Asking For It: My Battle Against Sexual Harassment
**TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL HARASSMENT**
(Disclaimer: This is a personal anecdote of the author while she fought the Sexual Harassment case against two of her classmates in college. this case went on appeal and lasted for a total period of 4 years. She lost the case despite all her efforts and this article encapsulates just how difficult it is for a woman in an intrinsically patriarchal society to stand up for her rights and herself. It is an attempt to create an awareness about the said hardships.)
The Indian Judiciary, a bastion of justice, a champion of the citizens and the Guardian of the Constitution. Lofty, lofty titles, and as an Institution, there are many hopes riding on the Courts to deliver them from the wrongs that plague their existence. Until June of 2018, I never imagined I would be at their mercy, being served a Notice by the High Court of Karnataka to be a Respondent in a case quashing the decision of my University’s Internal Complaints Committee to suspend two of my Classmates from their current year of studies by a year due to confirmed charges of sexual harassment. The ordeal began at the twilight hour before my End semesters, when a graphic unsolicited picture of a male nipple was sent to me via Snapchat captioned “This is mine, send me yours”; a repulsive act which was shocking, worsened by the refusal of the Petitioners herein to apologize or admit having sent the picture on purpose and other such acts of unrepentant dismissal. Thoroughly disgusted at their stubborn refusal to apologize and admit their mistake by concocting a story and pinning it on some friend I had never heard of, I referred the incident to my University Counselor, who attempted unsuccessfully to resolve the dispute, following which the Director of my Department investigated and made an intervention, ordering the expulsion of one and suspension of another. Subsequently, I was urged to file a formal complaint before the ICC to eliminate any possibility of bias in the decision making process, and I accordingly proceeded with the same, whereby our depositions were recorded and the ICC concluded that rather than a piecemeal measure of suspension or a drastic measure of expulsion, one year’s detention from the current year of study would serve as an adequate punishment.
On multiple occasions during the inquiries being held, I was asked by my batch-mates to let go of the issue at hand as it was not “serious enough” for some action to be taken against the Petitioners. I would get calls from the friends of the petitioners in the late hours of the night, asking me to withdraw my complaint and stop the sufferings of these seemingly innocent boys as what happened was something that is very normal among friends; they quoted examples of multiple women who shared such pictures and it was shocking to see law students forget the entire concept of consensual transmission of messages or pictures. My friends were approached and threatened to not stand in solidarity with me. The worse was when, after the ICC had passed its order with regard to the detention of the Petitioners, their family members started stalking me on social media platforms and tried to approach my parents, threatening my father with dire consequences if he did not convince me to withdraw the complaint. When they felt that my father was undaunted by these threats , they proceeded to certain legal recourse to equal effect, which proved to be a major turning point in my life.
As a law student, I always imagined grand entrances and flourishing speeches as my legacy in this Institution, a culmination of my growth as a practitioner of law. Alas, the reality was as jarring as it would come to be disappointing, and my first real taste of judicial proceedings would come from a case seeking to quash the aforementioned ICC order by my former classmates. The fact that they persisted with their purported innocence and their conviction in their own lack of guilt was perplexing, given the irrefutable fact that they did commit the offence of Sexual Harassment. The case circumvented almost all aspects of my character, seeking to examine the propriety of both my conduct and the treatment meted to them by the University, sprinkling salt on fresh wounds, which had not ceased to affect me in my daily life. Despite the removal of the Petitioners herein from my class, it was me facing the brunt of social and professional scorn. I was the epicenter of debates and discussions, wherein my own participation and narrative was swept under the barrage of opinions and criticisms which seeped through all layers of my institution. In effect, I became a spectacle for School of Law, an incident, not remembered for the nature of the offence but my determination to take down two of my contemporaries, like a modern day witch cursing those who offend her.
It was difficult, nay impossible to survive in such a hostile environment, and to my dismay, the High Court’s stay order on the ICC complaint rendered the idea of punishment meaningless, for the very persons fighting me in court were strolling around in my department, albeit outside my classroom, without fear or remorse. I often questioned myself, astounded at the sheer disregard for my modesty, integrity and identity, by an institution aiming to preserve all three. It was permissible for a public autopsy of my personality before the court, and yet it was too much to subject them to the remote punishment of not permitting them to come for University classes? It would be unfair for me to feel so victimized, for there were tacit supporters amongst friends, family and faculty; but to persevere in such circumstances truly is harrowing, particularly since the guilt of the Petitioners was admitted and accepted as a fact, yet seemed irrelevant throughout the theatre of everyday life.
I hoped beyond hope that there would be something worth fighting for, which seemed like an uphill task. It was frustrating being a witness to the process of justice, listening to how an unfair treatment is being meted out to the Petitioners, how they are suffering unduly for a trivial act, and how I ought to accept an Unconditional apology as the only form of repentance, and be content with what was offered to me. Hearing this from judges, advocates, contemporaries and others was deeply unsettling, and I was confused as to why I ought to have backed down from the current state of affairs. I was certain that I had never sought such pictures, never consented to being treated the way I was, and I was certainly fair in seeking an apology first and then seeking action against the Petitioners. I never wanted them to lose everything, and I still do not, in hindsight; but if people are not punished for their mistakes, or made to atone for their wrongdoings, however minor or seemingly insignificant, who knows what people would get away with, and what others might do to me or any others?
This hope survives, notwithstanding the current judgment, which has been an unexpected blow to my pride, and my faith. The very words of the text seemed to enrage me, showing an utter disregard to the formalities of proceedings, such as the inclusion of my name and that of a supportive faculty member, and a substantial emphasis on the supposed hardships faced by the Petitioners due to the lack of a fair, unbiased platform to be heard. I still fail to understand what was denied to them, given that the ICC gave them a fair chance to prove their innocence, why this incident warrants such high procedural standards and expectations, why it was fair for a repeated examination of my person was necessary but was not thorough enough for the Petitioners. The case shatters so many illusions for me, starting with the twisted notion of Natural Justice, a purported denial of a chance to be heard, despite the conclusion of both the ICC and the Court being the same functionally with regards to the guilt of the Petitioners. The judgment disregards guilt under the guise of procedural hiccups, without any substantial illegalities in procedure being discovered; and does not acknowledge the fact that the Petitioners suffered almost no punishment at all for their actions in spite of being found as guilty of their offences. The bulk of an academic year passed in pursuit of justice, and I refuse to accept such an unfair and inconsiderate conclusion to my story.
Adding on to this gross miscarriage of justice, the judiciary has failed me by making the greatest blunder of mentioning my name in the Judgement and revealing the very identity of mine that they were to protect from the rest of the world. They were to redact my name and details, it to my dismay, there it was, my name and other details, written in bold in the Cause Title of the Judgement.
This is not the end; I tell myself, and all those who doubt my story. That number rises with each blow, each attempt to silence and discredit me, and every half-measure and tokenistic solution offered to ‘pacify’ me. However, I am convinced that the Institution of the Judiciary is far more capable than a mere mouthpiece of procedural compliance, that it serves the true ideal of justice and will never silence or ignore the voices of those seeking help. I did not wish this to happen to me, nor do I wish any untoward harm to anyone involved, not even to my harassers; but I maintain my trust in my own right to speak up and refuse any act done to me without my consent, my right to seek help and remedy for any wrongs done upon me, and my right to demand a hospitable and conducive environment, where I can study, learn and grow as a human being without the taint of canards and dubious rumors questioning my reputation, my integrity and my character. I firmly believe that the Indian Judiciary is aware of the social circumstances enveloping our contemporary society, with the increase in agency of not just women, but all marginalized persons through movements like the #MeToo movement and through timely interventions by the Courts themselves. I am concerned with the consequences of the High Court’s decision being a precedent for other offenders, and while the significance of aggravated crimes is often deemed to occupy a greater relevance, every form of harassment in society is undesirable in the eyes of law. I do not believe that the Judiciary would abandon the cause of an innocent participant subjected to such harassment, and I hope to attain the justifiable remedy I deserve, without any further reprisals. I urge the Judiciary to hear my words, and pay close attention, lest they permit such an unwarranted attack upon my dignity, and the dignity of any other in my place; because I am not content with what was done to me, and will not sink back into a fatalistic acceptance of my fate, but will strive further to secure my rights and the rights of others like me, to attain an aware and capable society so many of us dream about.