By Anuradha Gandhi and Isha Sharma
The relationship between a teacher and student is not one between equals and involves the power dynamics of the hierarchical difference between the two. At every point in the relationship, it would be difficult for a student to refuse the advances of the teacher, as she may have apprehensions that the teacher can adversely affect her academic career if she resists/spurns the teacher’s advances. In such a scenario, a teacher must always be mindful of the fact that every apparent ‘consent’ is not likely to be unmediated by this power, relationship, and submitted to because the affected individual believes that the request for sexual favors “is an implicit/explicit term or condition of teaching/guidance and employment.”
Facts of the Case:
The Appellant is a Professor in the Hindi Department in the Faculty of Arts, University of Delhi. A complaint was addressed by a female student, Ms. M, who was pursuing an M. Phil in the Hindi Department, to the Vice-Chancellor (VC) on September 09, 2008, alleging to be sexually harassed by the appellant along with two other members of the faculty.
The complaint was initially addressed to the University Units Complaints Committee (UUCC) as per the Ordinance governing the University. Ms. M leveled certain allegations against the members of the UUCC and the VC marked the complaint to the Apex Complaints Committee (ACC), which convened a Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee (SHCC) to inquire into the complaints.
Thereafter, a show cause notice was issued to the appellant directing him to appear before the SHCC. The appellant responded to the notice requesting to furnish him with a copy of the complaint, to which the SHCC expressed its inability to do so. In the meanwhile, Ms. M raised certain allegations against the members of the SHCC about misbehavior meted out to her. As a result thereof, the VC transferred the complaint to the ACC which constituted a Sub-Committee (SC) to conduct an inquiry.
The appellant reiterated his request to be supplied with copies of the complaint and other documents/material furnished by Ms. M. He further sought permission to lead oral and documentary evidence as also to permit him to cross examine, inter alia not only challenging the procedure for inquiry adopted by the ACC but also contending that there were no “unwelcome” sexual advances since the relationship between him and the complainant was consensual.
The appellant rather pleaded that the complainant had herself been making sexual overtures provoking him into indulging in indecent advances and also acknowledging that due to the influence and provocation initiated by Ms. M, he indulged or participated in some indecent conversation. The appellant persistently canvassed that he was the victim of a criminal conspiracy hatched by the complainant.
It was an admitted fact that the ACC finally furnished the appellant with a copy of the complaint and also annexures in the nature of copies of some objectionable SMSs comprised in two pages which were alleged to be sent by him to the complainant.
Though the appellant’s plea for physical cross-examination was disallowed by the Sub-committee in order to ensure the anonymity of the complainant, it however allowed the appellant to submit a list of questions with which he desired to cross-examine the complainant, to which the appellant raised objections on the ground that the same was not substitute to cross examination thereby showing his discomfort to the summary proceedings being adopted by the ACC. Eventually, the Sub-Committee submitted its report to the ACC after conducting the inquiry and found the appellant guilty of the charge framed since he failed to produce any direct/indirect evidence in support of his defense by available records.
The findings of the SC were deliberated upon by the ACC and the report was further forwarded to the EC, not only to the effect that the allegations of sexual harassment against the appellant were proved but also made recommendations thereby proposing:
(i) demotion of the appellant with deduction of salary;
(ii) debarring him from holding any Administrative position of the remainder of the service; and
(iii) debarring him form the membership of the Selection Committee in the University; and further
(iv) debarring his appointment as a Research Supervisor in the Department of Hindi in the future.
The copy of the findings and recommendations of the ACC were duly furnished to the appellant.
The EC of the University after taking into consideration the evidence on records, findings of the inquiry report, the representation against the findings, facts, and circumstances placed before it, opined that the appellant had committed a serious act of misconduct, and accordingly, while placing the appellant under suspension, issued a Show Cause Notice to the appellant requiring him to show cause as to why his services should not be disengaged/terminated for the act of misconduct. The appellant submitted his reply to the show cause notice. The ACC later submitted its comments and observations on the appellant’s reply to the show cause memorandum for placing the matter before the EC.
In the light of order passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the matter of University of Delhi vs. prof. Bidyut Chakraborthy dated January 12, 2010 the matter with regard to complaint filed by Ms. M was forwarded to the ACC, so that the accused be permitted to cross examine the complainant and witnesses through a written procedure, to submit statements of additional relevant witness, and that a record of the proceedings of the ACC be given to both sides.
The ACC prepared its report on the complaint of Ms. M against the appellant accordingly and forwarded the same to the EC. The findings of the AC were accepted by the EC and vide memorandum dated July 08, 2011, the appellant was compulsorily retired from the University service as teacher of the University with effect from July 01, 2011.
Being aggrieved by the findings, the petition was filed by the appellant assailing the decision of the University to compulsorily retire him from the service, which ultimately came to be dismissed by the Learned Single Judge vide impugned judgment dated November 25, 2019 as it was held therein that the definition of sexual harassment was an inclusive one, thereby not implying the conduct conforming to the circumstances outlined in the definition but also any other conduct as would be commonly understood to constitute sexual harassment; and therefore, while repelling the plea of the appellant was held that it would be unjustifiable to restrain the scope of interpretation to the specific type of conduct referred therein. It was further held that the relationship between student and teacher is a most sacred one, therefore, no defence of complainant being a consenting party could be taken.
The aforementioned impugned judgment passed by the Learned Single Judge on November 25, 2019 imposing the punishment of compulsory retirement upon the appellant on the basis of sexual harassment complaint has been challenged in the present Letter Patents Appeal (LPA) on the following grounds that the principles of natural justice were vitiated since the appellant was not permitted to orally cross examine the complainant. The appellant also pleaded that the judgment was passed without affording any hearing to the appellant thereby, causing severe prejudice.
The Hon’ble Court found no reason to believe that the impugned order passed by the learned Single Judge on November 25, 2019 was prejudiced and resulted in miscarriage and therefore, it upheld the decision of the disciplinary authority which imposed compulsorily retirement of the appellant from the service in the interest of the institution.
In agreement with the decision of the learned Single Judge, it was held that:
“We could not agree more with the observations by learned Single Judge that the relationship between a teacher and student is a sacred one and the appellant should have stood on high moral grounds despite any alleged indecent overtures by the complainant. The acts complained of were not legally permissible in the first instance, and existence or otherwise, of consent, on the part of the other party paled into insignificance.”
Accordingly, the said appeal along with pending application was disposed of by the court vide order dated July 26, 2023.