Congress questions Shah on reformed laws against sexual harassment

A panel of a group of ministers was formed after the #MeToo movement in 2018 to reform the legal framework regarding sexual harassment at work places

Congress, Sushmita Dev, Amit Shah, sexual harassment, report, #MeToo movement, M J Akbar, panel, committee, GoM, legal framework
Sushmita Dev (left), President of the All India Mahila Congress, put out a copy of the letter she had sent to Union Home Minister Amit Shah (right), seeking information on what has been done by the panel of ministers so far. File photo: PTI

In the light of the controversy surrounding the ‘Bois Locker Room’ chat group revelations, the debate on how women are regarded in India and what is being done about it stands revived—more so on social media.

In an attempt to put the government on the mat regarding the issue of sexual harassment in work places, the Congress on May 6 questioned the Centre — specifically the panel of a group of ministers (GoM) which was formed after the #MeToo movement in 2018 — regarding the steps taken to reform sexual harassment laws and ensure the well-being of women and children.

Sushmita Dev, President of the All India Mahila Congress, put out a copy of the letter she had sent to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, seeking information on what has been done by the panel of ministers so far.

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“In October 2018, in the aftermath of the #MeToo Movement hitting the headlines, the government constituted a committee to address the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace and submit a report in three months on strengthening the legal framework,” her letter read.

She said she wondered what the committee headed by him has done so far to change the legal framework.

When the #MeToo movement picked up in India in late 2018, the Centre had announced the formation of a GoM that would discuss the changes to be made in the existing legal framework to protect women from sexual harassment at work and ensure quicker justice.

During this period, numerous sexual harassment allegations against reputed journalist and Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar cropped up, which later resulted in his resignation.

The GoM had comprised women ministers from the ruling government, including Maneka Gandhi, Nirmala Sitharaman, and Smriti Irani, among others.

Related news | POSH Act isn’t enough. It takes more to help women report sexual harassment

However, the panel, which was formed on October 24, 2018, met only once in nine months for a discussion before it was dissolved quietly in July 2019 without any public announcement.

The dissolution of the committee came soon after MJ Akbar resigned from his post.

Three days after media reports about the dissolution of the panel came up, a Right To Information (RTI) request filed by The Quint received a response from the government that the committee had on July 24, 2019 been “reconstituted”, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah heading it.

The RTI request by The Quint had also sought details about the number of times the panel had met, the dates on which all the meetings were held, and the minutes of each meeting.

However, the government had said it would not disclose the minutes of their meetings and refused to divulge any further information, citing Section 8 (i) of the RTI Act.

Section 8 (i) justifies not disclosing information which “would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.”

Related news | Sexual harassment at workplace is affront to rights of woman: SC

A senior official later told The Hindu on January 19, 2020 that the GoM had finalised its recommendations to strengthen laws against sexual harassment.

The official also said these recommendations, which included new provisions for the Indian Penal Code (IPC), will be made available to the public for their suggestions.

However, no recommendations from the panel have been put up for public review so far.

The copy of the letter Dev had put out on Twitter on May 5, 2020 read, “That report never saw the light of the day as the entire committee was reconstituted in July 2019 and to be headed by you (Amit Shah), but we are yet to see any report or recommendations on the same which only shows the lackadaisical attitude of the government towards safety and security of women.”

When contacted by The Wire, Dev said she had not received any response from the government yet.

Related news | UGC seeks data on sexual harassment complaints from varsities

“Does this government respond to anything? It is increasingly being proved that the Centre’s ‘Beti Bachao’ slogan was a hoax. The GoM committee was formed only as a face saver in the height of the #MeToo movement,” she told The Wire.

Her statement hinted at the possibility that the first committee was formed mainly because the #MeToo movement gained steam in October 2018 and continued through December 2018 and January 2019, right before the general elections.

The mood around the #MeToo movement soon shifted to poll politics since a lot of public figures, including politicians, were in the spotlight during this period.

There are allegations that the formation of the panel was merely a move to appease the public to see favourable results in the then upcoming elections.

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