In 2002, senior journalist Rina Mukherji, then working for The Statesman, Kolkata, filed a complaint of sexual harassment against Ishan Joshi, the news coordinator for the paper. The newspaper management responded not by investigating the complaint but by dismissing her. Rina went to the Labour Commissioner, and on February 6, 2013, the court ordered the media house to reinstate her with full back wages. In this first-person account, Rina talks of her decade-long battle for justice:
I was no novice when I joined The Statesman in 2002. I had started writing when in college and thereafter pursued a career in journalism for over a decade following a diploma in journalism in Mumbai. After a short sabbatical to do my doctorate on a UGC fellowship, I had moved to Kolkata and worked for a short time on the Business Standard. The arrival of my baby daughter had compelled me to keep off full-time work for a while.
I intended to put my career on track with this job at The Statesman in 2002.
That was not to be. Sexual harassment at the organisation, and an indifferent management changed my world altogether. I was totally demoralised by the experience and left shattered. I will not dwell on the details here, since a lot is available on this (NWMI) website. I needed gynaecological treatment and medical counselling to get over my trauma.
Once I got going, I realised the truth behind the dark underbelly that characterises the bright imprint of the Indian media. The truth that they boldly claim to espouse is conveniently swept under the carpet if it be unsuitable.
Sure, there were people who supported me. Rajashri Dasgupta, Ananya Chaterjee , Kalpana Sharma –each in her own way – brought the issue centre-stage. So did Sevanti Ninan of The Hoot. There were some colleagues at The Statesman too. Ajoy John and OP Rana tried to persuade the management to investigate into my complaint, to no avail. They had to leave the organisation for daring to speak up. OP Rana went on to make a statement to the police and West Bengal Commission for Women against the manner in which he was made to sign a letter against me by the management under duress.
Yet, the conciliation proceedings at the Labour Commissioner’s office proved unfruitful. The Women’s Commission was also unable to get The Statesman authorities to investigate into and look into my complaint, despite being at it for a year. The Statesman refused to comply. Period.
Once the dispute went into the labour court, it was a harrowing time for me. If you have ever seen a law court in India, you will know what I mean. A dingy, dusty, depressing place, a court in India can make a complainant feel worse than an accused. Once a case enters a court, one can forget about its future. It is best explained by what is so aptly put in a television commercial: “chalta rahe, chalta rahe.”
But try as you might, most organisations will prefer to settle matters in court. Mainly because, given the state of our courts, nothing is settled for years on end.
The first few months saw their lawyers drag the case on without a single hearing, using various pretexts. Although I have been very lucky to get short dates, with few long gaps in between, vacant courts have been my bane. To explain, vacant courts are especially characteristic of the Indian judicial system. Once a judge retires or is promoted to another court, the litigants and their legal suits languish by the wayside for years. In the course of nine years – 2004 to 2013 –I have lost nearly three years since there were four different judges who were either promoted or transferred. The Statesman and its lawyers know all this only too well. They took time and stretched the case until a judge had to leave on either promotion or transfer or retirement, leaving us high and dry for months, and hence hampering progress.
In fact, the moment I managed my first win, with an order in my favour, they appealed to the High Court against it. This made me lose precious time, in spite of the High Court ruling in my favour. Of course, once sent back to the labour court, the case continued.
But it took quite some time to have the first part decided. This was whether the labour court could decide on my case or not and whether I fell within the ambit of a “workman”. By then, I was too exhausted to continue. I was frustrated with the system, and thinking seriously on the amount of time and money that was going down the drain. The way the Indian judicial system is run makes a complainant feel condemned. Even a win feels no success at all. One looks at the unending path to a formal redemption.
My lawyers were unhappy; they had worked hard to get orders in my favour. “Please consider; think of the hard work we put in.” I relented, and I am glad I did.
I must also make a mention of the difficulty in getting a lawyer to fight my case. The senior lawyers were unwilling to try their hand in a case that was difficult, and without precedence. They are people who like to win…hence, only tried and tested varieties are admissible! If not for Ms Sutapa Chakrabarty of HRLN, a legal aid NGO in Kolkata, I would have been compelled to argue my own case.
Notwithstanding what I say about the attitude of senior legal luminaries, my case was certainly without precedence.
Women in Indian society are expected to be docile. A generation ago, educated women with jobs were branded as “badmaash” or “paaji”, since they were believed (perhaps rightly) not to brook any nonsense from anyone. Today, even though educated and employed women are a dime a dozen, women who are sexually harassed or molested are expected to keep quiet. Ditto with raped women (a venerable Hindu seer actually made remarks to that effect on the recent Delhi gang rape).
Consequently, laws made by the State to protect women remain untested at the ground level. Women’s commissions were set up in the various Indian states to deal with crimes and injustices perpetrated on women many years ago. But they remained quasi-judicial bodies with very limited powers and “no teeth” to bring offenders to book. These flaws in our system emerged scathingly when the West Bengal Commission for Women started dealing with my case, under the redoubtable feminist and academician Prof Jashodhara Bagchi.
Speaking up against a frustrating system can also work against a complainant, as I have discovered. Given the libel laws in our country, one can easily be brought to task. I have two civil and criminal libel suits filed against me in Kolkata and Delhi respectively. This has meant shuttling between two cities, and three suits, leaving me little time to work.
I have had some supportive friends and colleagues, and wonderful women like Sutapa Chakrabarty who headed the HRLN and helped me legally. But, beyond the initial help, one must go it alone. Be it the police, the Women’s Commission, and your lawyers, one has to juggle one’s professional demands, family, fellowships, and legal disputes with the finesse of a trapeze artiste.
The labour courts are considered comparatively faster that regular courts. But they provide no relief when an individual fights a case. One scrounges for money while spending precious years for reinstatement and relief after being illegally terminated. Unless there is a labour union to do so, one is doomed.
It also means that no one will employ you easily. In my case, even though jobs were not difficult to come by, given my credentials as a prolific writer, I found it difficult to work with three cases in three different courts to attend do. Thus, I had to take up and leave jobs, both full time and part-time, that paid well and promised much. In fact, in one case, the employer offered me a two-fold raise to prevent me from leaving, assuming I was not happy with my pay packet.
I would like to mention here, fighting my case has taught me to bolster my inner reserves as I travelled up and down, seeking lawyers, undergoing medical treatment and counselling, gathering information and attending courts all on my own while continuing writing for publications, full-time or part-time. At no stage was I ever accompanied by a friend or family member, and neither did I seek to share my misery with anyone else. My husband was a passive support, who sometimes extended financial help. Of course, given the kind of patriarchy prevalent in India, this is something one must be grateful of.
A word here about the attitude of colleagues in the profession, especially in Kolkata. I became a member of the NWMI-Bengal Chapter when I met Rajashri and Ananya in connection with my case way back in 2003. This was perhaps when it had just been set up by Rajashri Dasgupta. When details of my case on NWMI went viral, we had a lot of colleagues pledging support. However, when matters picked up, several of the members decided to shun me altogether. A few even moved away from the NWMI altogether since I continued to be a member. This, in spite of the fact that I was invited to write on other newspapers that had business links with The Statesman.
Since a lot is being said about women’s unity, I want to mention the attitude of some women journalists here as well. A look at the documents put up on the NWMI website will say it all, when you do a rough count of the number of women who have signed it. A certain lady, who was then the senior-most woman in the editorial section, had point blank refused to help me with a parting note on my work done for The Statesman publications, even after I had explained why I needed it. Even when the Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee was formed after pressure from NWMI’s Bengal chapter, she had never bothered, as someone with considerable clout on it, to initiate an investigation into my complaint. Today, she is out telling everyone about how she had helped me with my case. Truly, all the world loves a winner.
There are others who, like Oindrilla Mukherjee, have gone on to contest my credentials as a reporter and journalist, without ever having had any contact with me, save knowing who I was. Interestingly, I already had a decade’s experience working and writing for publications nationwide, while they were just a few months or a year in the profession. A few others have even sworn on what a thorough gentleman the accused offender is, and how unfounded my accusation is.
Of course, I am not surprised. Think of how many women laugh at your plight when you get teased on the streets; I know of many women who think nothing of delivering a sharp rebuke to a young girl when her clothes are tugged at or her dupatta pulled away by miscreants on the streets.
Contrast this with the help extended by several male colleagues like Partho Pratim Nag who not only supported me, but helped guide me on my path to justice.
By the same token, I cannot but be grateful for the promptness with which the Kolkata police and the Women’s Commission responded when asked to testify in court. Even though it was several years since my complaint had been filed, their representatives did not spare the necessary effort to take the case ahead. The police, particularly, plod on to investigate into my complaint despite the lack of co-operation they met with at The Statesman at every stage.
I feel particularly happy with the commitment and enthusiasm that characterises youngsters in the legal profession, going by my own experience. Debashis Banerjee of HRLN, Kolkata, ably assisted by his other colleagues, managed to win favourable orders in a row, ultimately clinching the Award from the Industrial Tribunal. One of them, Ambalika Roy, has since moved to Delhi and is now handling my libel suit as a private lawyer in Delhi. Unlike several senior lawyers in Kolkata and Delhi, they were all keen to venture into uncharted territory. The case may have been difficult for them too, with no previous judgement to fall back on, and uncertainty of success looming large. But they were willing to take the plunge, and addressing what they saw as a “human rights violation.”
About the future of the media, I am not that certain. My experience at The Statesman, and the quality of journalists I have had to encounter, makes me wonder as to how much of a pillar of our democracy the media can prove to be. Journalism is not about merely holding a job in a publication, but living a life of personal and professional integrity. Newspapers are not mere documents that witness history; they make and change history. Journalists make newspapers. To embody the values that our state stands for, and uphold the Constitution, we need fearless journalists who can stand for the truth. Only then, can the media serve as the Fourth Estate, and defend our democracy. Alternative media has already made a beginning to break off from the morass; one hopes that it shall lead in bringing back the values that once spelt our media.
The Industrial Tribunal order in Rina’s case is available on the website of Feminists India