The Indian Army goes by the Army Act while probing allegations of sexual abuse. But in the process it may be blatantly overlooking guidelines issued by the Supreme Court on sexual harassment at workplace, say activists.
"We do not go by the Supreme Court's guidelines. The army officers first come under the Army Act and we take serious note of sexual allegations," a senior Indian Army official told IANS requesting anonymity.
Former judge advocate general of Indian Army Maj. Gen. Neelendra Kumar said: "The army has a standing policy that every case of serious nature invariably goes to the military court. The Supreme Court guidelines are not applicable as we have the Army Act."
The apex court had issued guidelines for conducting inquiries into cases of sexual harassment at workplace in an August 1997 judgment and these are meant to be applicable in the absence of any specific legislation.
"In the absence of legislation to provide for guarantee against sexual harassment and abuse, particularly at workplace, the Supreme Court has laid down guidelines and norms for due observance at all workplaces or other institutions in India, until legislation is enacted for the purpose," K.P.S. Satheesh, chairman of NGO The Guardian Foundation, told IANS.
The Army Act 1950, which was formulated for men when women had not been inducted into the forces, does not have specific provisions dealing with cases of sexual abuse. The allegations are generally clubbed with "unbecoming conduct" on the part of officers.
"The army's argument that its personnel are under the Army Act cannot be accepted since the act was meant only for men. So in the absence of any specific rules, procedures or norms in the Army Act for solving sexual harassment at workplace, the apex court guidelines are very well applicable to the army as well," Satheesh said.
According to Defence Minister A.K. Antony, during the last five years, 11 cases of sexual harassment have been reported in the armed forces, where the strength of women officers remains minuscule.
Currently, 5,137 women officers serve in the armed forces. They include 4,101 in the army, 784 in the air force and 252 in the navy.
A recent example is the case of Captain Poonam Kaur of the Army Supply Corps (ASC). In July 2008, she alleged that three officers of her unit had mentally and sexually harassed her and confined her illegally when she resisted their advances.
The army then constituted a court of inquiry whereby all three officers denied the allegations and she was found guilty on at least 20 counts, including levelling false charges against her senior officers.
The apex court has succinctly laid down that any inquiry team investigating a sexual harassment case should be headed by a woman, more than half the members should be women and there should be third party participation in the inquiry like that of a non-profit organisation.
However, the inquiry into Kaur's allegations was presided over by Brigadier R.P. Attri of the army's Western Command headquarters. Among the three members of the inquiry, only one was female and there was no representative from an NGO in the panel.
The Guardian Foundation has moved an application on the army in the National Commission for Women against "violation of guidelines and norms prescribed by the Supreme Court while dealing with cases of sexual harassment at workplace".