The girl’s uncle, who highlighted the incident on Twitter, says that it is not always easy to resist and report and due process puts too much onus on the survivor.

18-yr-old alleges sexual harassment on Indigo flight airline insists on police complaintImage for representation
news Sexual harassment Saturday, April 13, 2019 - 15:49

March 31 was an exciting day for Keerthi*. She had recently turned 18 and she was to take her first flight alone from Chennai to Delhi. What happened on board the flight however left the teenager traumatised. A middle aged co-passenger, seated beside her on the Indigo flight, allegedly sexually harassed her throughout the flight. And while she was understandably unable to speak up during this time, the airline has refused to take action against the man without a formal police complaint.

Keerthi’s uncle, Prasanto K Roy, a policy consultant, highlighted the incident on Twitter. Speaking to TNM, he recounts what happened with his niece. Keerthi told Prasanto that the man started by asking her seemingly normal questions about her life and where she came from.

“After that he told me to lie down on his lap since he could tell I wasn’t well, to which I initially said no but then I lay [my head] on his shoulder for a second since he kept insisting… And then moved away and he kept asking me to lie down on him and hold his hand on the journey, since he thought I was scared (sic),” Keerthi told Prasanto.

The middle aged man then allegedly removed his socks and proceeded to keep his legs on hers, feeling up her leg. “And then he said I’m very beautiful and I should be strong… if I don’t like his touch I should say no but he kept doing it till we landed (sic),” Keerthi told her uncle.

After he came to know about the incident, Prasanto tweeted about it on the same day (March 31), tagging Indigo and indicating that they would like to make a formal complaint.

Prasanto said that his niece was traumatised and froze up when the alleged harassment took place and could not speak up while on the flight. Her reaction is one experienced by numerous sexual violence survivors who are unable to respond or react at the time of the assault, or even immediately after it.  

Prasanto’s tweet was picked up by #MeTooIndia. “Hello @IndiGo6E often it's difficult for a survivor to complain during the flight — among many things — so as not to draw attention to herself, fear of backlash and inaction such as yours. You have passenger's detail, what's stopping you from blacklisting after investigation?” it questioned.

Indigo responded by saying that they had assured Keerthi of all necessary support if she wishes to file a police complaint, and provide requisite information to relevant investigating authorities. “Without due process, an airline cannot deny a passenger the right to travel,” Indigo said.

After Prasanto’s initial tweet, Indigo gave him also a similar response. After he sent the airline the details, Indigo pointed out that as Keerthi did not complain during the flight, there was no other way to lodge a formal complaint other than a police complaint.

While due process is important, it has been known to let down, dismiss and re-traumatise victims and survivors of sexual violence time and again. And so, Prasanto says that while he gets where the airline is coming from, they are probably not going to make a police complaint due to multiple issues such as lack of clarity on different cities and jurisdictions. “It is also likely that the police would see this as a case where ‘nothing major happened' and it would be plenty of hassle for the teenager and her mother,” he said.

In this scenario, the policy consultant feels that the airline should at least reach out to the offending passenger and warn him about the complaint received against him. “He probably does not even know that he’s being called out and may feel encouraged. What is stopping him from doing this to another person?” Prasanto argues.

When TNM posed the same question to the airline, an official said that they would stick to the response they have given on Twitter, and reiterated that they could not do anything more without a police complaint.

The only silver lining about this incident, Prasanto says, is that people are looking to educate their children on recognising and reporting sexual harassment. “I have received a number of messages online and offline where concerned parents intend to use this incident to speak to their children about what they can do in such situations,” says the father of an 11-year-old daughter.

That being said, Prasanto agrees that it is not always easy to resist and report, and due process puts too much onus on the survivor.

Further, safe bystander intervention in such scenarios, where possible, is also immensely helpful for a survivor. For instance, this Twitter thread recounts an excellent example of the same. A group of women came together to look out for and report the sexual harassment of a teenager on a flight by a man in his mid-thirties. The airline, which is only referred to as a Canadian one, responded sensitively in this case and took action against the offending man.

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