It took 10 years for Rina Mukherji to win her case of illegal termination arising out of a complaint of sexual harassment at The Statesman.
As women growing up in India, nearly all of us are familiar with street sexual harassment. Catcalls, lewd comments, shoving, groping and pushing are the norm as one grows up into adolescence, teen and adult. However, moving into the workplace was a special thrill, since it meant that the world viewed you with a special respect. Whether you worked for a news agency, magazine, or newspaper, people looked on you as an opinion-maker.
In spite of the comparatively slim pay-packet that the job ensured (at least in the mid-to-late 1980s), when I entered the profession as a post-graduate following journalism school, this was what appealed. The exhilaration continued even after I moved from Mumbai to Kolkata after my marriage. Journalism was what I loved and hence I continued being a journalist even after having completed a doctorate on a UGC fellowship. However, the arrival of my daughter and the need to be with her put the brakes on my career for a while.
When I returned to work after a few years, it meant taking up whatever came my way. Through some people in the profession, I learnt that The Statesman was looking out for senior reporters. So, one fine morning, I left my application at the reception of Statesman House and left the rest to chance. I was told it would take a month for the newspaper to take a decision. It was a Thursday.
On Saturday, I received a call. They wanted me to come over for an interview. My resume had impressed them and I was given the job. It did mean losing my seniority in the profession and putting up with a far lower salary than I deserved. Yet, I did not mind. I needed to get back to work and get back into mainstream journalism.
I joined The Statesman in June 2002. I was to report to the chief reporter and, through him, to the news coordinator—and my eventual harasser—Ishan Joshi. The first few weeks were fine, with everyone being welcoming and friendly. The news coordinator was, in fact, even more so. My ideas and stories were highly appreciated. I was also given the environment and public health beat to cover, which made me happier.
About a month into my job, I noticed that Ishan Joshi would dash into me in the corridors and whenever he did so, feel me up. Initially, I took it to be accidental. But then I realised the huge corridors of the British-style edifice of the Kolkata office of The Statesman did not call for it. The corridors were just too wide. I started keeping a distance but the behaviour persisted. It was in the newsroom, the editorial meetings, everywhere. It was common for him to stalk me in the office premises and otherwise find ways to touch me, often inappropriately.
As the months progressed, the harassment got worse. It was sometime during the height of the Kolkata monsoon that Joshi decided to invite the news bureau to his home for a party. That was when, taking advantage of a moment when I was alone, he forcibly molested me. The incident so shocked me that I was left speechless and numb. From then on, I started to avoid him.
But this only made the harassment worse. My best stories started getting killed. Everything was spiked at the news coordinator’s level, with nothing reaching the desk.
When I complained to the managing editor Ravindra Kumar, he suggested that I “compromise”. Irked by my complaint, Joshi now called on me to resign, on grounds of “not fitting the bill”. By then, I had decided to fight it out, and so I refused to resign. On Dussehra day, October 2002, I was terminated by The Statesman; this was a little before my probation was scheduled to get over.
Although happy to escape the daily harassment, the entire ordeal began revisiting me in the weeks that followed, leaving me an emotional wreck. This was when I learnt of Sanhita, a non-governmental organisation that worked on cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. After dilly-dallying for over a month, Sanhita excused itself from the case, citing constraints involved when dealing with “a big media house”.
However, Sanhita helped me get in touch with Ananya Chatterjee and Rajashri Dasgupta of the newly-formed Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI) who took up my case with The Statesman which, in spite of being one of the oldest media houses in India, had not complied with the Vishaka Guidelines of the Supreme Court that had been passed as far back as 1997. Although The Statesman and its managing editor refused to recognise their authority to speak on my behalf to demand an investigation into my complaint, the pressure that the publicity fallout generated did succeed in having The Statesman set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in early 2003.
Meanwhile, I had approached the West Bengal Commission for Women, with the help of fellow-journalist and friend Partha Pratim Nag. The chairperson, Professor Jasodhara Bagchi, and her colleagues tried their utmost to have The Statesman investigate into my complaint but to no avail. By then, convinced that my issue had no chance of being solved internally, I proceeded to lodge a police complaint, as advised by the Women’s Commission. I also went on to lodge a complaint of illegal termination with the Chief Labour Commissioner.
The Statesman refused to cooperate with both arms of the state. Thus, my case landed up with the Industrial Tribunal.
By then, nearly every person in Kolkata civil society knew about my fight against sexual harassment. I had become an icon for many and ended up addressing the Maitreyee network of women’s organisations, besides some national-level organisations too. Unfortunately, although there were many who initially pledged support for my cause, few cared to stand by me when the police investigation was underway. In fact, some actively tried to work against me. It was also tough to convince many seasoned lawyers to take up my case since sexual harassment at the workplace was a very new issue. Thankfully, a social activist from Maitreyee put me through to the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), and Sutapa Chakravarty.
Ms Chakravarty and her lawyers—Shamit Sengupta initially, followed by Debashis Banerjee and Ambalika Roy—helped me through the Industrial Tribunal, the Calcutta High Court and the Patiala House Courts, standing by me all through.
Mine is a classic case of a media house—a part of the fourth estate of the world’s largest democracy—refusing to respect or follow the Supreme Court’s guidelines, even as it wags an accusing finger at a complainant demanding justice against sexual harassment. Until this day, my complaint has not been investigated, and neither has my harasser Ishan Joshi been punished. Instead, even as I battled it out in courts in Kolkata and Delhi, he got promoted to deputy editor at The Statesman, from where he proceeded to adorn the position of editor-in-chief at The Herald in Goa.
As for me, it has been a long wait for justice, wherein I had to keep alive my professional career, trying hard to stay afloat through freelancing for a variety of print and online publications, while balancing my obligations as a homemaker and mother. Attending regular court hearings in Kolkata was tough. Attending court in Delhi to contest criminal defamation meant spending my hard-earned money travelling and staying in another city. My daughter was four years old when I worked at The Statesman. As she grew up, I had to forego my presence by her side during tests and exams, although I have always helped her with nearly all subjects in school. It meant keeping in touch with her on the phone, advising her on how to tackle a tricky math problem, or giving her ideas for her Hindi or English essays.
A decade and a half in courts taught me how to persevere in the face of frustrating delays at every level. The Industrial Tribunal saw me deal with vacant courts for periods ranging from six months to 1.5 years, and the coming and going of four different judges. At Patiala House, the 15 years I spent fighting for justice saw five different judges and four different courts handle my matter, although there were no vacant courts to deal with in Delhi. In both Kolkata and Delhi, the opposing party easily delayed matters on grounds of their lawyer/s being busy, not being ready with the argument, and not feeling well on numerous occasions.
I realised India has the best laws in the world, but tardy implementation prevents justice from coming our way. The Vishaka Guidelines were put in place in 1997. But The Statesman did not have an Internal Complaints Committee( ICC) to deal with my case in 2002. Even when it was set up, my complaint was not investigated. Even after the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act came into force in 2013, very few organisations bothered to set up ICCs with trained members in place. Until today, complainants continue to be victimised and thrown out of their jobs, the way I was. Interim relief, if resorted to, can further delay proceedings.
After a decade, the Tribunal ruled in my favour. The verdict was upheld in the Calcutta High Court, albeit with a much-reduced compensation. The Statesman referred it to a division bench, where the case awaits closure. The Patiala House courts in Delhi have acquitted me in my criminal defamation case, but I am yet to return to a full-time job in mainstream media. Winning has vindicated my stand but it all seems so hollow when there is no full-time job or savings to fall back on.
Recently, an amendment was introduced to penalise organisations that do not have ICCs in place. One hopes the government will also set up a mechanism for compliance of the SHW Act, and ensure speedy justice through fast-track courts. It will prevent many other careers from getting derailed, the way mine was!