On 24th June, 2016, the High Court of Gauhati decided the case of Tezpur University and Ors. vs. C.S.H.N. Murthy, which was a clear case of quid pro quo sexual harassment.
The facts of the case are that in 2013, a student (“Complainant”) of Mass Communication and Journalism (“MCJ”) immediately on the next day after the date of the incident in question, filed a written complaint before the Chairperson of Complaint Committee on Sexual Harassment of the University (“CCSH”), complaining that Mr. C.S.H.N. Murthy (“Respondent”), who was the Head of Department of MCJ of Tezpur University, had sexually harassed her. However, after about a week of her first complaint, she filed a detailed complaint with CCSH, describing each and every incident of sexual harassment, along with dates and witnesses. Thereafter, 3 other students also filed similar complaints against the Respondent by e-mail.
While the judgment has quoted several paragraphs of the disturbing incidents narrated by the Complainant in her second complaint, we are providing below some portions of the complaint as they appear in the Judgment, to give an understanding of the nature of this complaint.
‘…Prof. Murthy went through the report and pointed out minor flaws in the report. After going through the entire report he agreed to sign on it and said that I should meet him at his home to correct the same. When I did not give any clear answer to his invitation he commented that the entire male faculty in the department sign the dissertations of their female students because they offer them ‘something’. He specifically mentioned that two of my classmates Ananya and Bhanita are among the ones who had got work done by offering ‘something’ to their guides Dr. Uttam Kr. Pegu and P.J. Daimari respectively. He then asked me what he will get from me if he signs on my dissertation report. When I said that I did not understand what he was indicating he said that this is the reason why I was facing this situation today and was unable to get my work done. He referred to some other research student who also did not understand the hint and hence was unable to get the research completed…’
‘…Thinking that he was wanting to leave and that the space was very constricted, I also stood up from my place trying to make way of him. At this he held me by my waist and made me sit back on my chair and went out of the room...’
‘…Prof. Murthy asked me whether I was coming with him to his room or not…” and “…I was afraid that something very bad will happen to me academically and as it was my last few days in the department I somehow wanted to finish my research and be done with it. So, even though unwilling, I went to his room.’
‘…He called me a “drama queen”…’
‘…He asked my age and insisted that at the age of 23 I am a matured woman, so I should not pretend that I did not understand what he meant…’
‘…He said that North East girls are very ‘easily available and they have a lot of freedom to do whatever they want. They are not like Andhra girls who do not have so much freedom’ and none of the girls in the class are ‘pure’…’
‘…He said he will help me get good marks by telling the external if I did not mention about the incident to anybody…’
During inquiry, Respondent did not deny the offer being made to Complaint to give her higher grade in her dissertation if she met him in his residence. Also, not only did the witnesses corroborate the version of the Complainant but as many as 31 students of the department signed and forwarded the complaint of sexual harassment made by Complainant.
Hence, CCSH arrived at the conclusion that the Respondent was guilty. It noted that the ‘aggrieved’ appeared to be genuinely shattered and shocked by the misbehaviour of the Respondent and students were not safe with the Respondent who is obsessed with ‘sex’. It also noted an important point that Respondent instructed students not to say anything adverse about the department to CCSH. So during inquiry, when CCSH visited the department, the students denied any allegation and said that there was no problem in the department.
Accordingly, CCSH recommended that the Respondent be terminated from service with immediate effect. Thereafter, an inquiry proceeding by inquiry officer was also ordered by the University which also found him guilty and the University issued an order removing the Respondent from service. Aggrieved by the order, the Respondent approached the High Court with a writ petition which was allowed by the Single Judge. Aggrieved by the decision of the Single Judge, Tezpur University and others filed an appeal before the High Court (“Appeal”).
In the Appeal, Respondent argued before the Court that this was a conspiracy hatched by his rivals who wanted to ensure his downfall because they were jealous of his rapid career advancement and that his credentials as a Professor was of International repute and had never been doubted by anybody. His broad defence was that the original complaint was ‘vague’ and did not have any details, especially dates and that the procedure followed during inquiry was in violation of Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965 (“CCS Rules”)
After hearing both sides, the Court allowed the Appeal and held against the Respondent while observing that:
With respect to the vague complaint, it must be borne in mind that having suffered harassment of sexual nature at the hand of her HoD, the Complainant was in a state of shock and dismay. Under such circumstances she could not have been expected to be in a composed state of mind to pen down every minute detail of the entire incident on the very next day of the incident. Even though the initial complaint did not contain full particulars regarding the date and time of the incident, but the subsequent complaint gave all details including the date and time of the incident and such version of the Complainant remained consistent all through out.
It must be remembered that the inquiry conducted by CCSH is in the nature of fact finding Inquiry. In these matters, it is desirable that the inquiry be undertaken and concluded by the Committee without undue delay. The standard of proof is preponderance of probability and there is no need to establish the charge of sexual harassment beyond reasonable doubt as in a criminal proceeding. All that is necessary is that the inquiry must be conducted in a fair and transparent manner and in due compliance of the principles of natural justice, after giving full opportunity to the delinquent to defend his case.
With respect to inquiry procedure, it said that in the case of Medha Kotowal Lele, the Supreme Court had held that the report of CHSH is to be treated as a finding of guilt of a delinquent for the purpose of imposing penalty. Therefore, it was permissible for the University to take action against the Respondent treating report of CCSH as inquiry report and the subsequent inquiry proceeding by an Inquiry Officer was unnecessary. However, it said that since the Inquiry Officer had conducted the proceeding in a fair manner, giving full opportunity to Respondent, the order of penalty against Respondent did not suffer from any infirmity.
In an attempt to convince the Court that usage of slang language and taboo expressions in the class room was not only permissible but was also necessary, Respondent used a few expressions before the Court, which the Court did not deem fit to mention in the Judgment, however, it said that such uncouth expressions used by him were totally unfit for being used in a civilized society, more particularly in presence of ladies and using such slangs cannot be of any purpose save and except reflecting a pervert bent of mind of the speaker.
– Adv. Shivangi Prasad – Corporate Lawyer, External Member & Trainer, Head – Legal & Compliance, Partner POSH at Work