The hunt by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) for an MLA to play the role of a minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet in Kerala seems to have ended, with a court acquitting former transport minister AK Saseendran of the sexual harassment charges levelled by a woman journalist.
Saseendran had resigned in the wake of the broadcast of his alleged sleaze talk (sexually explicit conversation) with the scribe by Mangalam TV channel on its launch on 25 March, 2017. The Thiruvananthapuram first class judicial magistrate court dismissed the case after the reporter changed the sworn statement she gave initially, alleging that the minister had not only talked in a sleazy manner to her but also made sexual advances when she went to his official residence for an interview.
She, however, took a U-turn when the case came up for hearing on 25 January. In her fresh statement, the reporter said she was not sure whether it was Saseendran who had misbehaved with her. As regards to the sleaze talk, she said she could not identify the voice of the former minister. Accepting her statement, the court exonerated Saseendran.
The NCP has taken the acquittal as a "legal and moral" clean chit that entitles him to reclaim the party's lone ministerial position in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) ministry. The party's national leadership has given its nod to the Kerala unit to stake a claim for re-inducting the former minister into the cabinet.
The party is not expecting any thaw since it had an understanding with the ruling front when his successor and its only other MLA Thomas Chandy was forced to resign in a land grab case that whoever comes acquitted first will be given the position.
LDF convenor Vaikkom Viswam said the state committee will soon meet and take a decision. No one expects any complications to arise since most of the senior leaders, including Communist Party of India (CPI) state secretary Kanam Rajendran, have backed the NCP claim.
However, the opposition parties have raised a number of objections. Some of them are shared by even legal experts. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have alleged a deal behind the acquittal.
Leaders of both the parties say the NCP had 'bought' the acquittal by coercing or influencing the complainant after Vijayan, who held the additional portfolio of transport, gave an ultimatum to the party to take or leave the ministerial position. The party had earlier tried to 'adopt' an MLA from friendly parties to fill the slot.
The Kerala Congress (B) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (L) were ready to lend their MLA but internal bickering within the NCP thwarted the move. BJP state chief Kummanam Rajashekharan alleged that the NCP had settled the case out of court to save its ministerial position.
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala dubbed the court proceedings a "settlement drama". His party secretary Jyothikumar Chamakkala wondered how the court could let off the complainant as her final statement was contradictory to the sworn statement she gave earlier to the magistrate under Section 164 of IPC. He told Firstpost that the party was consulting legal experts to find out if there is any scope for legal intervention in the case.
Senior high court advocate Muhammed Shah said there was more than one ground for pursuing the case. He said that both the victim and the accused could be culpable if it is proved that the former had changed her statement under duress or influence.
There is sufficient reason to believe that the victim was under pressure from multiple quarters to change her statement. After filing a private complaint in a magistrate's court under section 354A and 354D of IPC on 5 January, she changed her statement thrice.
The victim had approached the state high court on 10 November seeking its permission to withdraw the case pending in the lower court, saying she had amicably settled the case with the accused. However, she withdrew the petition for the settlement on 5 January, reverting the case back to the trial court.
When the case came up for hearing in the trial court on 26 January she took another U-turn, saying that she had settled the case with the accused. A public interest petition against settling the case was filed, but the court dismissed it. The petitioner had alleged that the victim may have changed her statement out of fear.
The lawyer said that the settlement itself was questionable as cases registered under section 354 (outraging the modesty of women) are not compoundable following the 2009 amendment to CrPC. If the case is left uncontested, it will set a bad precedent for those involved in sexual crimes against women to go scot-free.
Shah also sees scope for implicating Saseendran under Prevention of Corruption Act since the victim had alleged in her sworn statement that he had offered her a job in the government if she was ready to accompany him on a tour to Sri Lanka.
Legal issues apart, the case also throws up moral questions since Saseendran had resigned to uphold moral values. The moral bogey pointed out that he had stepped down on his own soon after the channel broadcast the audio clip containing the sexually explicit conversation with the woman.
Pointing out that Saseendran had never contested the voice in the audio clip, they wondered how could he return to the ministry without a prick of conscience. Noted social activist NR Neelakandan said he could set the issue at rest if he was ready to say that the voice was not his.
He said it was unfortunate that neither the court nor the judicial commission, which gave a clean chit to Saseendran earlier, had bothered to find out the person behind the voice despite the availability of technology to check this. He said that the crime branch which is investigating the case had also not made any effort in this regard.
"This shows that the government and its agencies were convinced that the voice in the audio clip was that of Saseendran. They did not go for the voice test as they knew that they will not be able to save him after that," Neelakandan said
The Opposition leader feels that Saseendran may not be clarifying the voice in the audio clip out of guilt feeling. But he wonders how the LDF could claim the court acquittal as a moral victory.
"The Left parties always engage in talks over morality but now with Saseendran successfully managing to get the case decided in his favour, the morality they talk of has been proved to be fake. The NCP and the LDF have insulted the people of Kerala, who elected them to power believing their promise to ensure the security of women," Ramesh said.
Saseendran's return to the ministry will only make the women feel further insecure, he added.
Updated Date: Jan 30, 2018 16:10 PM