FIR or Sexual harassment committee? #Tehelka

What Tarun Tejpal did at Tehelka’s iThink Festival seems to have more witnesses than it appears. In spite of the victim repeatedly saying she does not want to file an FIR, there is a clamour for exactly that.

This bothers me. This bothers me because yet again, activism silences the victim. In supposedly caring for the victim, we end up overruling her voice. I don’t see this as helpful to the victim or empowering to women at large.

This is hardly a case of the victim being silenced. She has managed to speak with colleagues, speak to media at large through a representative. She has made her demands clear and the demands are aligned with guidelines intended to make working spaces safer for women. The guidelines also include the possibility of an FIR, if the committee finds Indian law broken. She has not abdicated her rights. So where is this tide of insistence on an FIR coming from? Also, why? If the victim believes that an FIR is not required, how is it that so many people know what she went through better than her?

Is an FIR really the better choice?

I don’t think so. An FIR would probably be the best option if Tehelka had continued to refuse to form a sexual harassment committee as per Supreme Court guidelines as an escalation of her action if one failed. But this one didn’t fail. The pressure on Tehelka has led to a committee being formed under women’s rights activist Urvashi Butalia. Is the victim’s interest still best served by filing an FIR? I don’t think so.

Sexual harassment is illegal under law. However, it would take a complete idiot to imagine that it being illegal does a single thing to prevent it. It happens in workplaces, families, public places. It is everywhere. Workplaces in particular make it difficult for women. However, the law is too distant. It lets people abdicate their responsibility of safety and inclusion for women. A woman gets harassed, then go to a court of law, while the world outside continues to victimize her for being the victim.

The Vishakha guidelines, in my view are a superior alternative. They force workplaces to address problems faced by the women in the environment they happen in. They have a direct impact in the power balance of the organization in the place where the imbalance is. To put it in a primitive way, the perpetrator is defeated by his victim in the same power structure that he violated her. This will have an impact on the overall culture of the organization as well. If there is a crime found, the Vishaka guidelines direct the EMPLOYER to file proceedings against the perpetrator. In other words, Tehelka will have to file a case against Tarun Tejpal – who created it. Whoever believes that a sexual harassment committee isn’t a far more powerful choice for proceeding for this victim clearly hasn’t thought it through.

And the option of an FIR is ALWAYS there, if the sexual harassment committee fails to see the matter fairly.

Here is also an opportunity to do greater good for working women of India at large by creating awareness of the Vishakha guidelines and their implementation. By following the process in a way that more people understand what is going on and how it protects women and what is needed from organizations in order to follow the guidelines. I dare say Tehelka with its human rights aware staff will be an ideal example for the country as well. Both, in not having followed the guidelines, like so many organizations, and then pretty much doing the whole thing from scratch in public eye – the process, if not the case.

Finally, I sense that the victim does care deeply for Tehelka. Her continuing work during the festival, the method of intervention she has chosen, all lead to nurturing Tehelka while confronting what is wrong. Considering the number of organizations in the country with rotten bosses, it is a lesson that will be useful for many – how an organization can be strengthened by making it safe for women. How harassment can be confronted even if it is at the top of the ladder. The fact that it is the abuser who has resigned (upgraded from recused for six months) and not the victim is a massive plus already.

There is a need to be less hyperbolic and more sensitive to what the victim is trying to achieve as justice and respect that it has a larger vision than simply filing a case, and throwing a chap behind bars, which may still happen if the sexual harassment committee finds a crime.

It might be useful to remember that a victim of a sexual crime was defeated in that moment. This does not make her stupid. The victim in question is a journalist in a publication that deals extensively with women’s rights and between herself and colleagues helping her they have seen more wisdom on what works to get justice after rape than people patronizing her and dismissing her wishes.

Lastly, there seems to be a horde of people who are in it just because it is Tehelka. Fair enough. Tehelka exposed corruption in their party a decade ago and made them lose their halo. Now they are happy to dance on its grave. Fair enough too. But it will be more effective to stop pretending that it is an effort to support the victim. It isn’t support to overrule someone to protect them. It is just another Khap Panchayat.


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