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Haste, hype and populism cannot serve gender justice

Allegations of sexual misconduct should not be allowed to be used as ammunition in anti-authoritarian battles that are also riddled by gender-based disparity of power, writes Suparna Banerjee.

ht-view Updated: Dec 15, 2013 23:54 IST
Suparna Banerjee
Suparna Banerjee

If there is one issue that has refused to be muted by the media interest in the assembly poll results, it is that of gender crime in high places. We have been witness in recent times to two cases wherein powerful male members of society — public personalities to boot — have been accused of sexual misdemeanour towards their junior women colleagues. And while both these cases implicate a welter of issues related to the dynamics of gender, power and violence, the case of Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly and the law intern is freighted also with constitutional gravitas. For, Justice Ganguly is a retired Supreme Court judge who currently holds the high office of the chairperson of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the past few days we have been hearing a rising clamour for his resignation.

While Justice Ganguly is not obliged to step down from the post, there is perhaps a point in the demand that he does so. His being charged with sexual misdemeanour does not mar only his personal reputation as a former judge and as a member of society. It also maligns the constitutional office he holds and embroils an institution charged with safeguarding human rights in an indecorous controversy.

True, the allegation brought against him has not been proved. The SC panel probing the issue has found prima facie evidence of his guilt, but, on the other side, the impartiality of that panel has started to be questioned. The WBHRC also does not require him to resign at this stage. But the question of personal and institutional prestige has little to do with obligations and everything to do with dignity and credibility. The interests of these latter values might be better served if he resigned from his post, although that would in no way imply his acceptance of the charge brought against him.

The controversy generated by the intern’s allegation has dented Justice Ganguly’s prestige. If he resigns now and it is afterwards proved that the charge against him is false his loss would be complemented. Herein lurks the potential of the abuse of law as a weapon in anti-authoritarian battles that are also riddled by gender-based disparity of power. And this danger is compounded by the propensity of the media to over-hype cases of male eminence being tarnished by allegations of sexual misconduct. It will not further the cause either of human rights or of gender justice to have such allegations used as ammunition in a kind of class animosity that utilises gender as a façade.

One possible means of lessening this danger, it would seem, would be to bring more speed to the process of trial involved in such cases.

Over the past one year, even as reported cases of gender violence have escalated, the demand for such legal alacrity has also increased. However, a milieu wherein a victim takes a year to bring her charge against her offender does not engender the confidence that a speedy trial would ensure fairness to all concerned. Justice delayed is justice denied: the same miscarried through haste would be no better. Whether the delay on the victim’s part in this particular case has any relation to the veracity of her allegation is a matter for investigation.

It is indubitable, however, that women in our society often hesitate to come forward against powerful male offenders for fear of retaliation and social stigma. A polity that is unable to instill confidence or to give adequate protection to a victim of sexual misconduct can hardly be trusted to deliver a fair trial quickly. The rendition of justice is indeed contingent upon the broader question of good governance. An issue as pervasive and sensitive as that of gender violence deserves to be treated with caution, deliberation and discernment. Haste, hype and populism will not serve the cause of justice.

Suparna Banerjee a researcher and writer based in Kolkata

The views expressed by the authors are personal

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