Published: 22nd August 2019
Where's the outrage at Madras HC judge's comments about women misusing sexual harassment laws?
Now that the Christian rights groups have gotten their way and the judge has retracted his comments, is anyone going to say anything about the other elephant in the room, or In this case, his ruling?
When Madras High Court judge Justice S Vaidyanathan snapped shut a writ petition filed by a Madras Christian College professor, he managed to say a few lines that got most Christian rights groups up in arms. Vaidyanathan, in paragraph 32 of his order said that there is a "general feeling amongst the parents of students, especially female students that co-educational study in Christian institutions is highly unsafe for the future of their children and though they impart good education, the preach of morality will be a million dollar question."
The outrage was palpable. Various reports recorded that Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC), the Tamil Nadu Latin Bishops’ Council (TNLBC), the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and the Indian Christian Association of Tamil Nadu all took umbrage to the crack about Christian institutions (and the bits about conversion and how religion is practised on the streets and not just in places of worship). The Madras Christian College lawyer soon went up in open court and beseeched the judge to delete this paragraph as it was too much of a generalisation and affected the name of Christian institutions in toto. The judge agreed to having the paragraph axed immediately.
Here's the problem though.
No one really cared too much about paragraphs 33, 34 and 35 that came right after which have slightly more pointed observations about how women may be using sexual harassment laws to 'teach a lesson' to 'innocent' men.
Here's what Justice S Vaidyanathan had to say in his order:
33. This Court does not want to go into the question of who is at fault in the present case, but at the same time, it has become imperative for this Court to indicate that several enactments were brought into force for safeguarding the interests of women and we have to ask a question for ourselves as to whether those laws are invoked by women with genuine reason.
34. Certain laws, which are in existence for easy access to women, lend itself to easy misuse that women will find it hard to resist the temptation to "teach a lesson" to the male members and will file frivolous and false cases.
35. This is the right time for the government to think of suitable amendments in those laws in order to prevent its misuse so as to safeguard the interest of the innocent masculinity too.
A group of 64 leading lawyers of the Madras High Court, including the likes of Sudha Ramalingam, D Geetha and R Vaigai have signed a letter to the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court urging him to ask Justice S Vaidhyanthan to recall his order.
It's obvious where he's going with this. The judge clearly says that we as a society have to ask ourselves whether women are using the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 with genuine reason. Perhaps it is important to recall the sheer number of cases and allegations that were levelled when the #MeToo movement was at its peak to understand why this comment may be misconstrued.
The parts about how the law is in 'easy access' to women and how they will find it hard to resist the temptation to teach male colleagues/bosses/counterparts or 'members' a lesson by filing false and frivolous cases are the kind that should have caused outrage among women.
Safeguarding the interests of 'innocent masculinity' is something that male rights groups, such as the one led by activist Kumar Jahgirdar have been going on about for ages and is sure to raise a cheer from them.
This is probably why a group of 64 leading lawyers of the Madras High Court, including the likes of Sudha Ramalingam, D Geetha and R Vaigai have signed a letter to the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court urging him to ask Justice S Vaidhyanthan to recall his order and have paragraphs 33 - 35 expunged from it.
Saying that his observations amount to gender bias, the letter stated, "The general comments about women misusing laws protecting them against violence shows utter ignorance and disregard of the hard-earned rights of women to such protection."
It also addressed the innocent masculinity comment thus, "The comment legitimises the patriarchal power imbalance prevalent in society and alas is the same language used by all perpetrators of brutal violence against women. Again, such comments are not based on any evidence and on the contrary, official data shows an alarming increase in violence against women and also that law enforcement, in such cases, is dismal. The judge's comments will embolden perpetrators of crimes against women. His reference to the SC decision in Sushil Kumar Sharma's case is most inappropriate, for the Court repelled a challenge to Section 498A in that case."
Justice S Vaidyanathan had, in a case in 2016, made this observation, "Normally boys used to elope with girls but the trend has changed with girls choosing their partners and eloping with them due to facial attraction. This symbolises the era of Kali Yuga described in Sanskrit scriptures. It is pertinent to point out that smoking and drinking habits are on the higher side among girls than boys,” while granting anticipatory bail to a 20-year-old nurse, accused of having eloped with a 17-year-old boy, according to a report in DailyO.