Has the Greater Noida police overreached by booking seven employees of tech company Genpact for abetting a senior executive’s suicide?
On December 18, Genpact employee Swaroop Raj hanged himself in his Noida apartment after two of his junior female colleagues filed sexual harassment complaints against him and the company’s internal complaints committee temporarily suspended him for the period for which the inquiry into the case was to last. In a suicide note addressed to his wife, Raj claimed he was innocent but did not have the courage to face anyone, since the entire company would come to know about the complaints.
On December 22, on the basis of this suicide note and a complaint by Raj’s wife, the Greater Noida police filed a First Information Report charging Genpact and seven of its employees with abetment of suicide. Among the seven were the two women who made the sexual harassment complaints.
In the midst of social media debates on whether the company was responsible for Raj’s death, the police claims it will determine the truth of the abetment of suicide by investigating the veracity of the sexual harassment allegations against Raj. Suicide may be a complex problem rooted in mental health, but the police’s logic is rather simplistic: in a comment to Economic Times, Noida’s senior superintendent of police Ajay Pal Sharma claimed that if the sexual harassment allegations against Raj are true, then he was driven to take his own life out of guilt. If the allegations are false, Sharma said, then there must have been some conspiracy against him.
Scroll.in was unable to reach senior officers of Greater Noida police station for comment. Genpact, however, has repeatedly stated that the company’s internal complaints committee was following legally-sanctioned due process by choosing to suspend Raj for the duration of the inquiry, given the seriousness of the charges against him. “A deeply unfortunate and unforeseeable event has occurred,” a spokesperson of Genpact told Scroll.in. “We are dealing with the loss of an employee just the way friends and family are. We are cooperating fully with the authorities and maintain our stand that we followed the process in accordance with law.”
While Genpact would not comment further on the case of abetment of suicide, lawyers and senior corporate executives that Scroll.in spoke to are clear that the case is baseless and could have a negative impact on efforts to act against sexual harassment at the workplace.
‘This is not abetment’
In the Genpact case, the two women employees who approached the company’s internal complaints committee alleged that Raj had made several unwanted sexual advances towards them after an office party in mid-December. One of the women alleged that Raj had groped her in a car, repeatedly tried to make advances on her and, on the day she filed her complaint, sent her several unwanted texts and phone calls that left her feeling scared. Since the women worked in the same team as Raj, the company’s internal complaints committee suspended him temporarily to facilitate a fair trial. This, ostensibly, is what the police has framed as abetment of suicide.
In Section 107 of the Indian Penal Code, abetment is defined as the act of “instigating” or “intentionally aiding” a person to do a particular thing.
“Abetment of a crime has a very narrow and specific meaning in law – it involves an act that has an obvious causal link to the crime committed,” said Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer in Delhi. While suicide is not a crime, a person can be booked for abetment of suicide only if they have committed an act of instigation that is directly correlated to the suicide. “Nothing of the sort is there in this [Genpact] case,” said Bhatia. “It is definitely not abetment.”
Abetment charges are most often applied in cases where women commit suicide after domestic violence or dowry harassment. “Even then, making that correlation in a trial is very difficult,” said Veena Gowda, a Bombay High Court lawyer who also serves as an external committee member of sexual harassment internal complaints committee of several companies. “The police cannot file abetment charges in this case where the ICC was performing its statutory duty. Otherwise anyone will be afraid of accessing the law.”
Gowda also believes that the Greater Noida police erred by asking Genpact and its seven accused employees to present themselves at the police station in this case. “If the suicide note claims that there was a sexual harassment complaint filed, then the police should have first asked the company to provide the necessary documentation to verify them,” she said.
‘Women will be afraid to complain’
Pramod Bhasin, Genpact’s founder who quit the company in 2011 and now works as an investor in financial and other services, suggested that the abetment case filed will serve as a setback against efforts to keep women safe in the workplace.
“One of the elements of having successful policies [against sexual harassment] is to give women the confidence to report any issue without feeling incriminated or being made to feel guilty themselves,” said Bhasin. “This will now be destroyed.”
He added: “How many women will want to come up and report anything in the aftermath of this? Women being afraid to complain was the original problem before the law came in.”
Bhasin emphasised that Raj’s suspension was in accordance with the law – internal complaints committees are allowed to suspend employees accused of sexual harassment in the interest of protecting complainants and facilitating fair inquiries. “Genpact has suspended people before too, during inquiries into sexual harassment complaints,” he said. “No one has reacted like this before. A person losing their life is unimaginably tragic, and the entire organisation is in mourning. But it is wrong to associate it with efforts to keep women safe at the workplace.”
Officials in other companies believe that the case against Genpact will now push companies to be more sensitive about the confidentiality of sexual harassment inquiries. “Whether or not a person is guilty, word gets around about complaints and there is a stigma that gets attached to the accused,” said a human resources executive at a Delhi company who did not wish to be identified. “So I think companies will now be careful about ensuring the privacy of inquiries and making sure that there is no stigma attached to them.”