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The Court, the Sting, and the Snoops: Where does Justice Figure in All This?

G Arunima (arunima.gopinath@gmail.com) teaches at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is presently a Fellow, at the Internationales Kolleg Morphomata, University of Cologne, Germany.

When powerful men sexually harass women, and the state machinery violates their privacy, the demands for the right to unimpaired systems of redressal and to that of gender justice have to be made more vociferously.

Three incidents have “broken news” in the past ten days or so. There is some similarity in all of these; they all have to do with women and involve some form of infringement of their rights‒ personal liberty, dignity and bodily integrity, amongst others. Each has provoked angry and important responses, especially from feminists and women’s rights activists. What I wish to reflect briefly on here therefore, is not to rehearse positions that we are already aware of and that many of us share. It is to think about two issues that are an integral part of the above – the systems of redressal and the question of justice.

 

Judiciary: “Breeding Place for Sexual Harassment”

Let me then begin with the discussions amongst the three that seems to have captured the least amount of media (formal and social) attention. These have been a series of blog posts, and some interviews, regarding sexual harassment within the legal profession, including at the Supreme Court itself. From young interns to lawyers, women have written powerfully about the problems they face qua women, within the legal profession, be it within chambers or the courts. More significantly, these posts have identified not merely the immense complexity of sexual harassment but also the near misogyny prevalent in the profession that makes redressal almost impossible.

In her hard-hitting response, written as an open letter to the Chief Justice of India, to the issues raised by her younger colleagues in the profession Indira Jaising (senior lawyer, long standing feminist activist and presently the Additional Solicitor General of India) supports the charges they level against the profession.[1]From its hierarchical structure to the very architecture of the court, Jaising finds the legal profession to be a “breeding place[s] for sexual harassment”.  She demands that the Supreme Court take a position and make explicit that it is not complicit with such quotidian forms of sexism. She also demands, as an initial step, that the report of the three judges committee to look into the matter be made public. In other words, by rendering it public, and thus open to debate what might seem to be within the exclusive preserve of a judicial enquiry, she is suggesting that the matter needs to be brought firmly into the realm of the political. While I am completely in sympathy with Jaising’s position and suggestions, I want to dwell here on the more difficult questions that face us in each of the above situations, which are indicated by her own open letter.

 

Tehelka: The Sordid Saga

The Tejpal/Tehelka sordid saga that is  unfolding even as I write this, at one level, might appear to be the simplest amongst all of these. A powerful media Moghul (albeit one who nurtured investigations, and critical “sting operations”) who decides to indulge himself by casually assaulting a much younger woman colleague gets his come-uppance with her prompt, strong, and clearly unexpected protest. What this instance demonstrates, amongst other things, is an unfortunate reality. Very few Indian institutions have instituted committees along the lines stipulated by the Vishaka judgement’s guidelines. As Naina Kapur says, one of the reasons for setting these committees  was to make redressal simpler for women faced with sexual harassment/assault who might otherwise have been intimidated by the more onerous task of going to court. More recently, (in April 2013) the Indian government passed the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, Redressal) Act. 

Yet even in institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University that has a committee with excellent laws in place, it has been the tireless work of some dedicated women faculty members that keeps this legal machinery well oiled. Indeed, the very existence of the committee against Sexual Harassment in the University has provoked derisive comments from many, especially male faculty members, who represent its existence as the cause for all “problems”, rather than as a necessary solution to the varied forms of sexism rampant in places like the university. However, such views are not unique to educational institutions. Many air similar, and often far more cynical, views about complying with the Vishaka guidelines on the grounds that such committees, by their very existence of being within the workspace, are doomed to failure.[2] The suggestion somewhere in all of this is that the demand for justice itself is at fault, making the task for women arguing for the implementation of such laws doubly difficult.

 

Snooping on Women

This then brings me to the last of the “gender” issues that has grabbed media attention recently. This is the charge of snooping, and thereby infringing the privacy of the woman concerned, brought by Gulail and Cobraposts against Amit Shah, the minister of state for home and by extension the Gujarat government and Narendra Modi. This case has now taken different twists and turns, including the woman’s father now attempting to relieve the Modi government of all responsibility by claiming that he had requested that an eye be kept on his daughter for him. The Gujarat government, at the expense of the taxpayer and its exchequer, appears to have spent crores of rupees in putting what appears to be an extraordinarily elaborate surveillance system in place to accede to a father’s simple request! Needless to say, as the Gulail report rightly observes,[3] we have absolutely no idea about the extent of surveillance that might have taken place in Gujarat prior to this. We also do not yet know why this particular woman had to be watched so carefully, parental “concerns” notwithstanding. Despite the problems with naturalising such a patriarchal excuse for surveillance, I do not wish to reflect on that at present.

I do wish to remind us of another young woman – Ishrat Jahan.  Less than a decade ago, she had similarly been stalked, tailed and finally killed in a fake encounter or extra-judicial killing on entirely trumped up charges of terrorism and that of posing a threat to Narendra Modi’s life. We have here a case of another parent, a mother who despite threats of stalking and intimidation, attempting to take on the state machinery to fight for justice for her wrongfully murdered daughter. In all of this what is increasingly becoming clear is that Gujarat is now a complex nexus of illegality where, from law officers and security personnel to the police and politicians, an entire network appears to be implicated in gross forms of corruption – be it the misuse of state funds or that of public office. Needless to say it is this state that has also provided the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its prime ministerial candidate, Modi, in the forthcoming general elections in 2014.

What we are faced with here are not merely quotidian but gross and absolutely unpardonable forms of violations of rights – of women and of citizens. It also warns us about the fact that we are part of a frightening political system that has increasingly naturalised securitisation and surveillance systems. The task for feminists and all activists fighting for different forms of gender and social justice is to ask hard political questions. Quotidian sexism, and its different manifestations, however reprehensible, need to be dealt with alongside a fight for reclaiming shrinking spaces of political dissent. The brave young women who have recently protested against the problems of sexism within the judiciary, the official machinery meant to ensure justice to women, remind us of innumerable Indian citizens languishing without any recourse to justice in Indian jails.

Similarly, the shocking news of the complex nexus of stalking and surveillance in Gujarat alerts us not only to how vitiated Indian politics is, but which citizens stand at greater risk.  Despite a profoundly enabling Constitution, the lived reality of the country is, for the most part, at variance with its tenets. Any meaningful fight at this juncture must be simultaneously against these different forms of injustice. The complexity of the present battles against sexual harassment demonstrates what many feminists have always asserted – that structures of violence and oppression are layered and its sites multiple. The difficult task ahead is to politically address these differences, without giving up on one’s fundamental demands – the right to unimpaired systems of redressal and to that of gender justice.

 

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