Madras High Court directs Armed Forces to constitute ICC for sexual harassment complaints

“If the women of the armed forces should not have courage to fight such violence, who else can have?” the Court said in its order.

The Madras High Court recently directed the Union Ministry of Defence to ensure that the Armed Forces have in place an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to deal with sexual harassment complaints. [State v. Commandant, Air Force Administrative College]

Justice RN Manjula directed that the Armed Forces must ensure that the ICC exists in accordance with the mandate of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 (POSH Act).

The judge also directed the Central government to “sensitise all armed personnel by imparting gender sensitive awareness trainings.” 

Further, the Court issued a set of guidelines for district courts to keep in mind while dealing with offences involving defence personnel.

The order stated that the district judiciary must follow the dictum laid down in Som Datt  Datta v Union of India,and that the police was required to file its chargesheet only before a magistrate and not before the “Court Martial” authority involved in the case.

The Court was hearing a case involving a woman flight lieutenant of the Indian Air Force who claimed that she was raped by a colleague at the Air Force Administrative College, Coimbatore. She alleged that she he had been pressurised into withdrawing her complaint, and that she had had to face much humiliation at the Air Force Hospital during her medical examination following the incident.

Further, she told the Court that she was forced to approach the local police to get a case registered, as her employer, the Indian Air Force, had failed to respond adequately and appropriately to her complaint.

On noting that the complainant woman had been humiliated and was made to withdraw her rape complaint made to Air Force Administrative College authorities, the Court said,

“In this era of awareness and sensitivity, it is difficult to comprehend that a victim of a sexual offence in the Armed Forces was not comfortable enough to take up her grievance and she was looked down and pressured for having got the courage to report. If the women of the armed forces should not have courage to fight such violence, who else can have?”

Justice Manjula also said that it was imperative to ensure that a victim of sexual assault or violence was not subjected to “secondary victimisation”. Therefore, all establishments, including the Armed Forces, must ensure strict compliance of the mandates of the POSH Act of 2013.

The High Court passed the order while disposing of an appeal filed by the State on behalf of the Coimbatore All Women Police Station challenging a lower court’s order that had permitted the handing over of the accused to the Air Force despite his having been remanded to judicial custody already.

While an inquiry was initiated by the Air Force authorities, the accused was permitted to roam around in the Administrative College campus freely and even to sit in the same class as the complainant. It was then that the woman was forced to approach the Coimbatore police.

When a case was registered by the police, and the accused was arrested and remanded to judicial custody, the Air Force sought his custody citing court martial proceedings. The IAF authorities said they were not wiling to let the accused remain in the custody of local police or in judicial custody owing to the possibility of custodial torture.

The High Court said that while handing over the accused’s custody to the IAF, the lower court had erred in allowing the police to carry out a parallel investigation.

“The tenor of the counter affidavit (filed by the Air Force AdministrativeCollege) is as though it is an onset for a power wrangle. It contains some disparaging statements about the performance of the State police by taking excuses from certain isolated incidents,” the order said.

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