Sweety Baby not always sexual harassment

While Addressing Reverse Bias in IC Inquiry, the  Calcutta High Court Explores the Nuances of words like ‘Sweety’ and ‘Baby’ in Sexual Harassment Allegations.

Facts: The Calcutta High Court recently noted that addressing women with terms like ‘Sweety’ and ‘Baby’ is common in certain social contexts and that such terms may not necessarily carry a sexual connotation. Additionally, the Court cautioned against the potential consequences of misusing the provisions of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Woman at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (POSH Act), suggesting that it could result in further obstacles for women in their professional advancement.

Contention of Petitioner:

The Respondent, the Petitioner’s commanding officer, is accused of sexually harassing the former deputy commandant of the Coast Guard in Mumbai. The petitioner continues to pursue legal action in spite of the IC’s dismissal.  Claims include excessive looking, obstructing one’s view during surgery, making unwanted physical contact, and calling someone “sweety” or “baby.” Moreover, it is claimed that attempts to have her returned from leave on important days for her are harassment. The Petitioner argues that even while the Internal Committee (IC) acknowledged that the expressions “baby” and “sweety” were inappropriate, it failed to consider their significance. Further demonstrating the committee’s negligence, the petitioner claims that the IC neglected to address an instance in which she uttered a term that was inappropriately repeated by Respondent with sexual overtones.

Contention of the Respondent:

The Respondent contended that the writ court ought to reconsider specific evidence rather than engaging in factual disputes. Regarding the claims of peeping and gazing, it is observed that while CCTV cameras were placed, the petitioner did not use them at the time of the alleged incidents, therefore proof was not available. Due to a lack of supporting witnesses and late complaint filings, the Respondent disputes all of the charges. The Respondent admits to stopping when the Petitioner felt uncomfortable, and the adjectives “baby” and “sweety” are defended as non-sexual. The Petitioner’s evaluation and recall from leave are supported by the Respondent’s that they were lawful and free of malice. To further support activities, the Coast Guard’s irregular duty roster was highlighted.

Court’s Observation:

The Calcutta High Court stated that although the IC deemed the usage of such expression’s “baby” and “sweety” as objectionable, they do not necessarily have to be sexually suggestive. However, it also pointed out that the accused officer stopped using these terms after the complainant showed discomfort, indicating that they might not always have a sexual connotation. The Court cited the definition of sexual harassment found in Section 2(n) of the POSH Act, emphasizing that although the terms “sexually coloured” may be used, it does not necessarily follow that such purpose was intended.

The HC observed that “The use of the expressions ‘baby and sweety’ has been held by the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) itself to be inappropriate. However, it is to be noted that once the petitioner informed the respondent no.7 (alleged offender) about her discomfort in that regard by WhatsApp and otherwise, he never repeated the terms of endearment to address the petitioner. Such expressions may be prevalent in certain social circles and need not always be sexually coloured.”

The Court further stated that the element of unwanted conduct was removed because the accused officer stopped using these statements after being confronted.

In reference to additional accusations, the Court noted that there were neither eyewitness or CCTV recordings to back up charges of inappropriate peeping and staring. It further rejected the idea that the word “hugging the coast” had a sexual connotation, citing the Coast Guard’s frequent usage of the expression and the fact that the complainant herself coined it first. Because of the timing of the complaint, the Court raised questions about its veracity and speculated that it might have been a ploy to divert attention from earlier accusations made against the Petitioner.

The Calcutta High Court further declared that it is crucial to prevent reverse bias against men who are accused of sexual harassment. It contends that giving complainants undue protection could impede the advancement of capable female employees by erecting needless obstacles. It also highlights how important it is for judicial review to refrain from replacing the conclusions of adjudicating bodies until there are blatant cases of illegality, unreasonableness, or arbitrariness. Finally, it finds that the petitioner’s case was dismissed by the IC in accordance with natural justice principles, which means that their judgment should not be interfered with.

Court’s Decision:

After due consideration, the Calcutta HC rejected the writ petition lodged by the plaintiff, thereby upholding the IC’s verdict, which exonerated the implicated senior officer from any misconduct allegations.

-By Adv. Deeksha Rai Associate Equilibrio Advisory LLP

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