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India's top court wants procedure for handling sex harassment cases

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 15 Jan 2014 14:26 GMT
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Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief of India's leading investigative magazine Tehelka, who denies accusations that he sexually assaulted a colleague, speaks with the media at New Delhi airport. Photo November 29, 2013, REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's Supreme Court said on Wednesday that it had no formal mechanism for dealing with sexual harassment complaints against judges, and ordered senior legal officials to work out a procedure for handling such cases within the judiciary.

The top court gave the order after hearing the petition of a female lawyer who alleges she was sexually harassed by a Supreme Court judge, now retired, while working for him as an intern in May 2011.

Her allegation, the second such complaint against a retired Supreme Court judge in recent months, has shaken the country's legal fraternity and put a spotlight on the abuses faced by women working in the judiciary.

"The court has itself noted today that there is no mechanism (to deal with sexual harassment complaints against judges). There was no mechanism available even in May 2011 when the incident took place," Vrinda Grover, the woman’s lawyer, told the NDTV news channel, explaining why it took the woman so long to come forward.

The Supreme Court asked the Attorney General, the Solicitor General and two prominent lawyers to examine how such a mechanism could be set up, but made no comment on the case in question.

The next hearing will take place on Feb. 14. The victim alleges that Justice Swatanter Kumar, who now heads the National Green Tribunal - a special fast-track court which hears cases related to environmental issues - touched her in an inappropriate manner and made suggestive remarks while she was an intern in his office.

Kumar has denied the charges and has alluded to a conspiracy against him. He has demanded damages from various Indian media outlets for defamation.

GUIDELINES ARE NOT FOR JUDGES

In November, another lawyer alleged that she was assaulted when she was an intern by another Supreme Court judge, Asok Kumar Ganguly, in a hotel room in December 2012.

The Supreme Court set up a three-judge panel, which heard testimony last month from the former intern and Ganguly.

The panel said there was evidence of "unwelcome behaviour" and "conduct of a sexual nature", but did not suggest any action be taken because Ganguly was no longer a practising judge.

Ganguly denied the allegations but, as a result of  media pressure and criticism from activists and some politicians, he stepped down from his position as head of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission earlier this month.

In 1997, the Supreme Court laid down the "Vishaka guidelines" to be followed by all establishments in the country in dealing with complaints about sexual harassment, but did not set up its own redressal mechanism.

"The Vishaka guidelines bound every institution, but in so far as judicial officers and the judiciary is concerned, we see a gap," said Grover.

These cases are among a small but growing number in which women have come forward to complain about sexual harassment by powerful male superiors.

Police are also probing the editor-in-chief of India's leading investigative magazine over allegations that he sexually assaulted a female colleague twice in a hotel elevator during a conference in the resort state of Goa in November last year.

Activists say sexual harassment and abuse by powerful and privileged men is widespread in India, but few women have been willing to talk about it.

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