This Case Analysis is written by Parinay Gupta, a Fifth Year B.A LL.B (Hons.) Student at Amity Law School, Delhi.
Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan – 1997
Equivalent Citation: (1997) 6 SCC 241.
Petitioner: Vishaka and Others.
Respondent: State of Rajasthan and Others.
Date of Judgement: 13 August 1997
Bench: B.N. Kirpal, Sujata V. Manohar and JJ.J.S. Verma C.J.
Cases Referred: Nilabati Behra v. State of Orissa (1993 2 SCC 746)
- A woman named Bhanwari Devi, who had been employed as a social worker at village-level as per the Women’s Development Project (WDP) being run by the Government of Rajasthan, was brutally raped in 1992.
- Since it was her job, she used to be closely associated with families so as to prevent problematic marriages and subsequently, report such cases to the police as and when necessary.
- Keeping this in mind, in one specific case, she reported a family belonging to a particularly reserved community to the police because they were involved in trying to get a one-year old infant into an arranged marriage.
- Thus, in order to get revenge on Devi, the family rebelled against her and 5 men raped her in front of her husband while she was at her workplace.
- The police department initially tried to discourage them from reporting the incident by using various excuses, however, a complaint against the accused was lodged. Devi and her husband, though, were subjected to inhumane treatment by the female police attendants and they weren’t even allowed to spend the night in the police station despite the threat to security.
- This led to public outrage as numerous social organizations and women activists arose in support of Devi’s fight for justice. Hence, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by these activists demanding protection from sexual harassment for women at the workplace.
Issues of the Case
The Supreme Court was expected to inspect the case which was brought to light, several deep-rooted problems of sexual harassment at the workplace, gender inequality, rape and outraging of a woman’s modesty as social problems of considerable intensity.
The fundamental rights preserved under Article 14, 19 & 21 give rise to the concepts of gender equality. Such concepts of gender equality thus, deem, sexual harassment at the workplace as an obvious infringement, robbing the female class of their integral rights.
Across the globe, the protection of females is recognised as a basic minimum for every nation. Even if domestic law fails to address such an issue, International Conventions and Statues can provide the assistance so far as it does not contravene with any national law and does not violate the essence of the Constitution. Article 51(c) and 253 r/w Entry 14 of the Union List of Seventh schedule of the Constitution gives our Judiciary such an authority. Therefore, such a violation attracts the remedy of Article 32, as per the court.
Time and again, Indian Courts have reiterated the fact that ‘Right to Live with Dignity’ is a part of ‘Right to Life’ under Article 21. Such ‘dignity’ must be protected with appropriate rules. It is of extreme importance to design such rules to fill the gap left by any legislative void.
The courts relied on following international sources of law while framing the guidelines that would serve as the law of the country declared under Article 141: –
- Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1981
- General Recommendations of CEDAW in relation to such matters (Articles 11, 22, 23, 24)
- India committed to an official pledge at the 4th Beijing World Conference on Women that it would set up a National Commission for Women at every sector and at every level which will look to protect women’s rights.
Since 1991, the Indian subcontinent has seen an increase in gender equality when it came to employment. The country saw more women being employed in institutions than before 1991. It must be noted that this increase in female presence inorganizationss also served as a crucial contributing factor to occurrences of sexual harassment also increasing. In such circumstances, the court in the ‘Vishakha case’ was expected to ensure the protection of fundamental rights enshrined under Article 14, 19 and 21.
At that point of time in India, a law to prevent and punish the commission of these types of offenses simply did not exist, resulting in huge social stigma and a huge amount of unreported and unpunished cases. The Indian Criminal Justice System was not equipped to handle such offenses, resulting in multiple violations of the rights of women who were left in a position of no available remedy and no justice. What’s worse is the incompetence of our Legislature in drafting a law to counter these violations despite the occurrence of multiple such cases involving sexual harassment. It’s ironic that India managed to succeed in allowing women to exist in different types of workplaces but failed to ensure healthy environments for such women.
Thus, it was no surprise that after the PIL that was filed by various social workers and NGOs, the incompetence of the legislature was finally addressed by our apex court. The court managed to expertly interpret our existing laws, without breaking any constitutional boundaries, in order to frame guidelines that would serve to prevent such cases from arising again. These guidelines came to be known as the ‘Vishakha Guidelines”. With the formulation of these guidelines, the Supreme Court finally offered a remedy for victims of such abuse.
Due to this incident, the constant threat faced by employed women was revealed in full force leading to an understandable demand for protection and safety by the common masses. The court, recognizing the lack of a proper statute for the same, built an alternative mechanism so that such incidents can be dealt with. These guidelines managed to safeguard the freedom and liberty of a woman so that they could enjoy an environment where they felt equal. The court, very rightly, held that a violation of gender equality is a violation of Article 21 and the right to life and liberty protected under it. The Supreme Court also judged gender inequality to be a violation of Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution.
The court, expertly manoeuvred the deficiencies of our existing laws by reading Entry 14 mentioned in 7th Schedule of Union List and Article 51(c) along with Article 253 and concluded that they are well within their jurisdiction to resolve a problem by taking inspiration from international treaties and conventions, whenever a relevant statute does not exist.
Many consider the Vishakha judgment to be one of the most brilliant specimens of law designed and framed by a court of law. The court ignored any restrictions placed upon it by the Constitution and directly intervened based on the nature of the case at hand so as to create guidelines that would ensure that such harassment at a workplace would not go unpunished. The Supreme Court did this, by not hesitating in placing reliance on international law and the CEDAW after acknowledging the absence of a defined domestic law.
What is brilliant about the Vishakha judgment is that it does not put pressure on the employer in coming up with an appropriate redressal mechanism thereby, taking a more rational approach. The judgement leaves it upon the employer to take all necessary actions that are crucial for the protection of the constitutional values of liberty and equality. The apex court, by successfully ensuring that it does not irrationally trespass upon its boundaries, gave judgement that now serves as the primary example of effective judicial activism rather than becoming a case of judicial overreach.