A 47-year-old Dalit woman, Rashmi (name changed), has been working as a court staff for the past 10 years. But in the last 10 months, her job has become “torturous” for her.
Nothing had changed about her official job. But she was forced to do an excess of household work in Erode subordinate judge D Selvam’s house on top of her official duties. “They make me do all kinds of work in the house from cleaning the house to washing clothes to cooking. The sub-judge’s wife keeps scolding me for everything, ‘Why haven’t you done this, why haven’t you done that?’ I work from 7 in the morning till 7 pm,” she said.
Narrating the recent issue that has attracted media attention, she said, “The problem started when I told the sub-judge Selvam that I’m not supposed to be doing household work. I should be working at the court. The sub-judge was angry and sent me a memo stating that I was not washing their clothes properly and argued with them.”
She went to meet the sub-judge the next day but he was not available at his house. She showed the letter to the personal assistant and he calmed her down. Hence, on February 4, 2016, she sent an apology letter in response to the notice.
Rashmi’s main objection is to the way the sub-judge Selvam and his wife treat her. She is scolded over every task and arguments erupt constantly between the sub-judge’s wife and her. But since she was given a memo on February 1, Rashmi has stopped responding to the sub-judge’s wife’s harangues.
Asked about why she does not file a complaint against the judge, she said, “I keep waiting and thinking that everything will be fine soon. There are many other office staff who are doing domestic work in other judges’ houses.”
Why not leave this job for something else? “It is a government job and I get Rs. 15,000 every month to run my family. Who else will give me this much?”
For Rashmi, the job is particularly important because she is the sole earning member of the family. She has two daughters, one studying in Class 10 and another going to college. Her husband recently had an operation for diabetes, for which she had taken a loan of Rs. 3 lakh. She said, “I get Rs. 15,000 as salary. Rs. 7,000 goes in paying the loan, and I have to run the family with the rest.”
Talking to The News Minute on the issue, Former Justice of the Madras High Court, K Chandru said, “The problem is that the work of the Office Assistants (Peons or Attenders, or basic staff), when they are sent for house duties of a Judicial Officer, is not clearly defined. Though one believes that they are sent for only to do office duties in the residences of judicial officers, it is a prevalent practice that they are made to do all kinds of work. Complaints are made only infrequently, like the present complaint at Sathyamangalam.”
He further stated that in November 1992, the staff organised a meeting in Chennai and had requested the then Chief Justice Kanthakumari Bhatnagar to clearly define the work they were expected to do when they were deputed for house duty. Though she was inclined to sympathetically consider their case, under pressure from her brethren, she issued a circular which said: "They are required to do such of those duties as may be assigned to them by the respective Judicial Officers."
He added, “Because of the high profile news story, the present Officer may, at the maximum, receive a memo and be warned for his indiscretion in putting the issue in writing. In many places, such matters are taken care of with oral communications. There is no scope for any fair treatment in these matters as such incidents do take place in the households of higher-ups also.”
In the past, the defiance of such directions has been dealt with heavy-handedly, and in one instance four employees were dismissed in Tiruchirappalli District for refusing to do domestic work.
Dalit writer Stalin Rajangam told The News Minute, “We put our hopes on judges that they will get us justice in any case. In this case, however, he did not act as a responsible judge, but rather as a dominant authority over the Dalit court staff. Making that woman work in his house is completely wrong and against the law. She is a government staff and she is subordinate to him only in the office.”
The Judicial Employees’ Association in Tamil Nadu has filed a petition in the Madras High Court after this incident in Erode. “We condemn the behaviour of the sub-judge. She was forced to wash the inner garments of the judge and his wife. The High Court should intervene in this matter and render justice to our employee. We request our High Court to use employees only for official department work,” said Karunakaran, State President, Judicial Employees Association.