Delhi High Court set aside a single-judge bench decision deeming a sexual harassment complaint to be false, based on the decision of Internal Complaints committee. The two-judge bench of Justices Asha Menon and Rajiv Sahai Endlaw, in the detailed order dated December 17, 2020, made elaborate comments on how an internal committee ought to deal with complaints of sexual harassment at workplace and how a safe and secure environment should be created for female employees.
The appeal was filed against the order of the single judge passed on July 9, 2019 dismissing the appellant’s writ petition while also imposing exemplary costs of Rs.50,000/- upon her and granting liberty to the respondent No.2 to initiate appropriate action against her for filing a false complaint.
The appellant was working, at the relevant time, as an Assistant Director (Fin.) with the ESI Hospital at Manesa and the respondent against whom the complaint was made was Deputy Director. The appellant had complained that he was repeatedly subjecting her to sexual harassment by using inappropriate language with sexual overtones. She was once asked by him to accompany him to the men’s toilet using words indicative of sexual advances.
Anguished by such behaviour, the appellant reported the same to the Medical Superintendent of the ESI Hospital, who sympathized with her and asked her to make a written complaint which she did on July 8, 2011. Accordingly, a complaints committee was constituted which examined all witnesses and submitted a report on January 20, 2012 that the incident of July 7, 2011 had actually happened even though the content of the communication could not be established but noted that there was no substantive evidence. The committee granted benefit of the doubt to the respondent and both parties were relocated to protect and maintain the healthy and congenial working environment. The inquiry was conducted under the Vishaka Guidelines laid out by the apex court in Vishaka and Ors. vs. State of Rajasthan and Ors. (1997) 6 SCC 241.
According to the appellant, this decision was not communicated to her and it was only on July 3, 2013 in response to an RTI query that she learnt of the decision. She went in appeal but the result of the same was again not communicated to her, and hence she filed the writ petition in 2012; in the meanwhile, the respondent had retired from service.
The single-judge bench of Delhi High Court dismissed the writ petition relying upon the report of the complaints committee.
While considering the appeal, the court observed that the committee had concluded that the incident did take place with the respondent admitting to the same while stating that his words were misunderstood. The court pointed out that the committee gave him the benefit of the doubt and not an honourable discharge which indicates that they did find some justification in the complaint but refrained from taking strict action in absence of corroborative evidence.
The court also pointed out that in the counter-affidavit filed by the respondent in the writ petition, he averred that the complaints committee had come to a fair conclusion and he did not challenge his transfer on the recommendations of the Committee. The court held that the respondent “did not whisper a word about any reason for the appellant to have falsely implicated him. He only claimed that he had not committed any “offence” as per the “Vishakha Guidelines”,” and hence the single judge was not justified in labelling the complaint false.
The court held that while considering a sexual harassment complaint, any disciplinary proceedings against the woman should be irrelevant unless the officer who imposed the punishment has been targeted.
The court set aside the directions of the single judge bench imposing costs and directing action against the appellant in the light of the finding of the Complaints Committee that the incident complained of had actually taken place. The appellant also sought a departmental inquiry but the court did not grant such relief as the respondent has also retired from service and also because nothing prevented the appellant from initiating criminal action against him.
Court’s comments on sexual harassment
In its parting comments, the court stated that sexual harassment is a serious issue that needs to be addressed at all work places urgently and sensitively. The court added, “It is impossible not to notice all around us, how easily the “common woman” is put down by the “common man”. Less said the better of what happens to the Third Gender!”.
The court stated that now that the law was in place, albeit much delayed post the Vishaka guidelines, it should be followed in letter and spirit and that “every institution and organization must declare zero tolerance for Gender insensitivity.” The court also stressed upon lack of awareness of the law amongst women.
Further, the court commented on the role of the Complaints Committee and stated it was a platform to provide an environment of confidence to the complainant and not to doubt the veracity of the complaint or view the complainant with suspicion. The court stated that absence of eyewitnesses to the incident cannot detract from the credibility of the complainant as her statement is to be considered independently to determine whether it has a ring of truth or not. The court stated that the high standard of proof required in criminal trials is not called for during an inquiry by the Internal Complaints Committee under the Act.
“It must always be borne in mind, that a woman who is perturbed by an action of a male colleague, either through words, gestures or action, cannot be expected to have such clarity of thought, to know who all were present at the time of the incident, and who all may have witnessed the incident and remember their names and faces. The mere inability of a woman to name such witnesses cannot suffice to falsify her complaint.”
The court stated in cases of sexual harassment at workplace, the perpetrator will “seeks out his target without putting himself in danger of being caught and preserving a “your word against mine” situation, which the woman would possibly find difficult to surmount before an inquiry committee”. The court stated that for this very reason the committee is supposed to compose of many members, including an out-sider, to enable a joint application of minds to evaluate the statement made by a complainant and assess its credibility.
The court also urged that while assessing such cases a gender sensitive approach must be followed and every woman employee should be made aware of the person she can contact in the Internal Complaints Committee when faced with any unsavoury or unacceptable conduct by a male colleague.
The court further stated that upon conclusion of the inquiry by the Internal Complaints Committee, there must be some sensitivity shown by it while recommending action, keeping in mind the dignity of the complainant. The court was displeased by the Complaints Committee’s decision in this case to relocate the complainant as well since it may reflect negatively about the complainant, to the transferring authority. “The transfer of the complainant should be only if she seeks it or when she has been found to have filed a false complaint,” said the court , adding that the ripple effect of this would be that other suffering women, would hesitate to file complaints, fearing a transfer.
The order was concluded by stating that workplaces should have a strong redressal system and sensitize all employees to speak to their colleagues while always remaining acutely aware of their dignity.
The court set aside the judgement of the single judge bench to the extent that it concluded the complaint of the appellant to be false and imposed cost and recommended action against her.
The complete judgement may be read here.