Indian women turn spotlight on sexual harassment at work

Two women in India have gone public with allegations of sexual harassment, nearly one year after a brutal gang rape case in Delhi sparked national outrage.

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
Tarun Tejpal, the editor-in-chief of India's leading investigative magazine Tehelka, speaks with the media at the airport in New Delhi on November 29, 2013. Tejpal is accused of sexually assaulting a reporter. An investigation into Tejpal, who denies the accusations, is underway in Goa. He has not been formally charged with any crime.

Two high-profile allegations of sexual assault in India have shone a spotlight on harassment of woman at the workplace, nearly one year after the rape and murder of a female student on a Delhi bus fueled a national conversation on sexual violence. Four men were later convicted of that crime. 

By breaking their silence, the professional women who publicly accused their male bosses may have broken a taboo and changed the debate from rape on the streets to sexual violence at the office. The two accused men, a magazine editor and a retired senior judge, have denied the claims; one, the editor, is under arrest but hasn't been formally charged. 

"Sexual harassment at workplaces is rampant and seen as normal. Women….were blamed for speaking up. But now something is changing," says political scientist Nivedita Menon, author of ‘Seeing Like A Feminist,’ a book on India’s feminist movement.

A prominent magazine editor and novelist, Tarun Tejpal, was arrested on Saturday by police in the small, wealthy state of Goa on charges of sexually assaulting and raping a woman reporter in the elevator at a five star hotel in early November. Mr. Tejpal and his colleagues at Tehelka, a news magazine, were in Goa for a global conference whose speakers included Robert De Niro and VS Naipaul.

"Well, this is the easiest way for you to keep your job," the journalist - who has remained unidentified - quoted her editor as saying while he was assaulting her. In her complaint to another editor, she demand an apology from Tejpal to all magazine staffers and pointed out that the magazine known for its tough investigative reporting didn’t have a sexual harassment complaints committee, which is required by law. After the scandal broke in the media, Goa police detained Tejpal, who could face up to ten years in prison if found guilty.

As this scandal was percolating in India’s media, another white-collar accuser stepped into the limelight. In a blog posting, a law intern claimed that she had been molested by a Supreme Court judge. After The Times of India splashed the story on its front page, the Chief Justice set up an internal committee to investigate. The alleged molester was identified as a retired court judge. He has received public support from some senior and retired judges, and police have yet to take over the case, raising questions over the court's handling of the complaint. 

"These two cases have definitely been a turning point in sexual harassment at the workplace, " says Kavita Krishnan, general secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association. Last year’s bus rape led to stricter laws on sexual harassment and violence, but Indian companies have been slow to step up action on workplace abuses, she adds.

"The elites are happy to demand capital punishment when the rapist is a poor laborer but now the spotlight is in them," she says. 

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