It is important that the courts uphold the spirit of the right against sexual harassment, says SC

A Supreme Court bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.S. Bopanna observed on Friday that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace(Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 – a transformative legislation – may not come to the aid of persons aggrieved if the appellate mechanisms turn the process into a punishment. The right against sexual harassment is part of the right to life and right to dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution, the bench held.

The bench observed that it is important to be mindful of the power dynamics that are mired in sexual harassment at the workplace. “There are several considerations and deterrents that a subordinate aggrieved of sexual harassment has to face when they consider reporting sexual misconduct of their superior”, the bench added.

In the instant case, Union of India vs. Mudrika Singh, the complainant was a constable complaining against the respondent who was the head constable – his superior. Discrepancy regarding the date of the occurrence was of a minor nature since the event occurred soon after midnight and on the next day. Deeming such a trivial aspect to be of monumental relevance, while invalidating the entirety of the disciplinary proceedings against the respondent and reinstating him to his position renders the complainant’s remedy at nought, the bench concluded. “The history of legal proceedings such as these is a major factor that contributes to the deterrence that civil and criminal mechanisms pose to persons aggrieved of sexual harassment”, the bench further observed.

The bench implored courts to interpret service rules and statutory regulations governing the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace in a manner that metes out procedural and substantive justice to all the parties.

Earlier, the Calcutta High Court had quashed disciplinary proceedings against the respondent, and reinstated him to his initial position in the Border Security Force (BSF).

On May 2, 2006, he was accused by the complainant of committing sodomy on the constable, belonging to his battalion, thus triggering an enquiry against him. Both the Single Judge and the Division bench of the High Court had taken a “hyper-technical view of the matter”, and failed to appreciate the provisions of the BSF Act, 1968 and BSF Rules, 1969, which make any disgraceful conduct of a cruel, indecent or unnatural kind, a punishable offence. On conviction by a Security Force Court, the accused is liable to suffer imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years or such less punishment. The Director-General of BSF, accordingly, reduced the quantum of sentence, under Section 48 of the BSF Act.

The High Court’s decision, therefore, led to considerable dismay.

The Supreme Court, in its judgment, authored by Justice Chandrachud, held that there was no error of jurisdiction on the part of the Commandant in seeking clarification in regard to the date of the incident, as found by the High Court. The charge against the respondent was found to have been fully substantiated by evidence on the record, the bench held.

The bench allowed the Union of India’s appeal, and set aside the impugned judgment and order of the Single Judge and the Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court, apart from dismissing the respondent’s writ petition.