The Supreme Court while delivering the landmark judgment in Vishaka & Ors vs State Of Rajasthan on 13 August 1997, issued a direction to the Union Government and all state governments to enact a law to prevent sexual harassment of women in work places.
In the judgment, SC defines sexual harassment as follows:
Sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:
- a) physical contact and advances;
- b) a demand or request for sexual favours;
- c) sexually coloured remarks;
- d) showing pornography;
- e) any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
Where any of these acts is committed in circumstances where under the victim of such conduct has a reasonable apprehension that in relation to the victim’s employment or work whether she is drawing salary, or honorarium or voluntary, whether in government, public or private enterprise such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem. It is discriminatory for instance when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment or work including recruiting or promotion or when it creates a hostile work environment. Adverse consequences might be visited if the victim does not consent to the conduct in question or raises any objection thereto.
Subsequently the parliament enacted a law and made it mandatory for formation of Vishaka Committee in all workplaces.
The Supreme Court further refined the definition of sexual harassment in Apparel Export Promotion Council vs A.K. Chopra:
“Regarding the nature of approach that courts should take while dealing with cases of sexual harassment at the place of work of female employees, it is to borne in mind that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination projected through unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favours and other verbal or physical conduct with sexual overtones, whether directly or by implication, particularly when submission to or rejection of such a conduct by the female employee was capable of being used for effecting the employment of the female employee and unreasonably interfering with her work performance and had the effect of creating an intimidating or hostile working environment for her. Any action or gesture, whether directly or by implication, aims at or has the tendency to outrage the modesty of a female employee, must fall under the general concept of the definition of sexual harassment.”
In spite of several verdicts which followed the above judgments, the Lordships of High Court of Madras are allowing an alleged perpetrator to continue his amorous activities right under their nose.
FAMILY COURT AT CHENNAI
The Chennai Family court campus consists of 8 family courts to cater to the hundreds of litigations on matrimony disputes. The senior most Judge in the District Judge cadre is made as the Principal Judge of the Family Courts. As a Principal Judge, the administrative powers vest with the Principal Judge. Mr. AKA.Rahmaan is a directly recruited district judge in the year 2011. After serving in Trichy, Dharmapuri and Ariyalur, he is now working as Principal Judge of the family courts at Chennai.
In the very family court, counsellors are appointed on consolidated pay to conduct counselling between the couples as an effort to try whether the marriage is workable. In some cases, the couples do withdraw their litigation and decide to live together. Appointment of such counsellors is done at the discretion of the Principal Judge. The counsellors are always appointed in pairs of male and female. The counsellors are paid a remuneration of Rs.400 per day for their services. The minimum qualification for such counsellors is a post graduate degree in Psychology / Sociology.
It is here that allegations of sexual harassment have cropped up against the Principal Judge AKA.Rahmaan.
Rahmaan is alleged to have promised enhancement of remuneration and making the temporary counsellors as permanent and had made amorous advances to few of young women counsellors.
Rahmaan always chooses his preys carefully. First he gathers personal information about the counsellors, then makes a start towards his preys with the patience and meticulousness of a wild animal. All the victims of Rahmaan are married but separated women with marital issues due to various reasons.
One of the victim, Sangeetha **, speaking to Savukku, narrated her ordeal. “Initially, the Principal Judge (PJ) Rahmaan was very kind, helpful and friendly. After our counselling work was over, he would call me to his chambers and caringly enquire about my work. He would particularly ensure that there is no difficulty or disturbance from the court staff or advocates or any logistical issues in my day today work.
When I told him that I am separated and is in economically dire situation, he promised to enhance the remuneration. One day he even promised to make me permanent by speaking to High Court judges, to several of whom he claimed to be very close. Being new to the court atmosphere and appointments to courts, I believed him. He would always call me for meeting at late hours after 6.30 pm. The meetings would stretch till 8 or 9. He being the Principal Judge, I could neither afford to refuse to attend the meeting nor take quick leave.
After a couple of meetings, his behavior towards me changed. His voice would go husky and he would start talking irrelevant things. Though I started suspecting his behavior, I consoled myself that it could not be true.
One day, he stood up from his chair, walked towards me and sat next to me. I was keeping my hands in the armrest of the chair. He placed his hand over my hand and told me in a husky voice to ‘ask anything you want’. I was shocked and scared. I immediately stood up and ran away without even taking his leave”.
Trouble started for Sangeetha immediately after she resisted Rahmaan’s advances.
Another victim, Gayathri **, said “We use to have 2 WhatsApp groups. One is named “FC colleague” and the other one is named “Family Court”. Principal Judge Rahmaan is a member in the second group. Though we are members of the group, we don’t normally chat in the group. However, one of our colleague Sridevi, who is also a counsellor, use to be dominative in the group. PJ Rahmaan would encourage her in the group’s WhatsApp conversations. Often he would praise Sridevi in the group.
Though Sridevi is a counsellor just like us all, she would come to court only in the afternoons. Immediately on her arrival, she would go into PJ’s chambers and she seldom attends the counselling sessions. Her co male counsellor would be conducting counselling sessions alone. Other counsellors allege that the Principal Judge had arranged through PWD to construct a Rest-room for her exclusive use, while other counsellors would use common Rest Room. Due to the preferential treatment given to Sridevi, she used to dominate the entire family court and issue instructions to us.
Everyone knows that Sridevi is close to the PJ and even the court staff are afraid of her. Anyone who rubs Sridevi on the wrong side would invite the wrath of the Principal Judge. This has happened many a times.
Whenever there is a meeting of the counsellors, PJ Rahmaan would pay encomiums to Sridevi in front of all of us.
Whenever there was birthday of any one of the counsellors we use to wish them in our WhatsApp group. The Judge would never bother to wish any of them. But when Sridevi’s birthday came, the Judge hosted a party, cake was cut which was attended by all court staff and some advocates. Such out of the way encouragement to Sridevi emboldened her to boss over all others.
But Judge Rahmaan is the boss. What can we do?” lamented Gayathri.
Ironically, the said Sridevi is not even fully qualified to hold the post of counsellor. While all the counsellors did their under graduation and post graduation in regular course in Psychology, Sridevi is a BSc Nursing graduate. She did her Psychology through correspondence course, while all others now working in Family Court are regular Psychology post graduates. Why Principal Judge Rahmaan, showed undue favours to Counsellor Sridevi among all the 16 counsellors remains a mystery. Sridevi was given so much importance to such an extent that during a seminar on “Emotional Intelligence” held in court premises, Sridevi was seated in the stage next to Justice Govindarajan, while all the family court’s sessions judges and court staff were seated below. Judge Rahmaan, had taken Sridevi, by air to attend a judicial function at Madurai officially. Why a temporary counsellor who is on consolidated pay, accompanied the Judge to Madurai, also remains a mystery.
Gayathri continuing further said, “Once during a late evening meeting with PJ Rahmaan, he got up from his chair and came near me and patted my back. I found it strange and immediately understood his intentions. I stared hard and quit his room in a jiffy.”
Another victim, Uma Maheswari** too had a similar distress tale. She too corroborated Sangeetha and Gayathri. She too was physically harassed in a similar manner. Speaking to Savukku, Uma Maheswari said, “During the third week of September 2019, me and my colleagues were chatting and some one suggested that we go to a movie after our work. We all agreed to go to the latest movie “Otha Seruppu” and decided to book tickets and share the cost.
When Sridevi crossed us, she said she too want to join with us. We all said yes and in a few minutes, Sridevi posted in our WhatsApp group, that PJ Rahmaan would also like to join us for the movie and he would like us to book tickets for evening show.
Most of us felt very uncomfortable. An evening show would mean we have to go home late. Many of us had small kids. Going for a movie with a Principal Sessions Judge is not fun. We wanted to go to the movie, only to have a break and have fun. The judge’s presence would take it away.
Each one of us started posting in the group that we couldn’t make it to the movie due to various reasons. There was no response from the Judge”.
However after a week, on 29.09.2019, Principal Judge A.K.A.Rahmaan called all the counsellors for a meeting. In the meeting he shouted at all of us for refusing to come for a movie with him. He shouted, ‘being a district judge, I call you for a movie, but you people insult me. You should be gifted to watch a movie with a person of my stature. This is a huge insult to me. You people forget that you are working here at my mercy.”
Ramachandran **, another counsellor who was present in the meeting, continued the tale further. “The meeting concluded and five of us alone were called. Me, Gayathri, Sangeetha, Uma Maheswari and another counsellor Govindasamy.
When we five entered into the room, the Judge in a high pitched voice shouted “I have made a huge mistake by admitting Pariahs (schedule caste). (பற ஜாதிப் பசங்களை உள்ள விட்டது பெரிய தப்பா போச்சு) We became too shocked and numb to respond. The judge further continued, ‘I will see how you people will continue in Family Court. It is I who decide who works here. I will finish all you SC group. You will be sacked’.
We never expected such a casteist remark from a senior judge, that too from a minority community” said Ramachandran. This casteist slur of the judge was independently confirmed with all those present in the meeting except, Govindasamy ** who has become incommunicado.
Ramachandran continued further. “Only after we came out of the meeting, my female colleagues started narrating their tale of woes. Till then, none of my female colleagues knew the other was subjected to sexual harassment. We were all shocked to know his behaviour and we decided that we should file a complaint to the High Court. We put all that has happened in writing including the sexual harassment and sent it by Speed Post to Justice Govindarajan, who is the portfolio High Court Judge. Justice Govindarajan was at Madurai Bench at that time. We sent the complaint on 25.10.2019.
But there was no action whatsoever. On 31.10.2019, we met Justice Anitha Sumanth in her chambers in Chennai and narrated our ordeal. Justice Sumanth, sent me out and heard the sexual harassment charges from my female colleagues. Subsequently, we sent a copy of the complaint we sent to Justice Govindarajan to Justice Anitha Sumanth also.
We were expecting some enquiry by the High Court for more than three months. But, out of the blue, a court bailiff came to our house on 11 November 2019 and served termination order. Apart from terminating us, the Judge had prohibited us from entering the Family Court. He had marked a copy of the termination order to High Court security officers and directed to surrender our identity cards. We have lost hope on the High Court” said Ramachandran.
All the above five victims are Dalits and first generation graduates. The author found it surprising that the meagre 8000 rupees (Rs.400 per day) remuneration they get meant a lot to them. They all loved their job and considered it very prestigious. Terminating their services is the discretion of the Judge. But, prohibiting their entry into family court premises is stretching it a bit too far. This action of Principal Judge Rahmaan clearly proves that these people were not terminated due to some misconduct or other, but with a motive to teach them a lesson.
Sangeetha recalled how they were victimised for snubbing the Judge’s sexual advances. The counsellors are expected to file quarterly and monthly reports to the Principal Judge about the progress they make in counselling. After the bitter interaction with the Judge in October 2019, Judge Rahmaan issued oral direction to file reports everyday. “In some of the days, the counselling would go till evening. After completing it we had to prepare the reports and submit it on the same day. The work pressure was too much. Since this job meant a lot to me, I underwent the torment”, said Sangeetha.
After the October bitter meeting the Judge, a few meetings of counsellors were held but, the above five were particularly kept out of the meeting. In all such meetings, the Judge would be abusing the five and asked the cooperation of the remaining counsellors to sack them in case of an enquiry.
On enquiry, it is ascertained that a sexual harassment complaints committee do exist in the High Court campus for lower courts and is headed by the Mahila Court judge. Unfortunately, no one knew the existence of such a mechanism.
The reputation of Principal Judge Rahmaan strengthens the allegations against him.
A local office bearer of Cuddalore Bar Association says that while A.K.A.Rahmaan was practicing as an advocate at Cuddalore, he was running manpower consultancy and was sending persons to Gulf countries. Even then there were allegations that he sexually abused his junior lady advocate who hailed from a poor family.
During his stint in Ariyalur as Principal District Judge, there were allegations that he sought sexual favours from temporary Office Assistants for making them permanent. In the recruitment of a lady office Assistant, there were allegations against him and the matter came to the notice of the Bar and a complaint against him was sent to the High Court. Recently two judicial officers testified before High Court against AKA Rahmaan in this regard according to highly placed sources.
While there are numerous complaints against Principal Judge Rahmaan, the High Court never seems to be bothered to order an enquiry. A member of lower judiciary on condition of anonymity said, “Though we don’t want to believe it, we are not able to ignore the rumours that the Registrar Vigilance of High Court, R.Poornima, who is supposed to handle complaints against members of lower judiciary is shielding Rahmaan and her other batchmates”. Like AKA.Rahmaan, Poornima too belong to the 2011 batch of directly recruited District Judges. Recently, along with others, both Poornima and Rahmaan moved an SLP in the Supreme Court to elevate them as High Court judge ahead of other members of lower judiciary. The matter is still pending in SC.
The lower court Judge continued. “When there is even an anonymous petition against any member of the lower judiciary who join as Magistrate, there is a swift enquiry and it results either in transfer or suspension. But, in spite of several complaints against the 2011 batch direct District Judges there is little action”.
No one is expecting a District Judge to be hanged based on allegations made against him by a few temporary counsellors. But, law demands that there should at least be an enquiry. So far no enquiry was conducted though the complaints were sent to Justice Govindarajan and Justice Anitha Sumanth as early as October 2019. A complaint was also sent to the Chief Justice of Madras High Court on 11 November 2019.
But, the result is rather disheartening. The victims stand terminated and the alleged perpetrator is still ruling the roost.
If the Madras High Court is not able to deliver gender justice in its own campus what is the use of a constitutional court which is supposed to deliver justice and establish the rule of law ? How would the pubic trust the courts if this is the sorry state of affairs in High Court’s own campus ?
** All names are changed to protect the identity of the victims.
Copies of complaints sent by the victims to CJ & other High Court Judges.