NEW DELHI — On paper, India has robust laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. Legislation passed in 2013 mandates that every company with more than 10 employees must have an internal complaints committee — headed by a female employee and including an external member — to address such allegations.
If an internal committee finds an allegation to be true, it can demand an apology for the victim, impose a fine or even fire the accused. But in practice, such committees don’t often function as they were intended.
Late last year, India’s #MeToo moment erupted on social media as women shared stories they had been afraid to tell, yet, just six months later, two high-profile cases are exposing the movement’s limits and to some, the failures of the systems in place.
The first involved an explosive accusation by a former junior staffer against the country’s top judge. In a sworn affidavit, the employee alleged that India’s chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, had sexually harassed her, an accusation he denied.
The country’s legal system struggled to address the woman’s complaint. Gogoi first chaired a special session of the Supreme Court where he publicly denounced the woman and the allegations. Then the court set up an informal committee of three judges to examine the allegations.
On Monday, the court announced that the panel had found no substance to the woman’s allegations and that its report would remain secret. On Tuesday, women protesting outside the Supreme Court were detained by police.
Some advocates were critical of how the court had handled the accusations. The process can “only be described as a sham,” wrote lawyer Gautam Bhatia.
Gogoi’s accuser said in a statement that she was “disappointed and dejected” by the panel’s conclusion and feared reprisals against her and her family.
(The Washington Post and other news outlets are withholding the woman’s name because Indian law mandates that victims of sexual assault and harassment remain unidentified in the media.)
Another high-profile #MeToo case is also making its way through the legal system this week. Last fall, more than a dozen women had accused M.J. Akbar, a government minister and former newspaper editor, of sexual harassment, misconduct and rape, including in an account published in The Washington Post. Akbar denied the allegations.
He stepped down from his government position but soon filed a defamation case against one of the women, journalist Priya Ramani, who was one of the first to accuse Akbar of harassment.
Ramani will soon be questioned in court. Akbar appeared in court this week and repeatedly answered “I don’t recall” to key questions posed during cross-examination by Ramani’s lawyer. If Akbar wins the case, Ramani can be jailed for two years.
Women who allege harassment have been targeted by defamation suits in the past. For the past three years, a court in Delhi has heard a defamation case filed by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist against a woman and her lawyer, even as the trial against him for sexual harassment drags on in another.