It appears that all that was needed to revive the Orissa State Level Complaints Committee on Sexual Harassment was a case of alleged sexual harassment against the Orissa Assembly Speaker Maheswar Mohanty; his resignation and the adjournment of the Legislative Assembly. The Committee, which lay defunct for the past two years, has now been reconstituted - following allegations of sexual harassment levelled at the former Speaker by Gayatri Panda, 29, an Assistant Marshal of the Orissa Legislative Assembly.
The current developments have brought to the fore the manner in which significant cases involving women are seen by political parties in Orissa, with politics taking centre stage and associated issues pushed to the background.
The only woman marshal of the Assembly, Panda, who was recently suspended on charges of negligence of duty, had alleged in her complaint that the Speaker harassed her after she refused to provide sexual favors. According to Panda, she had first lodged a written complaint with the secretary of the Assembly but to no avail. She went public with the allegations but soon became incommunicado, leaving women activists, along with the Opposition Congress Party leaders, to step up their campaign against the Speaker and the ruling government.
The Speaker had said that the charge against him was part of a "conspiracy in which influential people were involved". He had suggested a probe into the matter by a House committee, which was rejected by the Opposition.
Led by the Congress, the opposition parties stalled the Assembly proceedings demanding an independent Central Bureau of Investigation probe the allegations. With the demands for his resignation intensifying, Mohanty stepped down from his post after the Assembly was adjourned sine die. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in order to save his and his party's image sacked State Information & Public Relations Minister Debasis Nayak, in view of the allegation that the minister was involved in the controversy.
For nearly a week, women activists, mostly from Opposition parties, staged demonstrations, meetings and even stormed the office of the State Commission for Women (SCW), accusing chairperson, Namita Panda, of taking a soft stand on the case. At the same time, some of the activists were criticized for "highlighting a sensational case for the wrong reasons."
"In most cases like this, the incident gets more prominence than the issue. The question is not whether the allegations were fabricated, but why the State Level Complaints Committee on Sexual Harassment wasn't functioning," points out Lalita Missal of the National Alliance of Women, Orissa. "More importantly, is the government aware about the existence of the Visakha guidelines on sexual harassment?" says Amrita Patel, a faculty member of the Bhubaneswar-based School of Women's Studies, Utkal University.
According to a study conducted by the School of Women's Studies in 2004, only 30 per cent of the organizations examined in Bhubaneswar had constituted complaints' committees on sexual harassment. Both Missal and Patel feel that although such Committees have been formed at the state and district levels in Orissa, there is no information on their functioning, role and jurisdiction.
Although the role of the SCW is considered to be crucial in this context, many are critical of the 'political compulsions' that the Commission has to reckon with, time and again. In the recent sexual harassment case in Orissa, when the SCW chairperson was accused of not taking up the case suo motu, she had retorted by wondering why the victim had approached the National Commission for Women (NCW) instead of the SCW.
"Such cases serve as good opportunities to settle scores in politics," says a senior leader of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), on conditions of anonymity. "Interestingly, most of the women activists fighting on behalf of Gayatri Panda are either from the Congress Party or harbor political ambitions," he adds.
The latest case is not an aberration in Orissa politics, which has witnessed tumultuous times with high-profile cases related to violence against women continuing to surface. It is ironic that Leader of Opposition J. B. Patnaik, who has now been demanding a CBI inquiry into the recent incident, had once vociferously denied a judicial probe into the infamous Anjana Mishra scandal during his regime in 1997.
Mishra had accused former state advocate-general Indrajit Ray of attempting to molest her. While she took him to court the then chief minister, J.B. Patnaik, was drawn into the controversy for his alleged role in shielding his friend, Ray. Later, Mishra who was gang-raped on her way (TO?), alleged the crime as a "pre-meditated" act to scare her into withdrawing the charges.
The reactions from the then Opposition parties was along predictable lines and the then BJD president Naveen Patnaik had said J.B. Patnaik had lost all moral authority to rule. It must be noted that the NCW, which had visited Orissa at that point, had even urged all political parties not to twist the case to suit their interests and advised them to rise above party lines in matters concerning the dignity of a human being.
Experts point out that another reason for this trend is the fact that men have lately dominated politics in the state. "We have hardly strong women political leaders both in the ruling and Opposition parties who can champion the genuine causes of women. Most of them exploit cases to their advantages," opines Patel.
The sensational Chhabirani gang rape and murder case that shook Orissa in the early Eighties is another testimony to the politicization of violence against women cases. Chhabirani, wife of a journalist, was gang-raped and murdered on a riverbed in the Jagatsinghpur district, allegedly by the local Congress leaders. Incidentally, when the murder took place, Congress was in power, and there were allegations of deliberate attempts to hush up the case. The victim's husband, Nabakishore had reportedly acknowledged the help given to him by the then Opposition leader, Biju Patnaik, including money to fight the case. It took 22 long years for the court to convict four of the accused in the case.
Says senior journalist and political commentator, Rabi Das, "Politicization of such cases is not peculiar to Orissa but is seen across the country as they are supposed to be sensational in nature." According to Das, the criminal conspiracy involving politicians and criminals should also receive prime attention while cases of violence against women are being investigated.
The recent sexual harassment case in Orissa is being investigated by three agencies, the State Human Rights Commission, Mahila Police Station and the SCW. Observes Missal, "It is ironic that a single case is now being investigated by three agencies at a time when several women all across the state, who are victims of trafficking, rape and molestation, do not even have the proper mechanism to lodge a case."