The Supreme Court observed that sexual harassment in any form at the work place must be viewed seriously and the harasser should not be allowed to escape from the clutches of law.

The court added that the veracity and genuineness of such complaints should be scrutinised to prevent any misuse.

The Supreme Court Bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra was considering an appeal by the Union government against the Gauhati High Court judgment which set aside the decision to withhold 50% of the pension of a senior Sashtra Seema Bal officer in all times to come as part of disciplinary proceedings held against him for 2011 complaint of sexual harassment of a subordinate woman officer.

In this context, the court observed: "Sexual harassment in any form at the work place must be viewed seriously and the harasser should not be allowed to escape from the clutches of law. We say so because the same humiliates and frustrates a victim of sexual harassment, more particularly when the harasser goes unpunished or is let off with a relatively minor penalty. However, at the same time, it should be kept in mind that the charge of this nature is very easy to make and is very difficult to rebut. When a plea is taken of false implication for extraneous reasons, the courts have a duty to make deeper scrutiny of the evidence and decide the acceptability or otherwise of the accusations. Every care should be taken to separate the chaff from the grain. The veracity and genuineness of the complaint should be scrutinised to prevent any misuse of such laudable laws enunciated for the upliftment of the society and for equal rights of people without gender discrimination by anybody under the garb of “sexual harassment”, lest justice rendering system would become a mockery."

Counsel K Parmeshwar appeared for the appellant, while Counsel Avijit Roy appeared for the respondent.

In this case, the Gauhati High Court had held that the disciplinary committee, during its inquiry, had delved into allegations which were beyond its mandate. It was also found that the committee's actions were improper as it had taken on the role of a prosecutor by interrogating witnesses, thereby undermining the integrity of the proceedings. The Court concluded that there was a lack of concrete evidence in the case, and the committee had based its findings on mere assumptions and conjecture.

Noting the gravity of cases of sexual harassment, the Supreme Court noted that sexual harassment is a pervasive and deeply rooted issue that has plagued the societies worldwide.

Holding that the High Court Bench had made an egregious error in its judgment, the Apex Court held that, "If the observations of the High Court are accepted, it would lead to a chilling effect, whereby the complaints committee which is deemed to be an inquiry authority would be reduced to a mere recording machine. We fail to understand what other purpose the complaints committee which is deemed to be an ‘inquiry authority’ would serve, if we are to hold that the complaints committee cannot put questions to the witnesses."

It was also noted that since Section 165 of of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 permits a Judge to put questions to the parties or to the witnesses in order to discover or obtain proper proof of relevant facts, the complaints committee, after being equated with a judge in a judicial proceeding, must not be denied that privilege.

In the same vein, on perusing the rules, the Court had noted that there was no statutory bar nor any logic to restrict the power of the complaints committee to put questions to the witnesses only to the context. It was further said that, "The complaints committee being an inquiry authority and in some sense equivalent to a presiding officer of the court must be allowed to put questions on its own if a proper, fair and thorough inquiry is to take place".

The Apex Court set aside the order of the High Court, while making the observation that, "We are of the view that the High Court completely failed to advert itself to the principles laid down by this Court and mechanically proceeded to set-aside the order of punishment imposed by the disciplinary authority on the ground that there was nothing to indicate that the respondent was asked whether he pleaded guilty to the charges imputed in the second complaint without applying the principle of “test of prejudice”,".

In that context, the Court observed that, "the essence of the doctrine is that fair opportunity should be afforded to the delinquent at the enquiry and he should not be hit below the belt. Moreover, the jurisdiction of the High Court in such cases is indeed limited. The High Court should not exercise appellate powers and substitute its findings for the findings recorded by the disciplinary authority. It is no doubt true that if there is “no evidence” or the decision is “so unreasonable that no reasonable man could have ever come to it”, or the decision is “so outrageous” in its defiance of logic or of accepted moral standards that no sensible person who had applied his mind to the question to be decided could have arrived at it “or that it is so absurd that one is satisfied that the decision-maker must have taken leave of his senses”, it calls for interference by a competent court of law,".

In light of the same, the appeal was allowed and the order of penalty imposed by the Disciplinary Authority was restored. The Apex Court clarified that the appellant shall not effect any recovery of the amount already paid so far to the respondent.

Cause Title: Union of India & Ors. vs Dilip Paul

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