Kerala CPM suspends harassment-accused MLA: Opposition decries move as farce, activists say 'it sends women wrong message'

The decision of Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) to suspend the primary membership of legislator PK Sasi for six months after a woman accused him of sexual harassment has raised questions about its gender equality campaign.  The party state secretariat that met at Thiruvananthapuram on Monday morning recommended the action based on the report of investigation conducted by a two-member commission comprising Law Minister AK Balan and central committee member and MP PK Sreemathy. The state committee that met subsequently ratified the action.

The complainant, a leader of the CPM youth wing — the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) — at Shornur, the constituency Sasi represents in the state Assembly, expressed satisfaction with the action, according to a report in Deccan Chronicle. Party secretariat member Anathalavattom Anandan described the action as exemplary. “No other party in the state has taken any action against any leader involved in such sexual harassment cases. The suspension of Sasi is a strong message to the women that the party will not tolerate any atrocity against them,” the senior leader said.

Image of Shoranur MLA PK Sasi. CNN-News18

Image of Shoranur MLA PK Sasi. CNN-News18

However, Opposition leaders think otherwise. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) termed the action "a message to the male cadres in the party that they can get away with any offence against women".

“The action could have been described exemplary if the party had referred the complaint to the police. Instead, it shielded Sasi from criminal procedures by settling it inside the party. The issue cannot be closed in this way as it pertains to sexual harassment. This is nothing but an open challenge to the legal system prevailing in a democratic society,” said Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala.

He said the police can now register a suo motu case against the MLA as the party committee found him guilty of the charge levelled against him. BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai also voiced a similar demand, terming the action taken "a farce."

“After six months of suspension, Sasi will be reinstated to the positions he was holding. With this, CPM proved that its talk about protecting of women is empty rhetoric and it is actually protecting those involved in committing atrocities against women,” Pillai added.

After the DYFI leader approached the CPM, the party allegedly tried to get her to withdraw the complaint by offering money and a position within the party. State leadership took cognizance of the complaint only after she took up the matter with CPM national general secretary Sitaram Yechury and politburo member Brinda Karat. The state committee appointed the commission to probe the complaint only after Yechury confirmed the receipt of the communication to the media.

The commission initially claimed it was a conspiracy against the MLA by local leaders inimical to him at Shornur. However, the commission was forced to change tack after the woman threatened to approach the police if she did not get justice.  The commission finally made a case of inappropriate talk not expected from a party leader of Sasi’s stature. It ignored the woman leader’s complaint that the MLA misbehaved with her several times in the party office and communicated his sexual intent on the phone. She produced the audio clips of the telephonic talks and other documentary evidence to support her allegation.

Advocate Asha Unnithan, a prominent women's rights activist, said the commission may have limited the charge to inappropriate talk to save the MLA from being charged with sexual harassment. “The MLA would be behind the bars if the talk was sexually coloured. The commission cleverly avoided it to save the MLA from criminal charges,” she added. “If the party was sincere in its action, it should have at least referred the complaint to the internal panel formed to deal with sexual abuse cases in the party. The probe by the commission consisting of party leaders lack transparency and authenticity,” the lawyer said, and added that the party should have ideally referred the complaint to the police and supported the woman.

Senior Congress leader KP Anil Kumar alleged grave misconduct on the part of the law minister in settling the case within the party. He said the matter probed by the committee headed by the minister was a cognizable offence and Balan, as law minister, was duty-bound to report it to the police. The Congress leader termed Balan's action "a violation of the oath taken while assuming office". Local Congress leaders said the CPM protected Sasi as he holds a strong sway over the party cadres in Palakkad district. Sasi, who belongs to the official fraction in the CPM led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, is indispensable to the party as he is a major fund raiser for the CPM.

They believe Sasi will return stronger, as has been the case with most leaders against whom party took action in sexual harassment cases. Former Ernakulam district secretary Gopi Kottamurikkal, who was expelled from the party for sexual misdemeanour, was reinstated recently and promoted to the state committee. P Sasi, another leader expelled similarly, was also taken back and given charge of court cases that the party and its cadres are battling in Kannur district.

Kozhikode-based political analyst NP Chekutty said the attempt to save the MLA would affect the credibility of the gender equality campaign launched by the CPM in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women in Sabarimala temple. The campaign christened ‘Janamunnetta Yatra” is intended to mobilise the renaissance forces against the right-wing outfits trying to "divide the people communally and destroy the secular fabric of the state".

Curiously, the party gave responsibility of leading the yatra in Palakkad district earlier this month to Sasi. He even shared the dais with chief minister and law minister at the valedictory function with the commission report hanging over his head. Chekutty said the attempt by the party to hush up the case will send a wrong message to young women. The party has a lot of explaining to do to its aspiring members, he added.

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Updated Date: Nov 27, 2018 18:38:35 IST

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