Hiding behind technicalities, NIFT Hyd finds staffer not guilty of sexual harassment

The committee itself flouted rules by conducting an inquiry several months after it was supposed to – but decided to cherry-pick which complaints and which witnesses it will consider.
Hiding behind technicalities, NIFT Hyd finds staffer not guilty of sexual harassment
Hiding behind technicalities, NIFT Hyd finds staffer not guilty of sexual harassment
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On October 25, 2018, NIFT Hyderabad received a complaint from five women housekeeping staff, accusing a stenographer employed by NIFT of sexual harassment. Almost a year later, an Internal Committee of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) formed to look into cases of sexual harassment, found the accused – D Srinivas Reddy – not guilty. TNM has accessed a copy of the report, which shows that the committee hid behind technicalities, cherry-picked which witnesses were considered ‘unbiased’, and gaslit an entire class of workers to declare the accused innocent. 

Out of the five complainants who raised allegations of sexual harassment against Srinivas Reddy, the IC chose to look into only two. Of the three that were rejected, the IC decided that since one of them happened two years ago, it did not come into the purview of the IC. The second complaint was dropped because it was hearsay. In the third case, the complainant was not at NIFT any longer and could not be contacted. And despite the fact that several witnesses said she was forced to leave because of the constant harassment by Srinivas Reddy, this wasn’t taken into account as evidence of his behaviour.

Speaking about the technicalities of law, Vasudha Nagaraj, a lawyer who has been helping the complainants, notes that there are different ways of looking at the law and that the anti-sexual harassment law doesn’t impose any strict interpretation of it on the internal committee.

“The discretion lies solely in the hands of the IC whether to consider a complaint after the stipulated time period or not. Time limit is not a strict bar. There are organisations in the city which have considered complaints from victims after 18 long years! In the face of the severity of the allegations, the committee could have easily relaxed the limitations of the law. Also, the IC looked into the allegations only one year after filing the complaint. Isn’t that a brazen violation of the law?” Vasudha asks.

As Ratna Kumari, the supervisor of the housekeeping staff and one of the five complainants, points out, the investigation by the NIFT IC started only in July this year – nine months after the cases were filed. As per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, cases are supposed to be dealt with in a maximum of 90 days.

Gaslighting the housekeeping staff

One of the biggest problems with the IC hearings and its conclusion is the manner in which the working class and anyone who supported them was dismissed, Vasudha Nagaraj points out.

One of the complaints against Srinivas Reddy was that he took photos of the housekeeping workers while they were bending over, and with vulgar intentions. By every definition, this is sexual harassment. However, the committee did not limit itself to the question of whether Srinivas Reddy took such photographs or not – instead, they had ‘witnesses’ to conclude that he was not wrong in taking such photos of women.

Further, the report says that since the complainants did not have knowledge about whether the pictures were shared or not, the complaint doesn’t hold ground.

The committee agreed with Srinivas Reddy’s claim that he took photos of the women to ‘prove’ that they were ‘lazy’ and ‘idle’ – and that he had a higher calling in the form of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in the institute. The IC sadly doesn’t dwell on the fact that the pictures clicked made the women uncomfortable and seems to have turned a blind eye towards the entire power structure that operates inside an institution.

“The committee is not just wrong in justifying Srinivas Reddy’s actions, but it also points at the way the committee treats the working class. Just because they are housekeeping staff, does that mean that the idea of consent and privacy is non-existent? If the accused was so particular about getting the work done, he should have taken pictures of the places that were filthy and not of the women working. Will the committee have responded in the same way if a professor or a student from the campus filed a similar complaint?” Tejaswini Madabhushi, a Hyderabad-based women’s rights activist, asks.

Ratna Kumari points to a particular ‘analysis’ made by the committee in its report – perhaps the only part in the report that has exclamation points: “It is pertinent to mention that the allegations by the women could not be corroborated with any other physical evidences other than with those of their own peer group which is a bigger concern!!” (sic)

“The complaints were made with ulterior motives and fearing the threat of losing jobs,” the report says, accusing the women of using the complaint as a ploy to safeguard their jobs. "Our contract gets extended every six months. But it was only after filing the complaint against Reddy that they found our work unsatisfactory and decided to terminate all the staff. Also, the first complaint was filed in October last year. Why hasn’t the IC taken that into consideration? Why will 56 of us lie against one man?” Ratna Kumari asks.

Further, the committee declared two NIFT staffers who spoke against Srinivas Reddy as ‘biased’ witnesses, because they have previously filed complaints against him. They only decided to take into consideration the testimonies of those who spoke in favour of Srinivas Reddy – that is, the witnesses who gave him a character certificate of being ‘hardworking’ but ‘loud’, and who ‘felt’ he couldn’t have sexually harassed the women, without any evidence either way.

The committee report gaslights survivors to make a case for Srinivas Reddy as a man whose intentions were ‘misunderstood’ by scores of women.

“The entire report is an exercise in mental gymnastics to make sure Srinivas Reddy doesn’t look guilty,” Tejaswini says, while adding, “Filthy language is sexual harassment. What does the committee mean by pointing out that the accused is hardworking? Is it okay for hardworking men to harass and grope women? The committee is just hell bent in giving Reddy his character certificate.”

Committee refused to look at Srinivas’s predator tendencies

One of the complainants, Kala (name changed) accused Srinivas Reddy of touching her inappropriately while she worked in his office two years ago. This was the strongest case that the complainants had, with enough irrefutable evidence, as Kala had told a group of people about this incident immediately after it had happened. However, the committee refused to consider this complaint, claiming Kala had failed to file a complaint within six months of the incident, and that therefore, this couldn’t come into their purview.

While experts say that a sensitive committee would have found a way to ensure that her complaint was recorded, they also note how the report has reduced abusive language to a mere behavioural issue.

“The committee’s understanding of sexual harassment is nil. The IC has rejected all instances of verbal abuse, while it is to be noted that most of the expletives directed at women are sexual in nature. Despite many staff including professors raising objections against the accused’s foul language, the report hasn’t brought the same under the purview of sexual harassment,” Vasudha says.

Further, it wasn’t even taken into consideration as evidence of Srinivas’s predatory behaviour over a period of time.

Dilution of complaints

Of the two complaints considered, the committee has diluted staffer Ayesha’s (name changed) complaint; she had accused Srinivas Reddy of physical abusing her while working in his cabin for three months.

The committee in its report states that while Ayesha claimed that Reddy had held her by her hand, her husband, who works as a security guard at NIFT, said that Ayesha had complained of Reddy touching her waist. This has been cited as a reason by the committee to reject Ayesha’s complaint.

In a similar insensitive approach, the committee also stated that Ratna Kumari, who accused Srinivas Reddy of verbal sexual abuse, couldn’t substantiate her complaint as she failed to recollect the exact time and date of the incident which took place in August last year.

Hiding behind hyper-technicalities and absolving Srinivas Reddy of all allegations of sexual misconduct, the IC report has recommended disciplinary action against him as per the rules at NIFT so that “he mends his ways.”

Meanwhile, considering the apparent flaws in the report, Ratna Kumari, on behalf of the housekeeping staff, has filed a report submitting objections to the committee. The staff has asked the committee to re-examine its findings in light of the objections and make recommendations accordingly.

"The appeal submitted by the complainant against the ICC report is under active consideration. It has been referred to the ICC for its comments, which are expected soon. Thereafter strict action will be taken by NIFT," Syed Ashraf, Registrar at NIFT, said.

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