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A decade long struggle of a feminist against Sexual Harassment in Kerala

P E , a non-teaching employee of Calicut University, charged , a male colleague, with making sexually coloured remarks about her in their workplace. This happened after she was assaulted sexually on a bus by a stranger late in the evening on December 29, 1999. is said to have propagated a distorted version of the incident, i e, that it occurred with Ushaís consent and cooperation. Usha registered complaints with the registrar of the university and the Kerala Women’s Commission (KWC) seeking action specifically under the provisions of the SC judgment. It bears mention that while Prakashan was a member of the CPI(M)-led employeesí union (EU) and Usha belonged to the much smaller Employees Forum (CUEF), not affiliated to any one party.According to Usha this factor has informed the delayed and blatantly partisan proceedings of the university on her complaint. For their part Prakashan and EU functionaries maintain that Ushaís complaint was motivated by union rivalry.

With considerable prodding from Usha, the university announced on January 27 the formation of an anti- committee, under the UGC guidelines (University of Calicut (UC) Order no GAI/GI/1881/99). The announcement referred neither to Ushaís complaint nor to the SC judgment. The committee had the head of Prakashanís department (the dean of students welfare), a male, as the convenor and six of its eight members were affiliated to the CPI(M). It met on March 7, but resolved unanimously not to proceed with the complaint as one of the employees unions had questioned its jurisdiction on a complaint filed by a non-teaching employee [Syndicate Inquiry Report (SIR) 2000].

Three months after the incident in mid- March 2000, Usha moved the high court questioning the formation of the anti-harassment committee and seeking remedy against Prakashan. The university then announced the formation of a four- member syndicate subcommittee and placed the complaint before it; on April 17, Usha gave evidence and on May 5 five witnesses were interrogated. The section officer of the department in which she worked and another co-worker testified for Usha; the other witnesses were the president and two vice-presidents of Prakashanís union. The manner in which this committee went about its task is instructive. The Syndicate Inquiry Report states that the committee resolved to allow Prakashan to engage a legal practitioner for his defence ìsince the case involved many legal questionsî, no mention here of Usha. Usha points out that she was not given a similar opportunity. The committee considered two issues, (a) whether the ìallegations made byî Usha could attract the provisions of the SC judgment; and (b) whether Prakashan had made sexually coloured remarks about Usha. On the first issue the committee found that ìthe complainant was silent about what was the sexually coloured remark made by the accusedî ñ by which they seem to suggest not that Usha failed to reveal the content of the statements but that she had failed to make apparent what was sexually coloured about the statement! The committee goes on to state that

It is also worth mentioning that at no stage the authorities considered the complaint as one which made against sexual harassment as evident from various memos and orders issued in this regard (sic). The complaint was treated as false propaganda (sic). The committee is of the opinion that since the alleged sexually coloured remark was not communicated to the complainant directly but to her colleagues it could not attract the SC judgment [SIR 2000]. As against this the committee dismissed the evidence proffered by Usha’s witnesses:

Out of the five, three witnesses [office-bearers of the EU] did not support the complainantís alleged story. First witness Zainaba [section officer of Ushaís department] admitted that Prakashan had not communicated anything directly to her. But she overheard while the accused was talking with Abdul Kareem [Ushaís second witness]. On the other hand, Abdul Kareem stated that immediately after Prakashanís remarks he asked Zainaba about it and she replied to the effect that she already has information about the incident. And also he was not sure about the statement of Zainaba that she overheard the conversation to be true (sic) [SIR 2000].
Abdul Kareem (Ushaís witness) testified that Prakashan had made sexually coloured remarks against Usha directly to him. The committee dismissed his account on the following grounds: as Abdul Kareem had admitted that he was no friend of Prakashan there was no reason for the committee to believe that the latter had made these remarks to him; Abdul Kareem was an active worker of the CUEF, of which Usha was an office bearer. Besides Usha and Kareem were its senior leaders in the eastern block, where the incident occurred. ìIn the above circumstances we feel that it is not safe to rely entirely on the evidences of Abdul Kareem in the absence of any material or oral evidences to corroborate (sic)î [SIR 2000].

Usha moved to Thiruvananthapuram in July 2000 on long leave from the university. She has pointed out that it had become impossible for her to continue on campus as she had started receiving threats of violence against herself and her 12-year-old daughter.10 It bears emphasis that by this time, she had exhausted all legal remedy at the university, had moved to the high court and the KWC and even attempted to speak to Left party functionaries.Usha then formally approached the Stree Vedi, a statewide network of women and womenís organisations, and with their support in late August, she spoke to the press ñ the story appeared first in a popular Malayalam daily. If this sparked off wide publicity and considerable public support for the issue and had an important role in bringing pressure to bear on legal and quasi legal authorities to take note of the case, it has also led to charges from the mainstream Left that the issue was entirely the production of the ëpopularí media.

The KWC turned its attention to the complaint in September 2001 (the complaint was made in early January 2001). Its inquiry requires some elaboration if at least because its verdict against Prakashan reversed the Syndicate Inquiry Committee findings. The KWC considered the evidence of seven persons, besides the complainant and the accused. Two vice presidents of the EU (Sadasivan Pillai and Velayudhan) and Abdul Kareem, who were examined also by the earlier committee, maintained their positions. Both EU office bearers maintained that they had learned of the incident from posters that were put up on campus denouncing the campaign against Usha and from news reports. The report also presents the evidence of four other non teaching employees, two members each of the EU and CUEF. A woman member of the EU maintained that she had heard Velayudhan tell Usha not to take seriously the rumours that were being spread by Prakashan for he was known to indulge in such gossip. Velayudhan admitted speaking to Usha but denied the content. The three remaining witnesses, including another EU member, pointed out that Prakashan had narrated offensively a version of the incident on the bus [KWC Report 2000].

The KWC held Prakashan guilty of indulging in unfair practices against Usha. They recommended to the government and university that Prakashan should be suspended; Usha should be offered an option of transfer. However, the decision of the KWC was not unanimous. In fact the delay in taking up the issue itself has been attributed to internal differences. Besides, one of two CPI (M) members of the commission put in a dissenting note to the final recommendations, asking instead for a fresh inquiry. CPI(M) member of the commission, T Devi, accused the chairperson, Sugatha Kumari, of taking ëspecial interestí in the case and taking ëexternalí legal advice (Deshabhimani, November 11, 2000).

The KWC report and recommendations were forwarded to the social welfare department on November 11, 2001. On January 15, 2001, the department of higher education forwarded the KWC recommendations to the university and sought information on the action taken. Meanwhile, in December, Prakashan had obtained a stay from the high court on the order to suspend him. This was vacated by a division bench of the high court on February 2 with the stipulation that Prakashan maybe given an opportunity to present his grievances before the department of higher education about the procedures adopted by the KWC. This was completed on April 25 and an order revalidating the earlier one of January 15, 2001 was forwarded to the chief ministerís office, where it languished till after the elections.

Meanwhile Usha had made public her intention of going on indefinite strike from April 18 before the university administrative office. On April 19, Prakashan went on strike along with his wife and infant son. On April 30 Usha converted her strike into an indefinite fast, was arrested on the fourth day and moved to the medical college. Human rights activists tried to intervene by holding talks with the vice chancellor, who at first agreed that he would take action if he received the report from the higher education department. They contacted the department, which required a request from the university. When asked to send the request, the vice chancellor backed out with the comment that he would consider it but took no action. (Mathrubhumi, May 7).16 Usha called off her fast on the ninth day after mediation by Justice Krishna Iyer and on the ëassuranceí that the minister of education had told the press that he had signed the government order. The university has since suspended Prakashan. In June 2001, it constituted a compalints committee in formal accordance with the SC judgment.

Listen to her, what is the status of her case and how she went on fighting for more than a decade and is still fighting.

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