Travesty of justice

While the ICC is a quick redressal mechanism, these loopholes in addition to other deterrents caused in the proceedings frustrates the aggrieved.

With those accused in #MeToo cases getting clean chit from their respective company’s Internal Complaints Committee, one wonders if justice has been served to the victims.

In what was one of the most powerful waves of MeToo movement that struck in India, some of the most well-known faces from the entertainment industry were brought down from the pinnacles last year. One of them was Vikas Bahl who was accused of sexually molesting an employee, leading to the dissolving of his production house Phantom Films. This started a domino effect, with even Kangana Ranaut alleging Bahl to have had created an uncomfortable working environment during the filming of Queen. Bahl had to step aside from his project Super 30, which was then at a post-production stage. One year later, when the movie is all set to release on July 20, he walks scot-free, parading his exoneration by his company’s Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).

According to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Bill, commonly known as the POSH Act, 2013, the constitution of ICC in every company is mandatory. However, before the MeToo wave of last year, the observation and implementation of the POSH guidelines were taken lackadaisically. This can be best illustrated by the mishandling of a complaint by All India Bakchod (AIB) – an act that resulted in the group’s dissolution years later. In a statement posted online, the members of AIB, themselves, agreed on having ‘IC and anti-harassment system in place from the start’ but failed to use it when required.

Tanushree DuttaTanushree Dutta

Among the many wake-up calls triggered by the avalanche of online posts by women, was an on-set of panic by the companies and organisations to set up an ICC. One of the cases that were reopened was that of a multinational bank’s CFO who got a clean chit from an ICC in 2013. The bank later decided to take another look at the allegations made by a former employee. “This movement is what brought the change in the industry, and now there are very strong rules and regulations in place. There was no ICC anywhere, and now they are everywhere,” reminds screenwriter Vinta Nanda, who has become one of the front-runners of the movement alongside the actress Tanushree Datta.

So when the casting director Mukesh Chhabra’s name cropped up in MeToo, Fox Star Studio was quick to suspend him as the director of the movie Kizie Aur Manny. And just like Bahl, the ICC of Chhabra’s own company Mukesh Chhabra Casting Company absolved him after their so-called inquiry. So even though the ICC is in place, it’s still contentious whether its rules and regulations are properly followed or not.

A recent study Reach and Impact of Sexual Harassment Policies in India, conducted by a Bangalore- based organisation Pink Ladder, threw interesting inferences. Close to 30 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment at work while 50 per cent of women did not feel that the companies followed the right procedures to address their complaint. With these numbing numbers, along with the news of accused getting clean chits, there arrives a dire need to address the reason for the mistrust of women caused by the existing loopholes in the constitution and workings of ICC.

One such loophole is easy manipulation of the members of the ICC. In accordance with the POSH guidelines, the ICC should constitute a Presiding Officer, one member from any NGO who has the knowledge of dealing with sexual harassment cases, and two social workers or advocates who have the legal knowledge and half of the members have to be females.

The Presiding Officer of the ICC has to be a senior female member of the company. Although, Bombay High Court lawyer Varsha Bhogle Deshmukh reveals that in most cases, the Presiding Officer is inept with the legal knowledge. “On paper, this act looks brilliant. But it does not really work out well, because I have seen the women who preside over, and in most cases, it’s the lady who is handling the HR work there,” she says. Further, there are chances of getting compromised under the unduly pressures by the senior employers, and even the respondent who are at a senior hierarchy. “There are pressures by the seniors and the CEO of the organisation to take a neutral stand and to not take a justice effective stand. Sometimes, she (presiding officer) is soft, sometimes neutral, or may even be prejudiced because of her own biases,” adds Adv. Deshmukh. In Bahl’s case, the role of the presiding officer was given to his former business partner and friend Vikramaditya Motwane’s mother Deepa Motwane.

In addition to the presiding officer, the other members who are the employees of the company also face the threat of losing their jobs, as there are no protection or safeguards in place for the employees. The Bombay High Court lawyer Abha Singh, elaborates, “What happens is that the members of the ICC are usually the junior employees. They are part of the company, so they don’t have the courage to take a stand against their bosses and a witch-hunt starts. I think having members of the ICC from the same company is a big drawback.”

Interestingly, the cases of compromised committee even extend beyond the ICC. When an in-house three-bench-committee headed by Justice SA Bobde with Justice NV Ramana and Justice Indira Banerjee were going to listen to a complaint of sexual harassment against the CJI Ranjan Gogoi, the complainant had to point it out that Justice Ramana is not a suitable choice. He shares a cordial relation with the CJI, and was then replaced by Justice Indu Malhotra. After the proceedings, Justice Gogoi was given a clean-chit.

While the ICC is a quick redressal mechanism, these loopholes in addition to other deterrents caused in the proceedings frustrates the aggrieved. According to the same study by Pink Ladder, 30 per cent of the women still hesitate to complain to ICC about sexual harassment. In addition to apprehensions of reliving the trauma, distrust in the system is a major factor why the accusers don’t lodge an official complaint. In fact, the film producer Vipul Shah, who was accused by Sacred Games’ actress Elnaaz Nourousi of sexually harassing her was given a clean chit by Indian Film & Television Directors’ Association (IFTDA) because Nourousi refused to divulge any information. Even, the accuser of Bahl never filed an official complaint, expressing distrust in the ICC and trauma as reasons.

But from the point of view of claiming your justice, Adv. Singh strongly recommends filing the complaints. “The accuser must give a written complaint. They must come and report, because if the deposition is not there, then you are not asserting your own case. In fact, you are destroying a genuine case if you are not coming. Indirectly, you are helping the accused,” she says.

Hence, there is a need to create awareness and educate all the stakeholders, especially the members. “The first thing is that when you are getting your ICC committee together, an external expert has to come and educate them. Make sure they are not just ticking the boxes, but they are actually getting a proper committee; make sure they know what the procedure to be followed. Education is the first thing,” concludes Soujanya Vishwanath, the co-founder of Pink Ladder. On a rather optimistic note, Nanda believes that it’s a step-by-step-process. “When you are pushing the envelope, there will always be hits and misses, but the envelope got pushed. Obviously, we did not expect that the world would change overnight, we still have a long way off. But the fact is that the envelope got pushed, the threshold got pushed further, the boundaries were pushed beyond its limit, that has created that room that the discussions,” she concludes.

Tanushree Dutta:
The ICC have been there since time immemorial, but yet there have been issues of women facing harassment at work, because clearly ICC are made up of friends and colleagues of the accused. The power dynamic in the organisation is such that these power dynamics cause women to undergo harassment and that’s why women keep quite. The ICC, obviously, comprise of upper echelons of members of the organisation. The whole thing is skewed in such a way that it’s impossible for any one to get justice. Often, the woman ends up putting her resignation, which is what we have seen, because it becomes impossible for her to hang around, it becomes very toxic.

Next Story