the Constitution.