In 2002, Dr Rina Mukherji, then a senior reporter working for The Statesman complained of sexual harassment against Ishan Joshi, the news coordinator for the paper. On October 12, 2002, she was fired from her job.
Dr. Mukherji, then approached Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI) , the West Bengal Commission for Women and the Labour Commissioner. The Statesman refused conciliation proceedings and the labour suit moved to the Industrial Tribunal against the management of The Statesman . Ten years later, on February 6, 2013, the Court ruled in her favour. Rina Mukherji recounts her struggle for justice in this first person account
A full decade. That is the amount of time I have taken to win justice. More than three years of the period was lost due to vacant courts bereft of judges or stalling of proceedings on various pretexts by lawyers from the opposing side.
I was lucky to have been supported by many in the profession, as also outside it. Professor Jashodhara Bagchi, the then Chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women, went through a harrowing time trying to settle the dispute with The Statesman. Her experience, though, exposed the flaws in the system and led us to realize that the Commission lacked “teeth.” We also realized that an employer could easily upstage a complainant by dragging a dispute to court, and with the judicial system we have, a matter would drag on for years. In the meanwhile, a complainant loses precious years of professional life, and is blacklisted by employers.
Even if you land up a full-time job with an employer who is extremely supportive of your plight, it is difficult to work when you have to keep shunting between courts for months (and years) together. In my case, I had a labour suit to attend in Kolkata, and two libel suits-one civil and the other criminal with the latter in Delhi, to attend to. I was left with no option but to freelance, notwithstanding the regular drain on my resources.
One of the worst problems when you have a complaint of sexual harassment at the workplace-is that no lawyer is willing to take up the case. They are apprehensive of losing the case, since they lack experience in such matters. (This again, is because of the deafening silence on such issues in a patriarchal society, which manifests itself in women keeping away from reporting on them). In my case, it was a media house, and hence even scarier! If not for Ms. Sutapa Chakrabarty of the Human Rights Law Network, (HRLN), an NGO providing legal aid to those who suffer a breach of their human rights, I might have had to plead my case myself.
There is another point I wish to make about those who swear by the names of celebrated legal luminaries. The lawyers at HRLN who fought my case were young and bright; and most of all, committed. Shamit Sanyal, Debashis Banerjee and his wife, Rajashri Banerjee, and Ambalika Roy brought a degree of commitment that is undeniable.
In fact, Debashis Banerjee worked hard to put forth the winning arguments that ultimately decided the case in my favour and got me an award from the Industrial tribunal granting my reinstatement and full back wages from the time of my termination by the management of The Statesman. And this was –to quote him- the “first case he had taken up as an advocate.”
The police, even if they be sympathetic and helpful, are utterly confused about how to deal with a white-collar offender. Eve-teasing or molestation by roadside miscreants is easy for them to deal with. But an educated man who is highly-placed in an organization can refuse to co-operate with the police investigation and easily get away with it due to loopholes in the legal system.
The Vishakha Guidelines were formulated with the best of intentions. But sexual harassment complaints committees in organizations are, more often than not, a total farce since the Guidelines presuppose organizations to be fair in bringing offenders to justice when a complaint is made to them. In my case, there was no such committee at The Statesman during my tenure. The pressure put in by Network of Women in Media in India ( NWMI), had my ex-employers hurriedly set up their committee.
My complaint, however, was never investigated into. Even as they refused to take cognizance of my complaint, The Statesman actually promoted the offender to a higher position.
One only hopes women will have a better deal once the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill becomes an Act in the near future.
The industrial tribunal has awarded me reinstatement and full back wages from the time I was terminated in October 2002 on the ground that it was illegal. However, the libel suits-filed against me by The Statesman and Ishan Joshi for having tarnished their reputation are yet to be decided. I still have a long way to go for a full victory.
Rina Mukherji is a senior journalist currently based in Kolkata. She has worked for over two decades in the print and online media specializing in issues related to sustainable development, the environment and human rights . She is the recipient of the 2011-2012 Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity ( Eastern Region) and several international fellowships for reporting on science, the environment and public health