Court that listens

It deserves credit for proactively addressing allegations of sexual harassment within its domain.

When a law school graduate recently went public about a traumatic experience of sexual assault while interning with a Supreme Court judge, it unsettled the judiciary. This is also a time when the courts have taken the lead in addressing pervasive sexual crime. The chief justice of India, P. Sathasivam, declared himself "extremely concerned", and set up a three-judge committee to find the facts on the case and report back.

The young law graduate had written about a disturbing encounter with a "highly reputed, recently retired Supreme Court judge", at a time when Delhi was blazing with outrage over the December 16 gangrape last year. She wrote of the difficulty of seeking justice in situations like that, without formal mechanisms of complaint and redress short of a criminal case, and how common sexual harassment seemed to be in cloistered professional environments. She also spoke, remarkably, of her own complicated feelings in implicating the judge. In an interview, she has spoken of how her female peers know that standing up to harassment can be career-ending, given the powerful esprit de corps among the senior judiciary, and because the woman who complains could be perceived as a trouble-maker. These are the very real dilemmas that women navigating professional careers have had to contend with from Anita Hill, who was castigated for her decade-long silence about facing harassment from a US Supreme Court nominee in 1992, but who ultimately made workplace harassment impossible to disregard.

The Supreme Court deserves full credit for taking proactive notice of the case. In July this year, it had already framed a set of regulations on gender sensitisation and the prevention and redressal of sexual violence at the Supreme Court. If it uses this case as an opportunity to signal intent, and make sure that any sexual harassment in its own space comes with punishing consequences, it would be a model for other institutions as well.

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