NEW DELHI—Two former employees have sued India's National Commission for Women (NCW) for not renewing their contracts after they complained in early 2016 about "persistent sexual harassment" by VVB Raju, the NCW's deputy secretary at the time.
When one of them resisted Raju's advances, their petition filed in the Delhi High Court claims that he warned her that she would be "kicked out of the job".
Rather than supporting the women, some officials of the NCW "participated in the perpetuation of sexual harassment", the petition states. It claims that then Chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam warned one of the petitioners to "improve her performance" at work if she wanted her contract to be extended.
This warning was allegedly given on account of oral complaints about sexual harassment made by one of the ex-employees in a meeting with Anand Choudhary, the officer on special duty to Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development, on 25 February 2016.
Raju, the senior official accused of sexual harassment, was most recently Head of Administration of the Union government's flagship Atal Innovation Mission at the NITI Aayog. HuffPost India could not ascertain whether he is still in the same post or not at present. In response to HuffPost India's queries, Raju emailed a copy of the reply he filed in response to the petition in court. He has called the petition "just a ruse, an aftermath to harass and defame the Respondents in order to protect" the petitioners' jobs and "taint the entire Respondents and their work".
The respondents here include Raju and the NCW, among others.
Specifically responding to the accusations of sexual harassment against him, Raju wrote that they "are not only untrue and concocted" but also tarnish his "reputation and hard-work". He also claimed that "both the Petitioners have worked in cahoots with malice in order to frame" him.
Kumaramangalam, a former BJP national secretary, has left the NCW and is now one of four directors of the India Foundation—an "independent" think-tank whose board of governors include Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu and BJP National Secretary Ram Madhav.
Kumaramangalam responded to HuffPost India's questions about the petitioner's claims in an email. About the claim that one of the petitioners was warned to "improve her performance", the ex-NCW chief said, "I would first like to bring to your notice that my term as Chairperson of the NCW ended on 28/9/2017, and, that I have no access to the files in which any of the "warnings" you refer to in your email of above may have been given. Hence, I cannot comment on this. If you wish to arrive at the whole truth, you will need to access details of (names redacted) files for the entire period of their employment at NCW."
In response to a question on the claims by the two ex-employees about the NCW's Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) inquiry being a "sham and opaque", Kumaramangalam said, "I was not a member of it, and, especially as I have demitted office almost a year ago, it will not be right for me to comment on it's working. However, as per the law, the petitioners were given the chance to respond to the final report of the findings/decision of the ICC."
The NCW's current chairperson Rekha Sharma is the former media in-charge of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Haryana, and is on record claiming that 30% of rape cases examined by her organisation are fake. Sharma's media adviser Pauline Zonunpuii responded to HuffPost India's queries about the story: "The matter is sub-judice in the Hon'ble High Court of Delhi and all relevant facts have been placed on record in the Hon'ble High Court. Since the matter is sub-judice the National Commission for Women does not want to comment at this stage."
The careers of the women complainants have suffered after the NCW refused to renew their employment contracts. One of them is still unemployed. The second complainant has found work but she told HuffPost India through an intermediary that she is worried about getting into trouble if her new managers learn that she had filed a sexual harassment case against her previous employer.
The careers of the women complainants have suffered after the NCW refused to renew their employment contracts
In the meantime, the NCW—an autonomous organisation meant to fight against any "deprivation of women's rights" as per the National Commission for Women Act of 1990—is grappling with two grave charges in court levelled by the two former employees. One, shielding a senior and influential bureaucrat charged with sexual harassment of co-workers and two, failing to check "rampant harassment and discrimination of women" who are employed contractually with the commission without any recruitment rules.
Subhashini Ali, veteran activist with the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) and a former member of the NCW, said this case could hurt the credibility of the commission.
"NCW issues statements from time to time regarding violent attacks on women but in recent years this has been muted and less frequent. Now if there are complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace from within the organisation, then this will impact very adversely on the working and credibility of the NCW itself," she said.
Now if there are complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace from within the organisation, then this will impact very adversely on the working and credibility of the NCW itself
The Supreme Court laid down the Vishakha Guidelines in 1997 to protect women from sexual harassment at the workplace. In 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act came into force. However, many organisations have not understood and implemented the provisions of the Act properly. A 2017 Ficci-EY report said that "ambiguity and unfamiliarity still prevail in most situations" even when organisations attempt to deal with the issue.
Ali also believes that the problem of poor implementation of the Vishakha Guidelines and anti-sexual harassment law is not confined to the NCW.
"In many government offices and government undertakings, the law is not being implemented properly and lip service is paid. For example, a very junior woman employee is appointed to the committee so that she can be pressurised. They just flout the whole spirit of the legislation by not appointing women who could discuss these things and bring the culprit to book. The second thing is that you are supposed to have someone from outside the organisation to do the inquiry. Especially someone from a women's organisation that is working and fighting on these issues. But they don't do that," she pointed out.
The case of the complainants, as detailed in the writ petition filed by Advocate Aly Mirza and pending in the High Court since April 2017, is as follows.
The first complainant, who worked at NCW in a research capacity, was hired on a contractual basis in January 2010 and her contracts were periodically renewed till November 2016. Over the years her conduct and performance were appreciated, her employment contract was renewed and her salary was periodically hiked.
The second complainant worked in an administrative capacity at the commission from February 2012 till early 2016, with periodic renewals of her contract as well. Both employees were hired on different and relatively modest salaries, earning much less than Rs 10,000. HuffPost India has redacted the exact duties performed by the two women to protect their anonymity.
In late 2015, Raju was posted to the NCW as Deputy Secretary after a stint at the Securities and Exchange Board of India. Both women say he began to harass them soon after.
In her written complaint to the NCW's Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in March 2016, the woman working in a research role said Raju was "insisting" that she "should come in person to get his signatures in the evening only after 5:30 pm" otherwise he would "complain to the Chairperson of the Commission and will throw me out of the job". She also cited one instance in which Raju purportedly came to her cabin and rested his hand on hers and tried to touch her. When she disengaged and moved back, he left the room.
The other woman, who was in an administrative role, described an incident when she requested him to consider her for a different job within the NCW, and he asked her to bring documents related to her educational qualifications.
When she brought them the next day, he allegedly stated: "if there is more work, you could come to my home and work". She also stated in her written complaint to the ICC that on second and fourth Saturdays, while other employees would leave around 2-3 pm, he would ask her to stay back in office until late. She would then be asked to work from inside his office, the complaint claims. Elsewhere, the petition also cites a purported conversation between the woman and Raju where he remarked about the colour of her eyes. "You have brown eyes. I like girls who have brown eyes," the Deputy Secretary is quoted as saying in the complaint. Her response to this alleged remark was silence.
In February 2016, the woman working in a research position made an oral complaint to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, headed by Maneka Gandhi, by meeting Anand Chaudhary, Gandhi's Officer on Special Duty.
Ministry officials, the petition claims, spoke to senior officers at the NCW and "an oral warning was given to put the house in order". This was not taken kindly by Chairperson Kumaramangalam and the harassment faced by the complainant allegedly worsened.
Ministry officials, the petition claims, spoke to senior officers at the NCW and 'an oral warning was given to put the house in order'
A few days after the oral complaint, says the petition, Kumaramangalam warned the researcher about improving the quality of her work and extended her contractual employment by three months.
The NCW's ICC submitted its report on the matter in May 2016. The report accepted that Raju did ask one woman to come to his house for work and said the NCW had issued him a letter of warning in this regard, but dismissed all other charges.
While the woman working in the administrative role was "arbitrarily" terminated in early 2016, the other woman working in a research role was also effectively fired when her final extension of six months ended in November 2016 and her contract was not renewed.
The women allege that the NCW staff, particularly those who were involved in investigating their complaints, actively sought to impede their quest for justice by conducting a "sham and opaque" inquiry. The petition points out that officials junior to the accused were part of the ICC and one of them was herself a contractual employee. This rendered them vulnerable to pressure from the accused, who was a senior officer.
Significantly, the petition states that both complainants received no other document relating to the inquiry that let Raju off with a slap on the wrist except its findings. While the witnesses deposed, the complainants were asked to wait outside the room in which the deposition was being done. The written statements of the witnesses were also never shared with the complainants. When one of the complainants made a written request asking for other documents pertaining to the inquiry, she did not get them.
The extent of opacity in the NCW about the internal investigation into the alleged sexual harassment was revealed when one of the women filed a Right To Information (RTI) request to procure the documents which the commission was refusing to give despite written requests. These included documents pertaining to the extension of her contract and about the inquiry into the sexual harassment complaints filed by her and the other woman.
The extent of opacity in the NCW about the internal investigation into the sexual harassment was revealed when one of the women filed a RTI request
But the NCW did not share any of these. When she appealed against this, the request was first routed to Raju—the official accused of harassing her. Raju subsequently recused himself, but his replacement dragged her feet and the information was not released until the Central Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu directed them to.
In his order, Acharyulu said, "It is not known why NCW office was acting totally against the rights of the appellant and there was not an iota of effort to address her grievance or complaint or a problem and why the RTI wing of the NCW has totally blocked the access to information to the appellant. And above all the Member Secretary is silent on her complaint.Though the appellant elaborated 16 requisition points, all of them could have been addressed with simple offer of inspection and furnishing of chosen documents as per RTI Act."
The CIC also fined Raju for obstructing information and another NCW official for not furnishing the information sought within the stipulated time.
The researcher then got some of the documents, but the NCW allegedly failed to share with her for inspection the full set she had requested. Both the NCW and Raju appealed against the CIC's order in the Delhi High Court, which granted an interim stay on it.
What the NCW said in court
In its official replies in court, read by HuffPost India, the NCW has denied almost all assertions by the ex-employees. Regarding the employee working in a research role, the NCW has stated that her contract was not renewed because her performance was repeatedly found unsatisfactory over the six years that she worked there.
The commission also claimed that the renewals of her contract were previously done only because of an "acute shortage of regular staff".
The petitioners have countered this by citing multiple letters of appreciation given by diverse NCW officials endorsing the work done by one of the women who worked in a research role. They have also claimed "arbitrariness" in contractual hiring, which rendered such staff vulnerable to the "whims and fancies of senior officials" such as Raju.
The matter is still pending in court and hearings have not progressed beyond the initial stages.