‘Cried as I Ate’: Shanti Verma on Breaking Fast Against Harassment
The first meal that Shanti Verma had, after she broke her fast, was a plate of kaali dal, a single ghee-streaked roti and a dollop of subzi, at a langar in a New Delhi gurdwara on her way out from the capital. “It was hard to eat too much, after you’ve fasted for four days,” she says over the phone. “I was also struggling with guilt. Guilt over having given up the fast. It’s been almost two weeks since I took the train back to Obra, and I’m still confused about whether I lost or simply pressed ‘pause’. I’d been fighting so vehemently and now, suddenly, I found myself back home.”
To say that it’s been mildly bewildering for Shanti Verma, All India Radio casual announcer, to go from perching herself steadfastly on an old pipeline outside her former workplace, only drinking liquids out of her bottle, to sitting at home, writing letters and waiting for replies to them, would be an understatement.
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Shanti had made the trip from Obra, 137 kilometres from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, on 15 April, to hand a letter of her demands to present DGs (Director Generals) before launching her fast-unto-death. The Quint, in earlier stories, had tracked her journey over the course of those first few days, when she attempted to make her presence felt.
Shanti’s demands were simple – that her investigation be re-opened and all the perpetrators whom she had named in two separate cases of sexual harassment in 2010 and 2016, to be investigated again. Also, that she be reinstated to her duty, effective immediately, with sufficient compensation. Shanti Verma alleges that she hasn’t had an active assignment in almost three years.
In a previous story, this reporter had tracked how Shanti had been escorted away to Tilak Marg Police Station her first night, sitting on AIR’s premises (a claim that The Quint corroborated with the cops who insisted it was voluntary) and how Shanti had been dropped at an NGO for the night. She did manage to secure a meeting with a board of DGs on the afternoon of the 16th and 17th, however, where she alleges that she was assured of them taking action. “But they wouldn’t present it to me in writing,” she claims.
Post a phone call from The Quint, National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Rekha Sharma also reached AIR on 16 April, along with some NCW officials. The All India Radio Casual Announcer and Comperes Union (AIRCACU)’s general secretary Shabnam Khanum had also reached Shanti Verma, telling The Quint that while the union could not openly support her, they would offer “moral” help. A meeting was mediated between AIR on one side and Shanti, NCW and the union on the other – the result of which still didn’t offer Shanti concrete solutions.
Over two weeks later, however, where does Shanti Verma’s appeal stand today? At an impasse, if all factions involved are to be believed.
What Shanti Says:
“I took the train back to Obra on the night of the 18th. It had been getting progressively harder through that day to maintain my calm,” says Shanti of her last day in Delhi.
Shanti claims not being allowed access inside meant she’d have to look for public washrooms through the day.
“At night, policemen from the Tilak Marg PS who, by now, had gotten to know me really well, would drop me to a shelter house. One of them took kindly to me and kept saying, ‘tu chali ja yaha se. Meri chhoti behen jaisi hai. Kyun ruki hai? Yeh log kuch nahi karne wale (Go away from here. You’re like my little sister. Why are you waiting? These people aren’t going to help). I still refused.”
She also got a call from her husband, during this time, who informed her that her son had fallen ill. “He told me he was going to take our son to the hospital for a fever. Asked if I could come home. But I still said no then and asked him to update me.”
A few hours later, that policeman returned, Shanti claims, and offered her water while pleading that she reconsider.
It was only after the second call from her husband, about their son, that Shanti says she caved. “I had this moment of utter despair when I looked around me and realised I was all alone. I had no supporters. My son was sick. Was there any point to sticking around here?” she asks sadly today.
It’s been two weeks since her return (Shanti reached Obra on 19 April), and since, she has already received two letters from AIR – one that bears the time stamp of 9 April 2019 (a week before Shanti reached Delhi) – to say that her allegations had already been investigated and an ICC report been provided to her and that, therefore, her claims that a proper investigation wasn’t conducted is invalid. A copy of the letter is below:
The second letter, which must have been written the day of the meeting between AIR and Shanti, NCW and the union because it bears the date stamp of 16 April 2019 tells her, in two short sentences, that her allegations will be re-investigated – but without offering a concrete date or whether an ICC will re-open the case.
A copy of that short letter is below:
Shanti has, for the past few days, busied herself with writing responses to these letters – as the only respite to her waiting.
She’s currently also awaiting a response from the NCW to the union.
What AIRCACU Says:
Shabnam Khanum, AIRCACU’s General Secretary, is quick to remind one that it isn’t just Shanti Verma’s case that hangs in the balance.
Shanti’s is one of 17 sexual harassment cases that are currently pending action from AIR. In October 2018 – post the resurgence of the #MeToo movement in India – the AIRCACU sent a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) and to the National Commission for Women (NCW), to probe a series of sexual harassment complaints that had come in from AIR stations all across the country.
The NCW, in an order passed on 17 January 2019, had directed Prasar Bharati to give a hearing to all 17 complainants and to report back to NCW with details of action taken against the accused in each case. However, after months of no action from AIR/Akash Vani/Prasar Bharati, the union once again wrote to the NCW in early April, asking the women’s commission to reopen the matter.
“After our letter, the NCW – on 16 April – once again wrote a letter to AIR reminding them of the NCW’s directions and asking for a response within 15 days. 15 days have now elapsed and neither has IAR responded to NCW, nor has the letter gotten back to us. We will be sending them a reminder letter today.”
Khanum also reiterates that the union will not be talking about only Shanti Verma, but all 17 complainants in future proceedings.
“Shanti chose to undertake that fast without consulting us. It was her individual decision, not a collaborative one. So we wouldn’t be able to help her openly. Also, we must continue to speak for ALL the women. Why is the AIR dragging its feet and constantly asking for more time? It has had a lot of time.”
Sources in the union claim that they have been unofficially told by AIR that the latter is “conducting a survey and trying to find out more”. But why the delay?
Khanum suggests that the possibility of AIR DG Fayyaz Shehryar being close to retirement (in early July) might be a reason for the delay. “Perhaps he doesn’t want to get involved this close to him leaving,” she claims.
Calls and text messages to Mr Shehryar continued to go unanswered.
Recently, campaigning and digital advocacy site Jhatkaa.org – on the heels of The Quint’s stories – also launched a signature campaign to help Shanti Verma. The campaign which aims to get 2,000 signatories, has addressed a letter to Fayyaz Shehryar, demanding that the investigation be re-opened and she be assigned duty.
Meanwhile, one woman, post her fast – and 16 other complainants who’ve alleged demotion or removal from active duty or their alleged harassers simply getting transferred – continue to wait on the public broadcasting organisation.