Sexual Harassment Forever and Ever, Amen


Sexual Harassment Forever and Ever, Amen

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When Shweta Chawla started SC Cyber Solutions, a cybercrime specialist outfit in Pune, she had no idea that she would also end up becoming the city’s sexual harassment specialist. These cases were never Shweta’s favourite. Sexual harassment involved people, and people, unlike devices, were complicated. She preferred straightforward cases of hacking or data theft where technology delivered a final verdict and justice was quick. But in sexual harassment disputes, no matter which way the case was settled, no one ever won, and seldom was the perpetrator brought to justice.

Even today, she remembers the case of Anya*. Anya was attending an office conference last year and had knocked back a couple of drinks. Eventually, she went to her room and passed out. The following day, Rohit*, her boss – a long-time employee of the company, and four years her senior– called her to his cabin and showed her a video. It was hardly 24 seconds long, but it was enough to ruin her life.

In the video, Anya’s eyes were closed and Rohit was kissing and fondling her. The deal was simple: He’d send the clip to her husband and her parents if she didn’t accompany him on a couple of “business trips”.

Anya didn’t know how to react. Her first instinct was abject fear and shame. There was even a hint of that all-too-common doubt – had she participated in this act in any way? Had she led him on? That night Anya didn’t sleep a wink. Calling upon all her courage, she turned to her husband and told him tearfully what had transpired. His suggestion was straightforward: “Report the bastard.”

When Shweta met Anya and heard her story, it seemed like a clear case of harassment and blackmail, but then Shweta had seen enough of the world to know things were never as they first appeared. She’d met enough women who’d gotten back at the men they worked with using the sexual harassment charge. She’d even encountered women bosses who had blackmailed their juniors for sexual favours.

Dressed in a plain salwar kameez, Anya seemed very cagey at first glance and barely met Shweta’s gaze as she narrated her story. For Shweta, this caginess raised a a red flag. Another flag went up when Anya clearly stated that she didn’t want to involve the police. She wanted the matter to be restricted strictly to the internal committee because she had a family to think of. In Shweta’s experience, a petitioner who didn’t want to go to the police never came off looking good.

Rohit got a demotion and a six-month warning. It was the equivalent of a light rap on the wrist.

Shweta began a digital check of all correspondence between the employees, recovered all deleted texts and WhatsApp messages but nothing stood out. The relationship seemed professional. The next step was to verify the date and time stamp on the video, which could be found in the metadata that is saved automatically on the phone. The final step was a manipulation check using hexadecimal codes on both their phones to ensure that the clip sent to Anya was the same as the one on Rohit’s phone.

The entire process took a week, but Shweta finally had conclusive evidence that Anya was indeed a victim of workplace sexual harassment and a fairly severe case at that. Since the charges had been proved, Shweta believed it even warranted police involvement and Rohit’s arrest, under sections 354 and 509, especially after two other women had also approached the complaints committee after Anya had spoken up. The Vishakha guidelines that govern sexual harassment laws within the workplace clearly state that when a charge “amounts to a specific offence under the Indian Penal Code or under any other law, the employer shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority”. Would the internal committee involve the police?

The committee went the safe way. Rohit got a demotion and a six-month warning. It was the equivalent of a light rap on the wrist.  Her first instinct was to blame the committee for having taken the path of least resistance, but she remembered her meeting with Anya.

Anya herself would have been adamant about not taking the legal path. No matter what the digital world revealed, it is ultimately the victim’s courage in the real world that decides the outcome of the case and sometimes, that is the very thing that fails.

Shweta has since learned that people like Anya never go to the cops and justice is never served in spite of internal committees, Vishakha guidelines, and the supposed rise of feminism. The system of the country, the public spectacle of shame, the impossibly long-winded process of the law has pretty much ensured the silence of the victim. Women like Anya are willing to take a few steps, but the long walk to real justice is a hard one.

The fight against sexual harassment in India requires the victims to be superwomen who have nothing at stake and are willing to ride off into the sunset like reckless cowboys. But the truth is more prosaic and reality is not a Western movie. Women like Anya will always avoid the law and men like Rohit will keep getting away, secure in that knowledge.

Shweta has no choice but to make her peace with that and wait for the next case.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.