Kerala’s progressive image includes in it the empowerment of women at home and outside. Two rulings by a sessions court, however, demonstrated how regressive values may persist in spite of a forward-looking environment.Granting bail to a senior writer accused of sexually harassing a Dalit peer, the court reportedly declared that such harassment was impossible for two reasons. The accused was a fighter against the caste system, hence the relevant sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, though non-bailable,could not apply to him. Besides, he would not knowingly harass a Dalit woman — an argument suggesting that harassment complaints by women from scheduled castes could not stand. The court seemed to have overlooked the fact that the second argument contradicted the first one. The same writer, accused also of sexually harassing another writer, was granted bail in that case on the ground that his accuser was wearing ‘provocative’ clothes. Clothes are supposed to be excluded from consideration in sex-based cases. The implication that sexual harassment is the complainant’s fault is not just based on misogynistic perceptions but also poses a serious danger to society, equality and justice.
The mix of caste and misogyny in these rulings — and the unexpectedness of their occurrence in Kerala — tended to obscure two other issues. Reports indicate that there were other women whom the accused allegedly harassed; they did not complain because of his social power. The incident thus typifies the disadvantages women face even in a comparatively supportive environment. While it is true that this is exactly what women must fight against and constantly do so, the comments in court show how the preference for and indulgence towards men inform institutions and make the fight harder. The other issue is that of bail. Even if bail is the rule and jail the exception, and if courts are expected to look into the specific circumstances of an act when the charge is under a non-bailable section, the sessions court’s grant of bail to the writer became associated with irrelevant and regressive reasons through the judge’s reported remarks.The Supreme Court has repeatedly warned lower courts against unwarranted observations during bail hearings. So the court’s apparent attitude towards women and caste was only the most visible part of other associated issues.