with sex, lies?
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
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’
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
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...”
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
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
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.”