Punjab & Haryana HC upholds constitution of ICC to examine sexual harassment allegations against Punjab University VC

Punjab & Haryana HC upholds constitution of ICC to examine sexual harassment allegations against Punjab University VC

Meera Emmanuel

The Punjab and Haryana High Court on Wednesday dismissed a plea challenging the manner in which an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) was constituted to probe sexual harassment allegations against the Vice-Chancellor of the Punjab University.

Rejecting apprehensions that the Chancellor of the Punjab University had not applied his mind in appointing the ICC as per the mandate under the 2013 Sexual Harassment Act, Justice Arun Monga ruled,

“…that the Internal Complaint Committee has been actually constituted by and under the orders of respondent No. 1 [University Chancellor], who admittedly is the employer of respondent No. 3 [Vice-Chancellor/accused].

That negates the contention of the petitioner to the effect that there was/has been any delegation of power of respondent No. 1 to nominate the members of the Committee and the proposal sent by the Senate/Syndicate for constituting the Committee is without jurisdiction. Further, the contention that Senate/Syndicate are not the employer of respondent No. 3 is redundant, as the Committee has been actually constituted by and under orders of respondent No. 1.”

The judgment also notes that the ICC cannot be reconstituted for every apprehension of bias raised by the complainant. In this regard, Justice Monga observed,

To my mind, every allegation/apprehension of bias, even if unfounded, against the Committee or any of its members, would not justify the re-constitution of the Committee or grant of stay on its proceedings. Taking a contrary view would rather provide an unfair handle to and place a complainant in a commanding position, to act on her whim and fancy, to dictate and impose her own terms and wishes until constitution of a Committee of her own chosen members. That would erode, if not take away the statutory authority of the employer to constitute the Committee.”

The Court further opined that there appeared to be no reasonable apprehension of bias or malice to warrant the reconstitution of the ICC.

“In my opinion, prima facie though, in the instant case, no reasonable or valid grounds of bias or malice have been made out by the petitioner against the constitution of the Committee and in any case, same are kept open to be considered by ICC itself.”

The complainant in the case was a professor at Punjab University, Madam X, who filed two complaints in April 2015 alleging sexual harassment by the University Vice-Chancellor. She had contended that the constitution of the ICC was not done in accordance with the mandate in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

Section 4 of the Sexual Harassment Act lays down that the “Employer” of the workplace must constitute the ICC to decide on sexual harassment complaints. In the case of Punjab University, it was undisputed that the Employer to whom the Vice-Chancellor was subordinate was the University Chancellor i.e. the Vice-President of India.

In March 2018, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu had issued an order intimating his approval of the members proposed through University Senate and Syndicate proceedings for the constitution of the ICC to hear the complaints filed by Madam X. Madam X, however, registered her objection to the ICC being pre-constituted by the Senate and the Syndicate (being subordinate to the Vice-Chancellor) before ratification by the Vice-President/University Chancellor.

This was, therefore, challenged before the High Court. The complainant highlighted that the March 2018 order did not say that the Chancellor had constituted the ICC. Rather, it only spoke of the Chancellor’s approval for the committee members proposed by the University Senate and Syndicate. It was argued that mere “approval” of the Chancellor in this regard indicates that there was no independent application of mind and that a stamp of approval was simply given to the ICC recommended by the Syndicate and Senate.

The Court, however, disagreed with this stance. After examining the correspondence on record, Justice Monga observed,

In the instant case, for constitution of the Internal Complaints Committee, respondent No. 1 [University Chancellor], took into consideration the inputs from the Syndicate and the Senate of the University… the [Sexual Harassment] Act does not bar/prohibit the employer from obtaining and/or considering inputs from any sources, including Senate/Syndicate, while considering names for inclusion in and for the constitution of the Internal Complaints Committee.”

The Court also added that if the Vice-President of India, who serves as the University Chancellor for several Central Universities in the country, was expected to constitute ICCs without any such input, it would cause greater mischief by paralysing University proceedings. In this regard, the judge noted,

“… assumption of any such non-existing bar/prohibition [on receiving inputs], besides being against the provisions of the Act, would cause greater mischief. That would simply paralyse and adversely affect the functioning of not only the high Constitutional office of respondent No. 1 but also the administration and functioning of the Central Universities in the country. A rational and pragmatic view of the affairs has to be taken. 

Respondent No. 1 being the Vice President of India and Chairman of the Council of States/Rajya Sabha, is ex-officio Chancellor of all the Central Universities in the country. There is no gain saying about importance of his functions and responsibilities for country as the high Constitutional dignitary and his extreme pre-occupation with the same…For taking decisions in his capacity as the Chancellor, respondent No. 1 has, therefore, necessarily to obtain such information from sources at his disposal, as in his wisdom may be necessary, and/or consider or ignore such inputs, once taken.

In view of these observations, the High Court ultimately concluded,

” … respondent No.1 after due application of mind sought the recommendations of the Senate/Syndicate and after considering the same constituted/approved the Members of the Committee with liberty to the petitioner to raise all her grievances before the said Committee. There is thus no infirmity in the impugned orders/letters. The same are legally tenable and in consonance of applicable law. “

It was also noted that there was no material on record to support the complainant’s contention that the Chancellor was not apprised of the complete proceedings that preceded the pre-constitution of the ICC, including the dissent of certain members.

Even assuming otherwise, without giving any such finding, once the Resolution was passed by the majority of the Senate, any dissent did no affect its legality and validity and the non submission of the note/s of minority dissent was of no consequence and is insignificant”, the judge further opined.

Senior Advocate RS Cheema and Advocate R Kartikeya appeared for the complainant. Additional Solicitor General Satya Pal Jain and Advocate Argun Gosain appeared for the Chancellor of Punjab University/Vice President of India and the Union of India. The University Vice-Chancellor appeared in person. Other respondents were represented by Advocates Subhash Ahuja, Karan Veer Ahuga and Navdeep Singh. 

[Read the Judgment]

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