When you challenge a powerful man, there can be literally hell to pay. We can see this playing out in the sexual harassment case against the former head of The Energy and Resources Institute, RK Pachauri.

On April 5, a few months after the charge-sheet against him was filed, Pachauri slapped a civil suit against women’s rights lawyer Vrinda Grover and a second woman from TERI who has alleged that Pachauri sexually harassed her. He is seeking damages of up to Rs 1 crore for “false and frivolous allegations” which, he argues, could prejudice his case.

Pachauri has also made Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd, NDTV and India Today, as well as the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, parties to this suit and has sought a permanent injunction against any reporting on the statement made by the two women who came forward subsequent to the original complaint against him.

The suit has not been admitted yet and will take its own course. But Pachauri’s decision to turn to the courts to gag the media and to intimidate a lawyer and another complainant sets many troubling precedents.

Before we discuss that, however, it is important to recall the trajectory of this case.

The timeline

In February 2015, a woman employee of TERI filed a first information report against Pachauri accusing him of sexual harassment. She took this step after she received no help from within the environment organisation.

It was only after she filed the FIR that TERI set up an Internal Complaints Committee, which is mandatory under the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013. This complaints committee then looked at the case and found Pachauri guilty of sexually harassing her.

Pachauri moved the court and got a stay on the complaints committee’s ruling. He also got anticipatory bail in the police case. But in the meantime, he had to step down from his high-profile international position as head of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change and was asked to go on leave from TERI pending the investigation. At the end of it, he managed to return to the organisation.

This course of events so discouraged the complainant that she eventually resigned from TERI. Although TERI now has a new head, Pachauri’s future role in the organisation continues to be clouded in some ambivalence.

After the FIR and the complaint committee’s finding, a second woman employee from TERI came forward and narrated her experience with Pachauri to Vrinda Grover. Grover told the Deputy Commissioner of Police South Delhi and the Investigating officer in the case about this and offered to have the woman record her testimony. She pointed out that such testimony would make the case stronger. Expecting a response, she waited. Six days later, there was no call from the police. So she wrote a letter reminding them about this meeting.

Finally Grover went up to the then Delhi police commissioner BS Bassi. Even this did not change anything. On February 13 this year, Grover wrote yet again to Bassi and others in the police, reminding them of the statement this woman was willing to make. There was still no response.

Meanwhile, a whole year after the FIR, the Delhi police filed a 1,400-page charge-sheet against Pachauri in the Magistrate’s Court in February, charging him under various sections of the Indian Penal Code.

Best form of defence

The next month, Pachauri gave an interview to the British newspaper The Observer, in which he projected himself as the victim of a conspiracy by climate sceptics to defame him and suggested that his computer was hacked, an accusation that the Delhi police has dismissed.

On reading about the charge-sheet, and in response to The Observer interview, another woman who had worked in TERI in 2008 but who now lives in Europe, got in touch with Grover and offered to give a statement. She alleged she had a similar experience.

In other words, by the time the Delhi police filed the charge-sheet, it had in addition to the evidence it had gathered, two statements by women who had worked with Pachauri and who had accused him of sexual harassment. These women could not file individual complaints against him because under the law of limitations, their complaints would not have been admitted. But they were prepared to make statements that would have been important in establishing a pattern of behaviour. They went public with these statements only after the police stonewalled.

Against this background, Pachauri’s move in filing a civil suit is unprecedented for a number of reasons. It is possibly the first time that an accused has filed a civil suit of this kind against the lawyer who is involved in a case against him. It is certainly the first time such action has been taken in a case involving women’s rights.

Grover is hardly the kind of lawyer to be deterred or intimidated by the suit. But by taking such a step, Pachauri has set a precedent that other rich and/or powerful men could follow. Attack, after all, is the best form of defence. So find ways to deflect the real issue, and make the public believe you are the victim. Meantime, you can hope that the real victim will tire and give up.

Pachauri’s move will also have a chilling effect on other women who might contemplate moving against high-profile men. As it is, sexual harassment is difficult to establish. And in the process, the woman’s name gets dragged through the mud. Many women prefer to give up even before they start. Most just leave that job and hope things will be better somewhere else.

Silver lining

Grover, however, is not the least bit intimidated. Nor is her determination to fight on dented by this civil suit or the possible media gag. Incidentally, in similar cases in the past, media houses have preferred to err on the side of caution rather than take on powerful and well-connected men. So it would not be surprising if the reporting on the Pachauri case recedes onto the back pages or disappears.

Grover believes that this development opens up a new opportunity for what she terms “feminist jurisprudence”. She points out, for instance, that in many other similar cases around the world, such as the cases of rape and harassment against actor Bill Cosby, women find the courage to come forward only after one or two file cases. Against this reality, a statute of limitation works against the interests of such women. They keep quiet for years not out of choice but because they realise that the criminal justice system just does not work for them. One woman finding the courage to speak up encourages many more to follow suit, as has happened in the Pachauri case too.

Secondly, the ease with which defamation cases are filed to gag the press, or silence lawyers, works directly against the interests of victims. In this instance, the woman’s right to representation is affected if her lawyer is slapped with a civil suit of this kind. Also, while rich men can afford to move the courts irrespective of whether they win or not, victims are rarely in a position to afford these costs. As a result, the narrative in the story becomes one sided. You hear the story of the perpetrator while that of the victim cannot be told.

Whatever the outcome of this particular case, and others like this, we are reminded yet again how a law is only the first step. Making the law work for women is not easy when the system is so skewed in favour of those with power.

The one positive aspect is that despite these odds, some women are speaking out and are willing to challenge and expose powerful men. Tentative as these first steps seem to be, there is really no other way to produce the legal precedents that can make a difference to many more women in the future.