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Getting Away with sex, lies?

After Rupan Deol Bajaj’s fight against top cop KPS Gill, it is IRS officer Fantry Mein Jaswal battling a sexual harassment case against her boss. But the powers-that-be have left no stones unturned to shield her boss. Vikram Jit Singh reports

Classic Hush-Up: The finance ministry, which probed the case, gave Sethi a clean chit
When Jaswal went to Sethi’s room to inquire about the CBEC
chairman’s visit, he reportedly remarked, ‘There is no need of any brief. Just take your make-up kit along’

Hardly had Chandigarh recovered from the tremors of the epic battle between IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj and ‘supercop’ KPS Gill, than another high-profile sexual harassment case came visiting it. And, like Bajaj’s battle, it is the judiciary which is the arena for the fight for justice by a senior Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer taking on her former all-powerful boss and an insensitive system.

The report of the Union Finance Ministry’s Committee Relating to Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place that probed multiple charges of sexual harassment/vindictiveness levelled by Fantry Mein Jaswal against her boss, Kailash Sethi, IRS, has proved to be a classic hush-up. The brazen manner in which Sethi went about ‘harassing’ Jaswal is matched only by the bizarre nature of the probe.
The probe has held that only the charge of Sethi visiting Jaswal’s office has been substantiated. However, grave charges backed by material evidence and eyewitness accounts, such as visiting Jaswal’s office wearing golfing shorts, have been swept under the carpet.
Overruling the note put up by then Secretary, Revenue, Vinita Rai, for recording a written censure against Sethi, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram directed on September 30, 2004, that Sethi may only be “advised/counselled orally by the secretary (revenue)”.

Sethi was then chief commissioner (CC), Central Excise, at Chandigarh while Jaswal was his subordinate holding the rank of commissioner during November 2002-2003 when the sexual harassment incidents took place.

Benefiting from this wishy-washy acquittal by the committee and the oral censure that left his personal written records unblemished, Sethi has been elevated to the plum post of member, Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC). However, his membership has, following the intervention in Jaswal’s favour by the Prime Minister’s Office, been subjected to the outcome of the civil writ petition filed by her before the Punjab & Haryana High Court.

Indeed, the powers-that-be at the ministry of finance have left no stone unturned to shield Sethi, including not replying to four letters written by Jaswal seeking a copy of the probe report and information on action taken by the ministry on the committee’s findings.

When Jaswal moved the hc, the written statement of the ministry held that there was under the rules “no provision for furnishing a copy of the report to the complainant”. However, Tehelka has secured exclusive access to the report and depositions of prime witnesses.

The findings of the report show just why the ministry was keen on keeping the issue under the wraps.

According to the ministry, a written complaint was filed by Jaswal against Sethi on August 7, 2003. The complaint was referred for inquiry to the committee set up to deal with sexual harassment cases in pursuance of the Supreme Court judgement of 1997 titled, ‘Vishakha & Others vs State of Rajasthan & Others’.

The committee under the chairmanship of Snehlata Srivastava, joint secretary, administration, CBEC held 15 meetings and finalised its report on September 10, 2004.

The report held: “The witnesses summoned by the committee did not come out with any evidence... The committee, therefore, arrives at the conclusion that due to lack of evidence the sexual harassment charges could not be proved. However... it would be appropriate that Sethi may be issued an advice to be careful of his behaviour in future.”

Investigations by Tehelka establish that the hush-up by the committee took place at different levels: (a) ignoring, misinterpreting or providing a mischievous twist to evidence (b) treating a substantiated charge in a half-hearted manner.

Jaswal in her deposition charged that “Sethi dropped into my office everyday for coffee and any attempts to include my colleague, GS Narang, commissioner, Jalandhar, would be brushed aside and Sethi would insist on having coffee alone with me... Sethi attempted familiarity by attempting to sit close to me on the sofa... which made me extremely uncomfortable and awkward given the professional relationship and official decorum...”

action taken On its part, the committee has only held Sethi guilty of frequently visiting Jaswal’s room despite having a functional office. The deeper implications of (a) daily visits (b) only to Jaswal’s office (c) and once in shorts have been deliberately ignored by the committee.

Jaswal charged Sethi with having insisted on taking her along with him while calling on the Chief Justice of the hc and the goc-in-c, Western Army Command. Jaswal told the committee that in “order to avoid any awkwardness, I insisted upon Narang accompanying us on these visits. However, the request was brushed aside and was followed by a remark to the effect that ‘I feel proud to take such a charming lady around’.

action taken The committee has not taken cognisance of this incident as there was no eyewitness!

And, when there was an eyewitness to another incident, he chose to remain non-committal. Jaswal contended that during the visit of MK Zutshi, then CBEC chairman, to Ludhiana in April 2003, she went to Sethi’s room to ask whether any additional information was required to be included in the brief for the chairman. “Sethi reportedly remarked: ‘There is no need of any brief. Just take your make-up kit along’... SJ Singh has not denied the specific incident and has stated that he could not recall the same.”

action taken The committee brushed aside the charge by stating that “the only witness to the remark made by Sethi regarding ‘taking a make-up kit’ was non-committal... He (Singh) neither denied nor acknowledged the making of such a remark by Sethi.”

One of the most bizarre incidents related to Sethi is naming the newly-built conference room at the Chandigarh Zone hqs of Central Excise after his serving subordinate officer. A plaque bearing the inscription, ‘fmj Room’, after Jaswal’s initials, was put up. An act that led to many unfortunate insinuations and hidden meanings.

action taken The committee has given a mischievous twist to this material fact of naming the room after a subordinate. It is a clear bid to play down and subtly suggest that the nature of the relationship between Jaswal and Sethi was not so harmful. “The committee finds that Jaswal and Sethi had initially for some months cordial relations, like Sethi naming the Conference Hall on her name...”

Aggravated by the rejections, Sethi then chose to harass and victimise Jaswal by levelling corruption allegations. Sethi tried to harass “me by officially calling for my explanations, including an unjust memo and wild allegations of corruption...(but) Sethi had recommended my name for the Presidential award in December 2002 for distinguished record of service, and it is the same Sethi who reprimanded me and called for my explanations after the incident requiring him to apologise for the sexually-coloured remarks...”

action taken The committee found no reason to disbelieve Jaswal by stating expressly that it “did not find any motive behind this complaint by Jaswal... is a self-confident woman officer and she would not take any nonsense from others.” Not only this, the committee found that “the issue of corruption does not directly relate to the case of harassment.

Amongst the committee’s five members, the most shocking attitude was displayed by Dr Bawa, working for an organisation that champions women’s rights. Dr Bawa asked Jaswal to name only senior officers who would establish her ‘moral character’.

action taken None.

Sethi was unavailable for comment despite repeated efforts by Tehelka. Sethi’s office staff told Tehelka that he was away to Kolkata in a meeting and no contact number was available.

On its part, the finance ministry has held that the case had been settled within the parameters of law, nothing was amiss in the “independent” committee’s report and the case stood consigned to the records. The ministry has admitted, though, that Jaswal’s 28-year career record was “unblemished” and that “no chargesheet” has ever been made out against her on “charges of corruption”.

Replying to Jaswal’s charges of a hush-up, the ministry in its statement said: “The committee …has objectively and dispassionately inquired into the complaint…The committee had not recommended any disciplinary action or punishment against Sethi… Sethi was counselled in accordance with the suggestion of the committee which did not militate against the conclusion that the charge against Sethi was not proved... the visit of a CC to the office of a commissioner does not warrant any departmental or penal action till any misconduct is proved...”

When Tehelka contacted Jaswal in Nasik where she is posted, she offered a brief comment: “I would seek a review of the evidence (which is already before the committee) by the hc. But for that to happen, I must have the report which the ministry is refusing to part with. It would be a slap on the face of womanhood if such a person is allowed to go scot-free and earn a promotion on top of it. Such inaction is also bound to demoralise others who may have similarly suffered, besides emboldening persons who may have propensities like Sethi.”


Aug 20 , 2005

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