On July 22nD, the Supreme Court dismissed a PIL filed by Mr Maneesh Pathak, a Delhi based Supreme Court lawyer who sought to extend the Vishakha Guidelines for cases of sexual harassment to the religious institutions. According to the Religious Institutions Act, 1988, “religious institution” means an institution for the promotion of any religion or persuasion, and includes any place or premises used as a place of public religious worship, by whatever name or designation known.
In his petition, he stated that in order to prevent sexual exploitation of women in any form in all religious institutions, the courts must extend the Vishakha Guidelines laid down in the case of Vishakha vs. State of Rajasthan to religious institutions (places such as Ashrams, Madrassas, Catholic institutions etc. or in any place where spirituality/ religious training is imparted).
It was stated that the Fundamental Rights of the Constitution vis a vis the Right to Life, Right to Equality and the Right to Freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion are annulled if the Guidelines, which only encompass the Government, Public and Private sector enterprises, are not extended to religious institutions as well and that it is pertinent to do so in order to safeguard every woman’s rights to practise religion in a healthy and safe environment. For which a policy must be framed for background checks and verifications of religious leaders and/or members, teachers, staff etc. affiliated to the religious institutions in any capacity whatsoever.
In light of the above, the petition sought to rely on a number of instances of sexual exploitation of women and female devotees at the hands religious leaders and/or members, teachers, staff etc, as well as instances of rapes and exploitation of women at various religious places and institutions due to a lack of a specific policy or a framework in place to safeguard them. The complex tilt of power towards these religious leaders puts women devotees and workers/volunteers in a vulnerable position and exposes women to sexual exploitation, harassment and rape. The petition sought to take into account these issues that remain untouched.
In terms of the Sexual Harassment at workplace Act, 2013 (hereinafter referred to as POSH Act), religious institutions are encompassed as “workplace” since most of these religious institutions are owned by “trusts, societies etc”, which clearly falls within the ambit of the POSH Act. The compliance required under law to form Internal Committees to take into account any complaint of sexual harassment by these bodies is, therefore, a legal requirement. Furthermore, the POSH Act comprehensively mandates various mechanisms to handle sexual harassment across the country. The Vishakha Guidelines, though law of the land, are now superseded by the POSH Act.
The “higher” sense of morality which has is attributed to religious institutions needs to be done away with so that incidents of sexual crimes against women are reduced even in these places.
However, the aim of this Petition was not strictly based on this pretext. The PIL sought a framework wherein all religious institutions, regardless of their organizational status have accountability. The power imbalance that prima facie exists in places of worship was earmarked. Inadequacies in the law for the protection of female devotees and visitors was prayed to be looked into along with an immediate need for creating a framework for verifications, background checks and regular visitations by Boards.
This came in the light of incidents such as those of Parmanda Swamy who’s real name was Aravindan Balakrishnan, who would first isolate his victims from families and exploit them. In another incident, an 8-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by the Maulvi in a Madrassa at the Gautam Budh Nagar district in Noida. More incidents such as those of Baba Amarpuri, who worked in the Baba Balaknath temple, would drug women and then rape them. Haryana Godman Baba Amarpuri was arrested for raping 120 women.
The infamous incident of Bishop Mulakkal, who was arrested for allegedly raping a nun multiple times came to light last year and sparked a huge debate in terms of applicability of laws that protect women in so far as religious institutions are concerned. This further brought out glaring irregularities in implementation of the POSH laws. Many more incidents have come to light including those of an Astrologer named Ashu of raping a woman and her minor daughter at his Ashram in the Hauz Khas area in Delhi, and Muslim women being sexually harassed and raped in mosques and on a Haj at Mecca.
The Petition sought to create a framework for all these institutions specifically, whether or not they fall in the ambit of the POSH Act itself so as to extend the Vishakha Guidelines to include all places of worship and religious institutions to tackle this menace. It also sought the framing of policies in order to tackle the religious places that are not very large and/or are located in extremely remote areas.
Even though it is understandable that the religious institutions already come under the POSH Act and that the Vishakha Guidelines are superseded by the Act, the petition brings out an extremely important defect in the laws made for the protection of women by our legislators. The ambit of the laws lacks merit vis-a-vis frameworks in place for systematic background checks, verifications etc. of institutions that may, so as to speak, be “above the law”, due to a higher sense of morality being attributed to them. This is perhaps why implementation is such a challenge even today. Even though shortfalls are common and cannot be done away with completely, the “higher” sense of morality which has is attributed to religious institutions needs to be done away with so that incidents of sexual crimes against women are reduced even in these places.
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