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Stalkers, creepy 1 am emails, flowers – What two women judges in small towns battled

He lurked outside her office all day. When she left, he followed her home. He complimented her on her looks and clothes. This wasn’t the first time. He was almost always there when she went for her evening walks along the banks of the Yamuna in the small town of Hamirpur in Uttar Pradesh.

He is a lawyer and she is a judge.

Though she is a part of the very machinery that doles out justice, civil judge Harshita Sachan tried to ignore the stalker. Then she confronted him. When that didn’t work, the 27-year-old woman stopped going for evening walks altogether and changed her routine.

With barely two years of experience as a judge, and only two weeks of taking charge as a civil judge (Junior Division) in the fast-track district court at Hamirpur, Sachan did not want to be the woman who rocked the boat.

In small-town Uttar Pradesh, no woman, not even a judge, wants to draw attention to herself.

“I don’t want to become the talk of the town. It’s a small district, everyone knows everyone here. Maybe, he will stop,” Sachan had confided in a close friend while initially dismissing the idea of an FIR.

It was only after she found Mohammad Haroon lurking outside her house that she called her seniors and the police.

His defence lawyer calls the incident “unfortunate”, but what happened to Sachan is not an aberration. It is a symptom of chronic misogyny in a state that has one of the least representations of women in the lower judiciary. The smaller the city, the more malignant the malaise.

Male lawyers don’t want to argue their case in front of a younger female judge. If the judge is tough, she is branded as rude. If she is efficient, she is ‘too strict’.

Even senior judges in Uttar Pradesh with decades of experience say that every day is a battle that they have to wage among their peers. Sexist comments targeting women who married within the cadre and jokes on child care leave are peddled and accepted.

More women may be making their presence felt in the judiciary, police and administrative services, but their robes, badges and uniforms don’t deter the rampant sexism.

Also read: Fewer Indian women in higher judiciary? Blame high court collegiums, suggests data

A stalker, an FIR

In Hamirpur, where local reporters are always on the hunt for the next juicy story, Harshita Sachan’s case ticked all the right boxes. She became a topic of dinner table conversations after a local edition of Dainik Jagran carried the story with the headline: ‘Advocate booked for assaulting a civil judge’. Copies of the FIR were circulated among lawyers, judges and reporters.

“When I got hold of the copy of FIR, I immediately knew that this would become big,” says Shashikant, a Hamirpur reporter.

Having grown up in the tier-two city of Kanpur and studied in Delhi, Sachan had no idea of what life would be for a woman working in a small town. After graduating with history honours from Daulat Ram College and getting an LLB from Delhi University’s Faculty of Law, she cleared the UP judicial services examination in 2019.

Her first posting was at Hamirpur’s district court, but soon Sachan was made nyayadhikari, the presiding judicial officer at Gram Nyayalaya Sarila in the same district. According to her former colleagues, she “learnt, adjusted and excelled” at her job. “She disposed of 28 civil matters and 31 criminal cases, including some of the oldest cases, files within a span of six months,” said a senior staffer.

In July 2022, she was transferred back to the Hamirpur district court as a civil judge. And that’s when the trouble started. Barely three weeks into her new job, she noticed a lawyer leering at her through a gap between the wall behind her chamber. She caught him twice between 18 and 24 July, as per the FIR.

Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint
Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint

“At the time, I did not know the name of the advocate but I recognised him as he had appeared in my courtroom on 25 July. On 1 August, around 8:45 pm when I was walking along the Yamuna walkway, I saw the same advocate standing next to the bench I was sitting on. And he was saying something,” she said in her police complaint.

Haroon had allegedly tried to talk to her. In one of their encounters, he said he missed her when she was in Sarila. That comment upended Sachan’s belief that she was safe. He had been watching her since 2019.

In another exchange, while she was sitting on a bench along the Yamuna bank walkway, he asked her if he was disturbing her. “I replied, ‘I shall leave.’ As I got up, he said, ‘By the way, you are looking good’,” she said. The chargesheet mentions the exchange between the judge and the advocate.

Sachan gave up her evening walks for several days. But then he started haunting her courtroom. He would lean against a wall and gawk at her. On 1 August, she talked herself into going for a walk outside her house. She sat on a bench, looked around—he was there again.

This time, Sachan confronted him. “What’s your name? … I am disturbed by your conduct. You stalk me during the evening walk, you stare from behind the wall of my chamber. This shall not happen again, or I will lodge a complaint,” she told him.

This exchange, too, is in the chargesheet, which noted that the lawyer’s behaviour became worse. He would still stalk her in the evening from a distance. He started sitting in her courtroom for hours even when there was no matter listed.

On 18 August, when she stepped out of her house for an evening walk, she saw him wearing a set of clothes similar to what she had on: A pair of black sweatpants, blue-black checkered shirt, and white shoes.

“She rushed back to her quarters, and dialled her seniors. The next day, an FIR was registered,” said a police official in charge of the case. The bar association was also informed of the alleged harassment. “We immediately dismissed his bar membership and stood by the female official,” said Dinesh Sharma, advocate and Hamirpur Bar Association president.

Haroon was arrested and his bail application rejected by the district court. The lawyer representing him told ThePrint that they have approached the Allahabad High Court for bail. “She did the right thing. This was an unfortunate case. But we have a case to defend,” said his lawyer, Altaf Hussain.

Ravi Prakash Singh, Circle Officer, Crime, who interrogated Haroon, concluded that the lawyer was convinced that Sachan would “say yes” to him if he kept trying. “[This is] a typical stalker case,” Singh said.

Also read: ‘I opened a closed door’ — Fathima Beevi, India’s 1st woman judge in SC who remains an enigma

The taunts, jibes and jokes within judiciary 

In a male-dominated judiciary, the system seems stacked against women. “When I was preparing for my law entrance exam in early 2000s, I read this line that the social attitude lags behind the legal attitude. Now I understand it more than ever,” said a district judge who did wish to be named. It was her experience as a woman judge that drove the point home.

Even senior judges in Hamirpur that The Print spoke to are constantly reminded of their gender, especially by their male peers. Often, sexism is couched as a joke.

“My advocate friends organised a lunch for me as I was set to join my post [as an HC judge]. During the congratulatory messages one of my friends said, ‘Now that you have become a judge, can you please get the court premises swept and cleaned?’ It enraged me,” said retired judge Prabha Sridevan, who was the fifth female judge in Madras High Court back in 2000. She added that she’s not sure whether it came from a concern for cleanliness or a “deep-seated notion” of a woman’s duty to sweep and swab.

It didn’t end there. A Tamil newspaper editor asked Sridevan whether there would be more ‘pro-women judgments’. Her response was immediate and sharp. “There are three male judges who are also elevated, are you going to ask them the same question on whether they will be giving pro-men judgments? While I don’t want to be seen as a woman judge, I also emphasise that my judgments and personality will reflect the fact that I am a woman.”

Childcare leave is one of the more common taunts that every woman has to face. “If we happen to meet our batchmates at a party, it comes out as a light joke; ‘Oh! Why do you stress so much, you can easily avail childcare leave’,” said another senior judge from Hamirpur.

They fight these ‘stigmas’ every day. Women who marry judges from their cadre are more vulnerable. “Others will look down upon you [for this]. I would not be shocked if the male judges forward each other the typical husband-wife jokes,” the judge added.

Courts across India suffer from a stark gender imbalance. In High Courts, women currently account for just 13.18 per cent of the 713 judges. In the lower judiciary, of the 15,806 judges, only 4,409 are women, according to a 2018 report by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. It’s more pronounced in UP, where only 21.4 per cent of lower court judges are women. “But now in recent batches, more women have been entering the lower judiciary,” said Deepika Kinhal.

The year 2019 proved to be a welcome change. The batch that cleared the 2019 UP Judicial services examination— which Sachan was a part of—changed the dynamics in the state. Women as young as 22 years, fresh out of law colleges in cities, outnumbered men. They made up 51.6 per cent of the 610 candidates who were selected, shows Public Service Commission (UP) data.

“I see the young batch being more confident, and that comes from the fact that their numbers are rising,” said Sridevan.

But they were still met with fierce resistance. Some said they are given “less challenging assignments”, while others claimed they are pitted against their male peers.

In the court of public opinion, the woman rarely wins.

Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint

Between ‘hardworking’ and ‘strict’

The irony is that almost everyone agrees that women judges run more efficient courts. The common consensus is women “mind their own business, are regular and hardworking”

For Nisha Sharma, a constable at Hamirpur’s Mahila Thana, the presence of a woman judge makes all the difference while recording statements of female victims.

“A woman judge brings sensitivity to the courtroom,” says Ravi Prakash.

It’s not just police officials, but litigants as well who experience a smoother process with fewer delays. “I have toured more than six courts in different cities over the past 20 years for a three-bigha land property dispute. But it’s now that I see the case moving,” says Ajay Kumar as he stands outside Sachan’s courtroom, waiting for his turn.

But the Bar has yet to come to terms with the fact that they have to argue their case before a woman who may be half their age. Hamirpur’s bar association members said though they stood by Sachan in the stalking case, they think female judges are unnecessarily rude, arrogant and strict.

“We are not strict by default. We have slowly imbibed this trait. In order to be taken seriously, we have to stick to such norms. People are still not used to seeing a woman in a position of power,” said a senior woman judge, the frustration creeping into her voice.

If a woman attracts the unwanted attention of a man, she must have done something to ‘encourage’ it. That’s the common view, and it doesn’t change just because the woman is a judge. Only, no one will say it out loud.

Also read: Rape not ‘ravishment’ — why courts should stop use of this archaic & patriarchal word

‘Arguing with a beautiful woman’

Eight hundred kilometres from Hamirpur, in the small town of Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, a 24-year-old judge, Mitali Pathak, received multiple Facebook friend requests from a stranger. He allegedly stalked her online and sent her posters and flowers. In one eerie encounter, he pulled up a chair in front of her office and sat there for hours simply staring at Pathak.

In this case, too, the man was a lawyer. Pathak cleared the Madhya Pradesh Civil Judge Exam in 2019, the same year Sachan became a judge.

She was one of the 113 successful candidates selected for the post of civil judge class 2 of Madhya Pradesh. After completing her training, she was posted at the district court in Ratlam where 14 of the 42 judicial officers are women.

The bar and the bench “wholeheartedly welcomed” Pathak, but when the courts opened after the first wave of Covid, the nightmare began.

The same year Pathak became a judge, Vijay Singh Yadav, 36, secured a provisional certificate to practice law from the State Bar Council. Before this, he was a politician, journalist, social activist and engineer.

On 28 January 2021, Pathak received an email from Yadav on her official mail account at 1:11 am. “Judging from all the evidence before me I hereby declare you guilty of ageing. Fabulous birthday celebration,” he wrote.

She dismissed the mail. But a few weeks later, she received a poster via speed mail. It was a printout of her Facebook profile photo with the message: “Arguing with a beautiful woman is like reading the software license agreement. In the end, you have to ignore everything and click—agree.”  Yadav did not even attempt to hide his identity.

On her birthday, he sent a bouquet of flowers to her courtroom.

When senior judges realised what was happening, they supported Pathak’s decision to approach the police, who registered an FIR on 8 February 2021.

“This is causing me mental agony and damaging my reputation,” said Pathak in her statement to the police.

Yadav was promptly arrested under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and IT Act. His bail application was rejected. “The bench denied him bail to send a strong message to the Bar to not mess with its female judicial officers,” said Abhay Sharma, lawyer and Bar Association President.

After 125 days in jail, Yadav moved the Madhya Pradesh High Court for bail. Now, he is out of jail and plans to fight his own case using every tool at his disposal from filing counter-police complaints to garnering sympathy on social media.

“I send birthday wishes to all the judges,” he told The Print while maintaining that he is not guilty.

Pathak requested a transfer last year and was sent to Sheopur district court. She has limited her social media presence.

But Yadav is establishing his presence in the district court.

“I go to the court to present my other cases. People talk to me. Some judges also know. There is nothing to fear,” he says.

He is ready for a trial. “You are in the service by your choice, don’t behave like abla nari.”

This is part of a series on women judges in India’s lower judiciary. Read all the articles here.

 (Edited by Neera Majumdar)

Source: The Print

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