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Unwelcome contact without sexual overtones not harassment: Delhi High Court

  • The complainant had accused that the respondent had held her hand and pushed her out of the laboratory.
  • The Complainant Committee observed that the act was done at the heat of the moment and that there was no sexual overtone related to it.
  • Counsellors and psychiatrists believe that workshops should be held at office for both women and men employees to help then understand what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.
Unwelcome contact without sexual overtones not harassment Delhi High Court

The Delhi High Court, in a ruling, refused to categorise every unwelcome physical contact as sexual harassment. Hearing the petition of a woman who alleged that an employee of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research had held her hand and pushed her out of the laboratory, the court said that the action was done at the heat of the moment and did not have any sexual overtones. 

Her appeal had challenged the clean chit given by the Complaint Committee as well as the Disciplinary Authority to the respondent. The Commitee, further pardoning the Respondent, concluded that the incident did not amount to sexual harassment, but involved, "altercation in the background of the uncongenial environment prevailing in the division”, as reported by the

According to a PTI article, published in the Deccan Chronicle, the allegation pertained to an incident of April 2005 when the man had entered the laboratory where the woman was working and had snatched samples from her hand, thrown the materials and pushed her out of the room.

The court put forth its views on the Committee's observations in details and said, "The Complaint Committee concluded that respondent no.3 might have held the petitioner’s arm and thrown the material in her hand in a fit of anger; although, the said incident may be a case of harassment and is deplorable, the same would not qualify as a sexual harassment. Plainly, all physical contact cannot be termed as sexual harassment and only a physical contact or advances which are in the nature of an “unwelcome sexually determined behavior” would amount to sexual harassment.” 

The court, thus, upheld the conclusion by the Committee as well as the disciplinary Authority and dismissed the Appeal. Justice Vibhu Bakhru explained, "Undoubtedly, physical contact or advances would constitute sexual harassment provided such physical contact is a part of the sexually determined behavior. Such physical contact must be in the context of a behavior which is sexually oriented. Plainly,a mere accidental physical contact, even though unwelcome, would not amount to sexual harassment. Similarly, a physical contact which has no undertone of a sexual nature and is not occasioned by the gender of the complainant may not necessarily amount to sexual harassment."

Agreeing with the court's remark is counsellor Mamtha Rajesh, who says, "If a person, whether male or or female perceives an action as sexual harassment (even if there was no intent to sexually harass or there is no underlying tone of sexual harassment) then it's important for that person to reflect upon what is causing him/her to perceive it that way."

She further added, "Its necessary to take ownership of one's own feelings, thoughts and perceptions. It is possible that the person considers any action of the "offender" as sexual harassment. If there was no intent or no underlying tone of sexual harassment then it's the responsibility of the person to look into what made them perceive it as sexual harassment. And address that issue. "

On a similar note, Dr Sandip Deshpande, Consultant Psychiatrist, sexual and relationship therapist from People Tree MAARGA hospital opines that employees in an organisation, whether male or female, should be trained to understand what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. "There is a need for gender sensitisation workshops in workplaces, given the changing environs of the society. These workshops should be held as per the VISHAKHA guidelines, which should spread awareness about sexual harassment at workplace and its repercussions."

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