Sexual harassment affront to women's equality: Supreme Court
Sexual harassment at the workplace is an “affront” to a woman’s fundamental right to equality, her right to live with dignity and to practice any profession or be part of any occupation, the Supreme Court has said.
The court made the observation while upholding the verdict of Madhya Pradesh High Court that had quashed a transfer order issued to a woman bank employee who had levelled allegations of sexual harassment against a senior officer.
A Supreme Court bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi said, while referring to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013: “Sexual harassment at the workplace is an affront to the fundamental rights of a woman to equality under Articles 14 and 15 and her right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution as well as her right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business,” the court said in its judgment delivered on February 25.
The bench said the material placed before it indicated that the woman officer, during her posting at an Indore branch of the bank, had repeatedly written to the authorities drawing their attention to serious irregularities in the maintenance of accounts of liquor contractors and had levelled specific allegations of corruption.
“There can be no manner of doubt that the respondent (woman officer) has been victimised. Her reports of irregularities in the branch met with a reprisal. She was transferred out and sent to a branch which was expected to be occupied by a Scale I officer,” the bench said. The woman is now a Scale IV officer.
“This is symptomatic of a carrot and stick policy adopted to suborn the dignity of a woman who is aggrieved by unfair treatment at her workplace. The law cannot countenance this. The order of transfer was an act of unfair treatment and is vitiated by malafides,” it added.
The top court noted that the woman officer had not participated in the proceedings before the internal complaints committee (ICC) of the bank, which dealt with her allegations of sexual harassment, and there was a fundamental defect in the constitution of the panel.
The counsel appearing for the bank had argued before the apex court that the ICC had inquired into the complaint of sexual harassment and found no substance in it.
Referring to provisions of the Act, the court noted that one member of the ICC has to be from a non-government organisation or association committed to the cause of women or a person familiar with issues relating to sexual harassment.
The court said there was justification on the part of the bank not to accede to the woman officer’s request for replacing one of the members of the ICC with a truly independent third party having regard to the provisions of the Act.
The woman had been appointed as a probationary officer in the bank in October 1998 and was later promoted to the post of chief manager in Scale IV.
In December 2017, she was transferred from the Indore branch to Sarsawa in Jabalpur district. She had submitted a representation to the authorities and made a request for being retained at Indore. The officer had said that as branch manager at Indore, she had reported about lapses, such as the existence of duplicate bank guarantee registers, to her superiors.
The woman officer had alleged that one of her senior officers used to call her at late hours at home to discuss business that was not of urgent nature.
“In view of the above analysis, we are of the view that the high court cannot be faulted in coming to the conclusion that the transfer of the respondent (woman officer), who was holding the office of chief manager in the Scale IV in the Indore branch to the branch at Sarsawa in the district of Jabalpur was required to be interfered with,” the Supreme Court said.
It directed that the woman officer be re-posted at the Indore branch for a period of one year.
“Upon the expiry of the period of one year, if any administrative exigency arises the competent authority of the bank would be at liberty to take an appropriate decision in regard to her place of posting independently in accordance with law keeping in view the relevant rules and regulations of the bank, in the interest of fair treatment to the officer,” the apex court said.
The Supreme Court, while affirming the March 2019 verdict of the high court, disposed of the appeal filed by the bank.