Sole testimony of victim of sexual harassment is acceptable in a departmental inquiry

In the case of Bhuwan Chandra Pandey vs. Union of India and Ors., before the High Court of Uttarakhand at Nainital, Decided On: 15.06.2020, the question that came up for consideration was – is the sole testimony of the victim of sexual abuse sufficient to hold the perpetrator guilty of misconduct in a departmental enquiry?
Brief facts are that after completion of a night training exercise, the petitioner, along with other members including two lady trainees, sat in the cabin of a truck which was coming back to Gwaldam station. It is alleged that petitioner molested one of the lady trainees in the cabin and sexually harassed her. Trainee (“Complainant“) lodged a complaint next day.

The internal committee (“IC”) inquired into the matter and found petitioner guilty. IC depended on circumstantial evidence in coming to this conclusion such as:

  1. Ms. M. Ette stated that the Complainant had put her head on Ms. M. Ette’s shoulder; she was shaking; She heard the noise ‘please….please’
  2. Dr. Pradeep Joshi deposed that he saw the Complainant in a disturbed mood at Kandhar stop and she was weeping. He told her he would talk to her in the morning.
  3. There was no evidence that the Complainant had developed any personal liking or soft corner for petitioner.

IC also refused petitioner’s claim, that the Complainant was disturbed because of her non-participation in the night navigation exercise. Petitioner’s contention that his reputation was maligned as he was a tough Instructor also was not accepted. IC further expressed its disbelief of the petitioner’s statement that, because of the bumpy roads and jerks, he may have touched the Complainant.

In Court, Petitioner argued that he was held guilty on the self-serving sole testimony of the complainant; no other witness had corroborated the complainant’s testimony and this cannot form basis for holding the petitioner guilty. Union of India argued that the degree of proof, required to establish guilt in a departmental inquiry, is preponderance of probabilities, and not proof beyond reasonable doubt and the sole testimony of the complainant, supported by the circumstantial evidence on record is sufficed to establish charges.

On circumstantial evidence, Court held that:

  1. The Inquiry Committee found no reason to disbelieve the statement of the complainant. This statement of the complainant, coupled with the evidence of Smt. Ette that the complainant was weeping, she used the words “please please” and, after putting her head on the shoulder of Smt. Ette, had started crying, and a complaint being lodged by the complainant, regarding this incident, by the very next morning, constitute sufficient evidence to establish the petitioner’s guilt.
  2. The Committee noted that the delinquent officer had approached the complainant thrice at three different places; and his father, who was a Deputy Inspector General in the Sashastra Seema Bal had also met the complainant at the residence of Dr. K.K. Pal. These undisputed facts, coupled with the evidence of Dr. K.K. Pal, that the charged officer’s father had also approached him and had exerted pressure on him to request the complainant to withdraw the case, was sufficient, in a departmental inquiry, to hold both the charges to have been established.
  3. Even circumstantial evidence or hearsay evidence is permissible in departmental inquiries.

On sole testimony of Complainant, Court held that:

  1. Court held that a woman who is the victim of a sexual assault, is not an accomplice to the crime but is a victim of another man’s lust (Vijay v. State of M.P. (2010) 8 SCC 191). The Indian Evidence Act does not state that her evidence cannot be accepted unless it is corroborated in material particulars. She is, undoubtedly, a competent witness under Section 118 thereof.
  2. It also said, If the totality of the circumstances disclose that the prosecutrix does not have a strong motive to falsely involve the person charged, the Court should, ordinarily, have no hesitation in accepting her evidence (Chandraprakash Kewalchand Jain (1990) 1 SCC 550).
  3. In cases involving sexual harassment, molestation, etc. the Criminal Court is duty-bound to deal with such cases with utmost sensitivity. Evidence of the victim of sexual assault is enough for conviction, and it does not require any corroboration unless there are compelling reasons for seeking corroboration. The Criminal Court may, however, look for some assurance of her statement to satisfy its judicial conscience (Gurmit Singh (1996) 2 SCC 384).
  4. Lastly it said that as the sole testimony of a prosecutrix, in a criminal case involving sexual harassment and molestation, would suffice if it is otherwise reliable, there is no justifiable reason not to accept the sole testimony of a victim, of sexual harassment and molestation, in a departmental inquiry as the enquiry held by a domestic Tribunal is not governed by the strict and technical rules of the Evidence Act (Murlidhar Jena (AIR 1963 SC 404)).
  5. It said, a disciplinary proceeding is not a criminal trial. The standard of proof required is that of preponderance of probabilities, and not proof beyond reasonable doubt (Sardar Bahadur (1972) 4 SCC 618).
  6. In a departmental enquiry, guilt need not be established beyond reasonable doubt. Proof of misconduct is sufficient (J.D. Jain (1982) 1 SCC 143).