IPS badge on a policer officer wearing the uniform
IPS badge on a policer officer wearing the uniform

Why justice still eludes TN woman officer who accused top IPS officer of sexual harassment

In August 2018, a woman officer accused S Murugan, who was Joint Director in the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption of sexual harassment. Grave systemic failures and concerted efforts have, however, delayed justice to the survivor.

Seven court orders, a slew of petitions and more than three years after, the sexual harassment case against top Tamil Nadu police officer S Murugan filed by a woman officer has seen no headway. Murugan, who was Joint Director in the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) when he was accused of sexual harassment in August 2018, remained in his post for another 13 months before being transferred. He is presently Inspector General, Special Task Force, Erode. 

In comparison, take the case against the former Special Director General of Police, who was accused of sexual harassment by a woman IPS officer in February this year. Not only was the Special DGP suspended within weeks of the sexual harassment accusations, an Internal Commitee constitued to inquire into the allegations submitted its preliminary report to the state government in April. The Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID), which is investigating the case, also filed a 400-page chargesheet on July 29, in five months. The Madras High Court has also ordered that the trial be completed by December 20, 2021.

So, why does justice still elude the woman officer who accused S Murugan of sexual harassment despite the court coming down heavily on the state government? TNM takes a close look at the case, and spoke to multiple sources who point to grave systemic failures and concerted efforts to delay justice to the survivor.

It was on August 4, 2018 that the woman officer, a non-IPS officer, filed a written complaint with the Director of the DVAC alleging sexual harassment and intimidation by Murugan. In her complaint, she alleged that the then Joint Director of the DVAC would call her at night, asking questions that were “too personal” or would call her to his office where the conversation would veer towards the way she dressed and her looks. She alleged his comments were unwarranted and made her feel uncomfortable. She cites multiple instances of alleged harassment by the officer in her complaint. She alleged that it was after an incident on August 1, 2018 that she no longer felt safe working with him. 

In her complaint, she sought that criminal action be initiated against Murugan and sought the DVAC’s “protection from him” to stop him from contacting her or her family.  

The first lapse

Though the complainant specifically asked for criminal action, no such action was immediately initiated by the DVAC. Speaking to TNM, the woman officer’s lawyer, V Selvaraj, says, “When the complaint itself makes out of the commission of offense, the police should have first registered the FIR. Other inquiries are secondary. The complainant is a police officer herself and when she filed the complaint, an FIR should have been registered. But the state did not want this FIR.”

V Selvaraj alleges that the reason for this was because the DVAC handles corruption and other complaints against politicians including the then Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami. “The DVAC was investigating cases against many sitting ministers including the Chief Minister, but FIRs were not registered. The ministers had a specific and vested interest in keeping this officer in that department and therefore did not want an FIR. The state delayed the FIR [in the sexual harassment case] for this reason,” he alleges. 

In his affidavit to court, Murugan, however, alleges that the woman officer filed a false complaint against him, and it was done with an ‘ulterior motive’ to sabotage his career and reputation. 

On August 6, 2018, the DVAC decided to set up an Internal Committee (IC), under the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The woman officer, however, raised objections to the IC, which was constituted under the chairmanship of the Deputy Director of the DVAC, who is a junior officer to Murugan. Expressing apprehension over Murugan’s continuation as Joint Director in the same office, the survivor said it would cause prejudice and alleged the likelihood of force and influence being exerted during the inquiry. 

In its judgment from February 14, 2019, the Madras High Court called the constitution of this committee headed by the Deputy Director a “mockery”. Castigating the Director of the DVAC for ‘treating the complaint lightly’, the HC observed, “one can easily visualise that such an exercise is done either to frustrate the enquiry or to compromise or to settle the complaint.” 

The second lapse

When the complainant raised concerns about the IC’s constitution, on August 17, 2018, the DGP constituted an Internal Committee comprising senior IPS officers.

This is where the state bungled up again. By asking the IC of the Police Department to inquire into the case, the state gave Murugan an opportunity to litigate. The DVAC comes under the state government’s Department of Personnel and not under the Police Department, and Murugan immediately went to court.

“Murugan had challenged the Internal Committee on the grounds that he, as a Joint Director of the DVAC, does not come under the DGP. He sought that the committee be reconstituted accordingly,” says a lawyer for the Tamil Nadu government. 

What followed was a slew of petitions from Murugan and the survivor who both approached the Madras High Court over the formation of the committee but for different reasons. The survivor moved the High Court seeking Murugan’s transfer to a non-sensitive post, sought the quashing of the DGP’s IC as she had requested that the committee include an external member - from an NGO. The Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 mandates that an IC must include an external member from the civil society or an NGO or woman’s organisation. In not doing so, the DGP’s IC had failed the survivor and violated the Act.  

On August 30, 2018 the same IC issued directions to the CB-CID to register a criminal complaint against Murugan. This, only after the survivor wrote again to the IC, reiterating her demand that a criminal case had to be filed. An FIR was thereafter registered, and the IPS officer was booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 1998.

A source close to the woman officer, however, alleges that the FIR was registered because officials believed that the High Court would order them to do so. It was only to avoid such embarrassment that the police registered the FIR, the source alleges.“They thought the High Court shouldn’t pass orders (on the FIR) and so they registered a case after a month,” alleges the source to TNM. 

On October 4 that year, the Internal Committee was reconstituted for a third time, and had members from the DVAC and included an external member - a lawyer. 

Two separate actions permissible: Madras HC 

On February 14, 2019, six months after the woman officer first lodged the complaint, the Madras High Court confirmed the IC that was constituted in October. Justice SM Subramaniam directed the IC to proceed with its inquiry and to submit a report within two weeks.

But by then the court had made a crucial finding. The Tamil Nadu government and the DVAC had committed a grave error by not registering an FIR when the complainant first approached her employer.

“On receipt of the written complaint on 4.8.2018, the employer ought to have forwarded the complaint for registering an FIR. However, the lapse occurred on account of the reasons known to the employer,” the judge noted.

Pulling up officials for not carrying out a timely inquiry or taking appropriate action against the accused officer, the court observed, “Enquiry is mandatory and the higher officials by this time ought to have conducted an enquiry. The matter is kept in abeyance for the past about six months unfortunately by raising the dispute regarding the constitution of the Internal Complaints Committee.”  

Meanwhile, Murugan who had filed four writ petitions by then also challenged the IC’s decision to register a criminal case against him through the CB-CID, arguing that an inquiry is a precondition for the purpose of registering an FIR. 

In the February 2019 judgment, the High Court disposed off Murugan’s writ petition and found that the registration of a criminal case is the survivor’s fundamental right, noting that it cannot be taken away by interpreting the provisions of the Sexual Harassment Act as a pre-condition to the IC conducting an inquiry. “There is no infirmity in respect of the registration of an FIR by the CBCID, at the instance of the Internal Complaints Committee, even before conducting an enquiry under Section 11 of the Sexual Harassment Act. Such an inquiry is to be proceeded with hereafter. Thus, the insensitiveness shown by the authorities competent on receipt of a Sexual Harassment complaint, cannot be appreciated by this Court,” read the judgment. 

The HC ordered that the IC’s inquiry and a criminal trial can be conducted simultaneously. Two separate actions are independent, unconnected and permissible, observed Justice Subramaniam. The court also directed the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary to initiate further action against Murugan under the Service Rules and also recommended the installation of CCTV cameras inside official chambers and office rooms.  

However, no sooner was the judgment delivered, when six days later on February 20, a Coordinate Bench of the Madras High Court ordered a stay. Neither inquiry by the IC nor the CB-CID was able to proceed. The source close to the woman officer points out that after the FIR was registered on August 30, 2018, the survivor’s statement was taken. But a record of that is now no longer available, alleges the source. “They (Murugan) immediately went for a stay. Now, the CB-CID says there are no records. How can they say that? Everything was on record,” alleges the source.   

Survivor sought a court-monitored probe

Over the course of the next six months, the matter was taken up by a Division Bench of the Madras High Court. But by then the survivor’s problems had increased, says her lawyer. 

The survivor alleged that the new Chairperson of the IC had called her, asking her “to treat the incident as an accident and to forget about it.” The woman officer also accused the Chairperson of shielding the accused, a charge that was later denied by the Chairperson.

While on one hand, the woman officer, who was a non-IPS officer, felt that some of the other IPS officers who were part of the probe would aid their colleague Murugan, there was also apprehension that the government at the highest level did not want the case to move forward, says a source close to her. 

She filed a writ petition impleading the then Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami, Deputy CM O Panneerselvam and the Chairperson of the IC. 

Having lost faith in the IC, the survivor instead sought a court-monitored investigation, with her counsel alleging she would not get justice as corruption cases against the then CM, Deputy CM, Minister SP Velumani and former AIADMK minister Natham Viswanathan were pending before the accused, who continued to serve as a senior officer in the DVAC. 

However, the Division Bench proposed an alternative - an unusual suggestion - transferring the case to a neighbouring state or to New Delhi. With no option left, the woman officer agreed to the transfer, but Murugan objected, stating that there was “no sound legal basis” nor “substantial reason” for the same. The Tamil Nadu government was also not in favour of transferring the case, arguing that the state’s image may be “adversely affected”. 

The state government came up with an alternative proposal to an IC given that both the accused and the survivor had raised objections to its constitution. “The Advocate General had suggested that a committee be constituted by the court headed by a retired woman judge or a senior woman lawyer or a retired woman IPS or IAS officer,” says a government lawyer to TNM. 

The court did not listen to any of the three sides and stuck to its suggestion - thereby starting the next round of litigation for the survivor who had, by then, waited for over a year. 

Transferring the case to Telangana 

On August 28, 2019, the Division Bench of the High Court pronounced its judgment, transferring the case to neighbouring Telangana. Stating that it was exercising its extraordinary powers under Article 226 of the Constitution, the bench stated, “We are conscious of the fact that enquiry and investigation out of state is not envisaged under the provisions of the Act. But looking at the nature of positions of both parties, complainant as well as the appellant, both belonging to Police Department of the State of Tamil Nadu and the nature of allegations, sought impleadment of parties including the Chief Minister etc., the spree of litigation which has ensued between the parties on account of the allegations of sexual harassment, we are inclined to ensure complete fairness and independence in the internal enquiry under the Act of 2013 as well as the investigation in the FIR No. 2 of 2018.” 

In ordering so, the Madras High Court directed the Telangana government to constitute an IC headed by a senior woman officer and also the criminal investigation to be taken up by an independent official of the Telangana police. The court gave six months time to report back on the IC’s inquiry and the police investigation. 

The Madras HC order received mixed responses. While senior journalist and lawyer A Subramani had, at the time, told TNM that transferring a case in the investigation stage is rare, he pointed to cases like the murder of former Tamil Nadu minister Tha Kiruttinan in 2003 in which MK Alagiri was the main accused and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s disproportionate assets case, which were transferred out of the state during the trial stage. But those like former ADGP (Prisons) R Nataraj had said that the High Court order would set a wrong precedent, encouraging people to seek transfer of cases. 

The High Court’s ‘unusual’ order was soon challenged, both by the state government and Murugan, who said that the High Court did not have the power to transfer the case to Telangana. 

The Supreme Court’s stay 

On September 23, 2019, the Supreme Court stayed the HC’s order transferring the investigation to Telangana. For nearly two years since then, the investigation has been at a grinding halt. As for Murugan, he was transferred out of the DVAC in September 2019 - 13 months after he was was accused of sexual harassment. He went on to be posted to the Special Economic Offences Wing, then was made South Zone IG, and was in June this year transferred to STF, Erode. 

The source close to the woman officer believes that if this case had come to a conclusion, the February 2021 incident involving the former Special DGP would never have taken place. “If every [necessary] action was taken, this second incident wouldn't have happened. If an officer gets punished, another officer won’t commit such an act. They thought nothing would happen. There is no fear,” says the source.   

But how did the state act so quickly on the sexual harassment allegations against the former Special DGP? The government lawyer explains that unlike in Murugan’s case, the February incident had taken place in full public view, with CCTV footage also available. The woman IPS officer had been waylaid by an SP and other officers who intimidated her while she was on her way to file a complaint with the DGP. “There was public outrage against the former Special DGP,” says the lawyer. 

But perhaps another key difference in the way the two cases have played out is in the matter of the registration of the FIR. The survivor in the former Special DGP case chose to file the complaint herself. “The woman IPS officer sent a complaint to the jurisdictional police officers via WhatsApp while she was in the car from Chengalpettu to Chennai,” says the government lawyer. A source points out that the state’s failures in the woman officer’s case had made it clear to the IPS officer that an immediate FIR was the need of the hour. 

Then, there was also the reaction of fellow police officers. While several IPS officers rallied behind the woman IPS officer who accused the former Special DGP of sexual harassment, the same was not the case for the woman officer, who is a non-IPS officer. “In the Special DGP case, the survivor officer is an IPS officer. People in the IPS circles were able to exert pressure and pressed the authorities to ensure speedy action. Moreover, many officers who stood by this woman IPS officer failed to stand with the woman officer as she is a non-IPS officer,” says the source close to the woman officer.  

TNM has learnt that the woman officer has approached the new Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s office, the Chief Secretary and the Home Secretary, urging the state to also approach the top court over the matter. “The Tamil Nadu government should also go to the Supreme Court. They need to make two appeals - one to vacate the stay and to mention that the investigation will happen in Tamil Nadu. Both the survivor’s appeal and the state’s appeal must happen simultaneously. They (the state) must find a way and should not be depending on the survivor. They are equally responsible,” explains the source close to the woman officer.    

Despite the long delay in her case, the woman officer believes she can still get justice. With the change of government in Tamil Nadu, the survivor now hopes that the case will once again be taken up by the state. “She will go to the Supreme Court to vacate the stay,” says the source who adds, “She now wants the case to continue in Tamil Nadu. She believes with a change in government, the case can now be investigated in Chennai.”   

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