Civil suit against Vrinda Grover will have chilling effect on complaints of sexual harassment

vrinda
Vrinda Grover

In a statement issued in response to a civil suit filed by RK Pachauri against well-known human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover for her efforts to get other women to come forward in an ongoing case of alleged sexual harassment by the former head of Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), 188 women’s rights activists and organisations have called suit is “an attack on the struggle to end sexual harassment at the workplace in India”. The main signatories include Ayesha Kidwai, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Ania Loomba, University of Pennsylvania; Kalyani Menon-Sen, Feminist Learning Partnerships, Gurgaon; Mary E John, Centre for Women’s Development Studies; Kavita Krishnan, All-India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA); Janaki Abraham, Delhi University; Annie Raja, National Federation of Indian Women; and Syeda Hameed, former member, Planning Commission. Excerpts:

We, the undersigned activists and organisations of the Indian women’s movement, express our outrage at the fact that R.K. Pachauri has filed a civil suit for injunction and demanded damages of Rs. 1 crore against Advocate Vrinda Grover. The attempt is to hold Grover liable in a civil suit for her efforts towards bringing official cognisance of two complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace brought against R.K. Pachauri by two of his former colleagues. Both these women have complained that they were sexually harassed at TERI by Pachauri much prior to the complainant of FIR dated February 18, 2015, in which R.K. Pachauri has now been charge-sheeted in February 2016. Alarmingly, despite the fact that Grover has sent repeated written communications to senior officers of the Delhi police informing them that her two clients would like their statements to be recorded, the police have till date not taken any steps in this regard. The very public attack on Grover is a matter of concern for all those who, like the signatories to this letter, are struggling to deliver substantive justice under the laws on sexual harassment in the workplace in India today.

Firstly: All codes of professional ethics have been breached in this act of suing Grover for damages. Pachauri’s legal representative, Ashish Dixit, in The New Indian Express article titled “European Woman Accused Pachauri of Harassment”, dated March 31, 2016, has charged Grover of leading a “conspiracy to defame” R.K. Pachauri. This imputation of motives of a criminal nature to Grover, the opposing counsel, is a serious violation of the statutorily binding professional code of conduct and etiquette expected from advocates. This breach is made even more egregious by the fact that Grover is the woman lawyer representing two women in their complaints of sexual harassment by the petitioner, leading as it does to the inescapable conclusion that the civil suit is just a continuation of the intimidation and vilification of women (be they complainants or their lawyers) who have the temerity to pursue complaints of sexual harassment against powerful men.

Second: Given that laws and provisions legitimising the grievance of workplace sexual harassment are relatively recent, investigation into such charges needs to record the complete history of every case that may be relevant to ongoing investigations. By refusing to record the statements of Grover’s clients against  R.K. Pachauri for close to a year after Grover approached them on their behalf, the police have already demonstrated its lack of commitment to a full and vigorous investigation of these women’s grievances. Now, by suing Grover for acting on her clients’ instructions to make their statements public, Pachauri seeks to restrain her from executing her responsibilities to her clients. Clearly his intent is also to deny to these two women and by implication all complainants, the right to share their experiences of sexual harassment in public when their every effort to access justice has been thwarted.

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RK Pachauri

The fact of the matter is that this civil suit against Grover is yet another instance of the impunity which Pachauri has been able to maintain with respect to his abuse of three women’s human rights. His objective in trying to gag  Grover, is to consolidate the immunity given to him by his organisation TERI, by ‘cooperative’ police officials strangely reluctant to record the two statements that will strengthen the case against him, and amenable sections of the media which have buttressed his claims of being framed in the charges against him.

Over the past month or so, Pachauri has courted the international media. In interviews given to The Guardian and The Observer, he presents himself as a man beleaguered and hounded by climate-change sceptics and women activists, conflating women activists taking up charges of sexual harassment with climate change sceptics. The three women complainants it should be pointed out were working for the cause of climate change to the point of enduring sexual harassment from Pachauri, which makes such a charge of belittling the cause of climate change absolutely ridiculous.

As individuals and organisations committed to the implementation of the country’s laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, we condemn in the strongest terms Pachauri’s shamelessly transparent bid to influence the sub-judice case about to enter its trial phase in a month’s time. The fact that Mr. Pachauri’s suit is also directed simultaneously at prominent Indian media houses, such as Bennett Coleman, NDTV, and India Today, reveals intent aimed at throttling all public reference to the complaints of sexual harassment against him.

Furthermore, we would like to emphasise that Pachauri’s suit against opposing counsel has implications that will have a chilling effect on complaints of sexual harassment, as it has all the characteristics of an instance of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). Such legal actions are intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition. In addition, since Pachauri’s suit also targets prominent media houses, the aim is perpetuation of a social space in which only Pachauri’s defence and allegations against complainant(s) holds sway, thereby creating an atmosphere that is in general disbelieving and often downright hostile to complainant(s) and their efforts to access justice.

Accordingly, we demand that official cognizance be taken of the attempt to intimidate Grover and her clients. Pachauri’s actions suggest that he has learnt nothing from the failure of his earlier attempts to silence the complainants. Pachauri it appears is finding it difficult to understand that he can no longer evade the law and he will have to face legal consequences.

We expect those who bear the responsibility of bringing him to justice, to convey this message to Pachauri in clear and unambiguous terms. We also urge the National Commission for Women to maintain oversight of the pre-trial process and ensure that it is not influenced or subverted by those who seek to protect Pachauri from the consequences of his actions.

We call upon all like-minded individuals and organisations to join us in supporting the right of Advocate Vrinda Grover to pursue this case and bring justice where it is due.

For list of signatories, click HERE

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