Author : Janani Sampath
How the Tarun Tejpal judgment takes us back by several years
The Hindi movie ‘Insaaf Ka Tarazu’ by BR Chopra, a remake of the Hollywood movie Lipstick, is a story on the travails of a rape victim, a model. In the flick, there is a courtroom scene in which the defense lawyer talks about the victim’s character, observing how a model like her can’t claim rape when she is in a profession where she is supposed to make men fantasize about her. That was a movie made in 1980, more than 40 years ago. Several times and more, we have seen such scenes in films across languages the victim is blamed and shamed, and accused of asking for it.
However, even as we want to brush it aside as just fiction, the judgment by a trial court in Goa for a sexual assault case, acquitting journalist and publisher, Tarun Tejpal, makes observations that are more unbelievable than any movie script. The case dates back to November 2013, when a junior colleague, accused Tejpal of assault at a hotel in Goa.
In the 527-page acquittal by judge Kshama M. Joshi, several lines can leave one in disbelief. The court scrutinizing her phone records and messages noted, “… it was entirely the norm for prosecutrix to have such flirtatious and conversations with friends and acquaintances. Therefore, the WhatsApp chats of the prosecutrix, and her propensity to indulge in sexual conversations with friends and acquaintances, as well as her admission that the accused was talking about sex or desire because that is what the accused usually chose to speak about, unfortunately never her work, proves that the accused and the prosecutrix had a flirtatious conversation on the night…” The judgment notes how the victim didn’t behave like one, saying, “…did not look distressed or traumatized in any manner whatsoever, though this was immediately a few minutes after she claims to have been sexually assaulted again by the accused, putting her in a state of panic and trauma.” It also adds, “The prosecutrix (complainant) was absolutely in a good mood, happy, normal and smiling.”
The character assassination, stereotyping, and much of the judgment being tailored around how a victim should ideally behave, take the country several years back in its approach towards sexual assault victims.
A pervasive issue
Interestingly, the Tejpal case happened the same year when the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, or the POSH Act, came into effect. Offering a platform to raise grievances about harassment at the workplace, the Act is perceived to be a shot in the arm for women, as it creates a level playing field. It offers companies and organizations— both in organized and unorganized sectors– a mechanism to make their workplaces inclusive. The highlight of the Act is the concept of Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) to be formed within the organizations to ensure speedy disposal of the cases.
Since then, while corporate houses have leveraged the POSH Act to complement its efforts in upping its gender ratio, a few sectors are yet to catch up with advocacy and practice. A recent study by the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) and a gender champion, Gender at Work, found out that over a third of women working in English and regional media houses across cities have experienced harassment at their workplace. The study involving 456 respondents also revealed that over half of these women didn’t report the incident. While 30 percent of them weren’t aware of an ICC in their organizations, just about 35 percent, who approached their ICCs, expressed satisfaction with the proceedings.
The victim in the Tejpal case hailed from the same sector and managed to take the case to court— courtesy, the brouhaha that surrounded it back then.
Where the light doesn’t reach
However, the struggle that every woman will relate to is the judgment pronounced. Especially those innumerable faceless women employed in factories, construction sites, smaller industries, and domestic workers.
The POSH Act also calls for the Local Complaints Committee at the district level to include women in every field in its ambit. However, in 2018, a study by the Martha Farrell Foundation and Society for Participatory Research in Asia through Right to Information requests to 655 districts found out that just 29 percent of them had formed the committees, while 15 percent hadn’t, and a whopping 56 percent of them didn’t respond to the query. In other words, there is no succor for the women in the unorganized sector, where there are no ICCs.
The #metoomovement showed us how ubiquitous harassment is — from organized to unorganized sectors, media houses, arts, and corporate houses. While several women took to social media to talk about it, they have been outnumbered by the voices not heard so far.
The most unlikely voices like that of the women from a garment factory near Chennai, who faced harassment repeatedly by a supervisor, were heard. But they already had paid a heavy price of losing their jobs for seeking action by authorities.
The latest judgment is a reflection of the collective mindset towards crimes against women. It makes one shudder and wonder about the ordeals lesser privileged women face, as they fear the stigma that comes with such revelations, even as they wage a perennial battle with poverty. The implications of such a judgment are huge for them— as they will think twice before voicing their grievance— leave alone seeking justice. If a learned judge can go on a tirade against the victim in every part of her judgment, what can they expect from the supervisor at their workplace or the inspector at a local station, who will most likely ask her, “what were you wearing?”