Political parties show no signs of addressing sexual harassment

In this white-hot political season, when parties are working round the clock, the one question that women’s activists are asking is: Is there an ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) in place in political parties?

Political parties employ a high number of women and it is imperative that they don’t face harassment in their work environment, says Radha Kumar, an advocate who specialises in women’s cases.

“But the problem is women in political parties fall in two categories. One, direct employees, and there is no confusion there. Two, volunteers and members associated with the parties. This number is huge, but as far as the law goes, they fall under a grey area”.

Another advocate Rani says that the POSH Act (Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013) has a jurisdiction that is limited to employees working in the party. “Voluteers or members don’t enjoy employee status and hence are outside the purview of the POSH Act”.

Be that as it may, but do political parties have an ICC in place? Late last year, in the aftermath of #Metoo exposes,  Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi wrote to all political parties to form an ICC. In her letter written to all seven national political parties and 59 regional parties, Maneka Gandhi said Section 4 of the POSH Act mandated the formation of an ICC in every organisation hiring women. And as per an IANS report, only the CPI-M complied to the request. The rest of the parties do not seem to have even responded to the Minister’s letter.

“It is a shame that out of the seven national, 59 State parties in India, only one responded,” says Rani. “It is pertinent that one of the big names at the centre of the #metoo allegations is M J Akbar, who was initially with the Congress but now in the BJP.”

If the BJP had eased out Akbar it would have sent reassuring signals to women. But alas, it didn’t, says Rathna Mudgal, a women”s activist in Mumbai. “Singer Kailash Kher was felicitated, and he also performed, at AAP’s ‘Mayur Utsav’ in Delhi.” Kher is accused by singer Sona Mohaptra and several others of sexually harassing them.   

Adds Radha “we hear a lot of stories how unwary women belonging to the women’s wing in the various political parties are exploited by their male colleagues and big leaders. The worrying part is many sexual relationships in such cases may technically fall under consent, but the power equation, equivalent of powerful boss-subordinate one, will make it an exploitation.”

Being political parties, they will also know how to hush up matters. A case involving an AAP woman worker sometime back in 2016 is a typical case in point. Apparently she was harassed and molested by her colleague. She filed a formal complaint, and the alleged perpetrator was arrested, but later let off on bail. The complainant also had reportedly taken the matter to AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal.

After the accused was let off on bail, the victim went into depression and committed suicide. In a suicide message, she had also alleged that when she took the matter to the party chief her pleas were ignored, and she was asked to compromise.

Says Rani, “there are similar stories in every party, and many have been buried even before being taken to the police”.

“This is the election season. And women’s organisations should put pressure on the political parties to set up an ICC, which is just a small first step in stopping harassment of women.”