The Saga of an 11-year Ongoing Battle
It was March of the year 2009. Smt. Rekha Nellypally was about to have the course of her life as the Branch Manager of Union Bank of India (UBI), Kamalapuri Colony Branch, Hyderabad, changed forever.
Rekha — industrious, ethical, intelligent, smart, ambitious and diligent — then in her early forties, was quietly going about her work.
She had joined Union Bank of India at the age of 20 and worked her way up, passing many exams and acquiring degrees along the way, to become the first Branch Manager of the newly opened branch of the bank in Kamalapuri colony in 2007.
Since April 2008, Rekha had been warding off harassment by the then Regional Head of UBI in Hyderabad, Shri K C Charamana. She states that she had been subjected to several incidents of physical and verbal abuse by this man.
The next 6 years till Jan 2019, according to Rekha, were a harrowing time for her. Based on anonymous complaints, 15 enquiries were conducted, 2 special audits were done and 5 memos (apart from the 2 received in 2009) were issued to her
She says that in October 2008 and February 2009, two anonymous complaints were raised against her and she suspects that it was done because she was resisting the man’s advances. The charges against her were most frivolous.
Nevertheless, an enquiry into the complaints was launched in Mar 2009 and she received a memo from the bank asking her to explain the charges. This was the start of a saga that has permanently put the brakes on her career till today and stagnated her growth in the bank.
She says that Shri. Charamana started blackmailing her after this issuance of the memo. He told her that the memo would be closed at the Regional office itself if she acceded to his demands and that otherwise, it would be forwarded to the higher authorities.
Self-respect, integrity and competence are the hallmarks of strong and independent people and Rekha was one of those special people.
She was not one to be bullied by the intimidating tactics of her senior and obviously did not agree to his blackmailing ways. On a visit to Bengaluru for a training program in April 2009, she met the then Field General Manager of UBI Shri C Abraham and submitted to him an oral complaint regarding the misbehaviour and sexual harassment by Shri Charamana.
He had assured her that it would be looked into but she didn’t hear anything from him even after a month. Thus, in May 2009, she sent her complaint against Shri Charamana in writing, to her employer Union Bank of India.
A few days later, UBI sent its Chairperson of the Sexual Harassment Redressal Committee (SHRC) Smt. Vijayalakshmi Iyer and Member Secretary Smt. Sulabha Kore to meet with Rekha at her Kamalapuri Colony branch and hear her complaint.
Thereafter, they also visited Shri Charamana at his office and left. Rekha didn’t hear from them again.
Soon after that, Shri Charamana gave her transfer orders to another branch at S D Road, Secunderabad which Rekha challenged with the Sexual Harassment Redressal Committee. The result of her challenge was that the transfer order was cancelled and Shri Charamana found himself transferred to the Central Office, Mumbai.
One would think that the matter would end there but, in fact, that was the start of a long and arduous fight that Rekha fights till this day.
The Chronology of Events
Shri Charamana was transferred in May 2009 but soon after, in June 2009 an anonymous complaint requested that a special audit of Rekha’s branch be undertaken, though a regular audit had already been done just a couple of months prior to that. Two auditors took up the task and conducted a thorough audit for 21 days.
In August 2009, the audit reply was received which did not contain any special reports or flash reports (which could be construed as impropriety on Rekha’s part).
However, there was a Certificate of Rectification (COR) of the audit observations that were required of Rekha which she duly submitted. Usually, after this, the Regional Office would recommend the rectification and the audit department would then close the audit report.
Instead, another memo was raised in her name based on the Special Audit Report and this meant that Rekha couldn’t pursue any further studies or take up any foreign posting.
She was denied permission to pursue higher studies and her application for foreign posting was not considered. This was the first step in scuttling her career prospects because when memos are pending against a person, they are not allowed to take up exams that will help in their promotion to a higher rank.
After a lot of following up on the status of the sexual harassment complaint, she made in May 2009 and forwarding her complaint to the AP (undivided then) Women’s Commission and RBI woman director Smt. Meena Hemachandra, finally in December 2010, she received a reply from her bank that the complaint had been closed because she was unable to provide any witness or evidence for the claims she made.
The reply from the bank is below, which is the first communication to her after 1½ years of her complaint.
The then chairperson of the SHRC of UBI wrote to the AP Women’s Commission that an enquiry had been conducted and since Rekha couldn’t produce any witness or evidence, the case was closed.
This forced Rekha to file an appeal to the AP Women’s Commission and the RBI woman director. There was no reply from the AP Women’s Commission because, at the time, there was no one in the post of chairperson during that period.
After constant follow up with almost all the departments in Union bank central office, in February 2011, the status of the two memos in her name was finally changed to “Censure” meaning that they were closed with a status that she had been warned.
Rekha’s appeals to the AP Women’s Commission and woman director in RBI were still pending and therefore in May 2011, she received communication from her bank that two members Capt. R Rajaram and Smt. Padma Neelkanthan from their Mumbai offices would be visiting her in Hyderabad to understand the issue.
They did visit her and took a statement from her regarding her version of what had transpired with her in 2008-09. Since then, she has not heard from these officials. She had filed an application under RTI to get access to the report they compiled, but the response she received from Union Bank was that there were no traces of the report that they filed. Mrs Padma Neelakantan was paid TE bill with remarks “ Visit to Hyderabad for Recovery”. Below is the copy of the letter dated April 2011 signed by GM HR and the RTI replied received in Feb 2021, that the investigation report is not traceable.
By June 2011, Rekha cleared the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection (IBPS) written exam where there were only 24 vacancies in Fast track and only 24 candidates made the cut at the all India level. She was promoted from Scale 3 to Scale 4 cadre and this has remained her last promotion to date.
She insists that this promotion of hers was not scuttled because the exam she had taken was conducted by an outside agency. She is very sure that her prospects would have been bleak if the exams were an internal one, or had there been a 25th person who cleared the written examination. So, a promotion from scale 3 to scale 4 is the only one she has managed to achieve so far but she believes that had it not been for the SHRC case she would have scaled much greater heights.
The next 6 years till Jan 2019, according to Rekha, were a harrowing time for her. Based on anonymous complaints, 15 enquiries were conducted, 2 special audits were done and 5 memos (apart from the 2 received in 2009) were issued to her.
She has been pursuing to get information by way of RTI applications and got the shocking information from the Bank by way of RTI replies that all the seven memos were issued only to her which is a very rare oddity in the banking industry.
Besides, on many of the memos, she was only one of the people involved in the issue being investigated and not even the primary one at that. Despite that, the memos were issued only to her. Furthermore, memos were issued even after clearance from the staff accountability exercise.
This is simply unheard of!
Rekha is thus very clear in her mind that this was done simply to not allow her promotion prospects. She doesn’t know at whose behest this was being done but it was very clearly an attempt to sabotage her career. It is to be noted that these enquiries were conducted despite clear Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) guidelines that enquiries should not be initiated based on anonymous requests. Even the CVC guidelines on this matter were given by the Bank as a reply to an RTI query.
Frustrated and angered by this targeted vendetta, Rekha decided that she would make a fight of this.
From January 2018, she used the Right to Information Act (RTI) to understand what was happening. Some of the information that she requested she got access to, but there was a lot of information that she was not provided with which prompted the Central Information Commission, New Delhi (CIC) to issue so far 5 show-cause notices to the Central Public Information Officers (CPIO) and General Manager (HR) of UBI.
So far, the CIC has issued penalty on CPIOS of Union bank for failure to acknowledge her appeal in 3 cases. Ironically, Union Bank, by spending public money has gone for appeal in all the three cases in Delhi High Court in December 2020 and January 2021, where the stay has been granted in 2 cases and dismissed in one.
In June 2018, Rekha filed a civil suit against UBI at Hyderabad for non-compliance with the Vishaka guidelines and victimising her. She also filed a writ petition in Telangana High Court for violation of promotion policy guidelines in November 2018.
Tellingly, UBI released a circular in January 2019 stating that legal expenses of the accused (by then retired) by Rekha would be borne by the bank with effect from December 2018. That the bank would employ legal services at taxpayers expense to clear themselves is a given.
However, the fact that the bank agreed to provide the same legal counsel to the accused (by then retired) using taxpayer money, shunning the bigger case of helping an existing employee should not go without remark.
The accused had given Vakalat (Power of Attorney to fight the case on the accused’s behalf) in December 2018 to the same bank counsel as other Respondents in the case. This act of the bank is very unfair, as the main allegation of Rekha is that the enquiry had never been conducted and she had never been heard out. The explanation of the accused either was not recorded by the Bank.
Some compromise formulas were floated, where they offered to transfer her back to Telangana if she considered withdrawing the Court cases, which were not acceptable to Rekha resulting in the breakdown of talks between the bank and her
It is very clear that the bank has powerful connections at every level and can effectively stymie an ordinary person’s quest for justice. This has caused great distress and pain to Rekha who besides being subjected to so much anxiety and stress for just standing up to an abusive boss, has understood that her bank / her employer would also not support her. Nevertheless, this did not weaken her resolve and she decided to continue on her path to seek justice.
In May 2019, she was summarily transferred to the Chennai zone from where she was posted to a branch in Thiruvalla, Kerala which was 1500 km away from her hometown Secunderabad; this, despite Department of Financial Services (DFS) guidelines which state that women employees are to be posted to a place closest to their family. Besides, the Thiruvalla branch of UBI was a lower cadre branch.
Rekha is a scale 4 officer posted to a scale 3 branch. If it wasn’t humiliating enough, this was a policy violation on at least two counts: she tried to obtain a stay on this transfer order by filing a writ petition.
The petition was dismissed in July by using a wrong pleading. The bank counsel had wrongly pleaded that the sexual harassment complaint had been attended to by the bank and closed way back as she could not produce any witness or evidence.
The line of enquiry used for dismissing the petition was actually sub judice in the lower court as part of the civil suit that she had previously filed. She, therefore, filed an appeal which was also dismissed in August 2019.
Further, Rekha found out once more that the bank had spent Rs. 8.67 lacs for arguing against her Writ Petition and Rs. 4.50 lacs for arguing against her Writ Appeal by way of advocate fees alone. This is not at all as per the prevailing norms of the Bank and Bank’s litigation policy.
Undeterred, she then filed a review petition for the same as a “party in person” in September 2019 because advocates refused to take up her case! The outcome of this review petition is still pending in the Telangana High Court. Despite all this happening to her professionally, she joined the Thiruvalla branch of UBI in July 2019.
A lesser person in her place would have withered by this time, but Rekha has proved that she is made of steel.
Her journey to get justice for herself has just not stopped.
She next approached the Ministry of Women and Child Development who transferred her case to the National Commission for Women in September 2019. At the same time, multiple representations were made to the Department of Financial Services (DFS), Ministry of Finance (MOF), MD and CEO of UBI regarding non-compliance with Vishaka guidelines and the wrong pleadings used in the High Court.
NCW had forwarded her case to Kerala legal services authority (KELSA) and KELSA in February 2020 had called for reconciliation with the Field General Manager of Chennai to at least consider her transfer to Chennai. This reconciliation attempt fell through and this can be ascertained from the fact that the Secretary / Sub Judge KELSA had recorded that the Respondents are adamant.
Rekha is very sad to say that while she received some support from Smt. Smriti Irani’s MOWCD, all representations to Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman’s MOF was summarily ignored. Rekha did not expect this kind of treatment from the MOF and is bitterly disappointed.
In November 2019, Rekha received the first reply to her RTI filed regarding the report compiled by the two officers who visited her from the SHRC way back in 2009. The response from RTI is below.
Below is the copy of the findings of the investigation carried out by the members of the SHRC in 2009. This was also obtained through RTI.In December 2019, the National Commission for Women (NCW) issued a summons to the MD and CEO of UBI and they were represented by GM (HR) of UBI Shri Brajeshwar Sharma. In April 2020, the final proceedings were conducted and the verdict was in Rekha’s favour.
Accordingly, in May 2020, the Chairperson of NCW Smt. Rekha Sharma wrote a letter to the MD and CEO of UBI stating that the complainant (Rekha Nellypally) was not even heard by them and neither was she informed of the actions initiated.
The copy of the NCW letter is below.
Post this letter from the Chairperson of NCW, Rekha wrote several letters to the MD and CEO to take up the issue and initiate action as per the advice/instructions of Chairperson, NCW. She was contacted by the bank officials on phone, asking her to withdraw all cases unconditionally which she did not agree to.
Some compromise formulas were floated, where they offered to transfer her back to Telangana if she considered withdrawing the Court cases, which were not acceptable to Rekha resulting in the breakdown of talks between the bank and her.
The issue of her SH complaint was taken up in the Board meeting of the directors of the bank. In August 2020, Shri Brajeshwar Sharma who had attended the hearing with the NCW on behalf of the MD and CEO of UBI wrote a letter to the NCW with a copy to Rekha, again reiterating that the enquiry into the SH issue was conducted.
It may be noted that it was the same Mr Brajeshwar Sharma who had attended the enquiry of NCW 2 times and signed on the proceedings where it was recorded that the bank could not bring any papers to show that they had formed the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and the enquiry was conducted.
This made Rekha file a complaint again with the MOWCD and Finance Ministry. She also approached the National Human Rights Commission and High Court Legal Services Authority, Hyderabad to where KELSA had transferred her file after appointing an advocate to her.
She was advised by these entities to file a complaint with the police. Accordingly, in September 2020, Rekha filed an online police complaint both at Hyderabad and Thiruvalla and received an acknowledgement for the same.
In October 2020, MOWCD advised Principal Secretary, DWCD Kerala to conduct an investigation/enquiry to note whether the employer of Rekha i.e Union Bank had conducted the enquiry on the SH complaint of Rekha. Rekha started that phase by talking to the Director, WCD, Kerala.
In the same month, UBI made an eyewash attempt to claim that they resolved the issue, by asking Rekha to travel to Mumbai for talks. The result of that meeting was intimated to her through a letter in Nov 2020. It is reproduced below.
All through October and November 2020, she had talks with the WCD, Kerala officials and it was decided to transfer the case to Telangana.
On the file reaching WCD, Telangana, on 10.12.2020, the officials of WCD had sent Sakhi coordinator (One stop shop for women security of Telangana Govt initiative) along with Rekha to file a police complaint in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad (as the earlier Police complaint could not be accepted due to jurisdiction issues.) This complaint was also summarily closed by the SI of the police station without explanation.
Rekha’s demand is that either the MOF or the MOWCD or both ministries ask the bank authorities to sit face to face and conduct an investigation whether there was an enquiry of her SH complaint or not with her and work out the solution for the many years that she has undergone suffering.
From the bank’s end, it looks like the issue is now less about her complaint and more about the ego of those in power at the helm of UBI.
However, if the ministries stepped in, the bank would have no other choice but to comply. Will Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman or Smt. Smriti Irani take note?
Some Interesting Asides
RTI has been Rekha’s biggest ally in uncovering the deceit and deception of the bank. She had filed an RTI asking for the details of sexual harassment complaints that had been filed by employees, from 2009 to date. Below is the response she received to her query.
An interesting thing to be noted is that Rekha’s complaint has not found a place in the records. As we have seen before, she filed a written complaint in May 2009, which has not been recorded in the bank’s system.
Below is also the penalty imposed by CIC on UBI for denying acknowledgement of appeal.
Justice is your right; the decision to fight for it is yours too.
The repercussions are inevitable as well. The big question for everyone is this: Can you live with it all?
Most people take it into their stride. Some learn to live with it all.
However, there are some among us who’ll take the fight to the trenches. Rekha waged the fight not just for herself but for many others who suffer in silence, for various reasons.
This is a long saga but it has been reproduced in such detail because it is our endeavour to highlight how difficult it is for a woman to get justice in a grave issue like sexual harassment at the workplace though, for all intents and purposes, stringent laws are in place.
Rekha has been waging a lonely battle against all odds. The might of the management is being brought down upon her. She can only fight back in the way ordinary people can; by taking recourse to legal action.
She has been spending her hard-earned money to fight for her honour. There was a time when advocates refused to fight her case saying she didn’t have one. She then took it upon herself to fight, and fight she did. However, since she filed RTI applications and got confirmation of the malafide intention of the officials of the bank, there has been an improvement in the way advocates are now seeing her case.
At the moment, she does have an advocate fighting her cases.
All her cases are due for hearing and she waits…as bravely and stoically as she has, since 2009.
However, who will compensate her for the loss of reputation she suffered because she was tried to be shown as a dishonest officer?
After all the Special audits and enquiries no special report or flash reports were given in her working and she is still continuing as a Branch Manager, as Bank could not prove even one case where her integrity was questionable.
Who will give her back her peace of mind, her time that she could spend with her family if she were not suffering this situation? Who will compensate her for the stagnation in her career because of the false memos and punishments? She is now 55 with another 5 more years of service.
Will justice be delivered to her?
This is a story of grit and determination. A story of a lone woman’s resolve to not let harassment at the workplace go unchallenged.
A fight so that women may take inspiration from her case to never give up and fight for the truth. It remains to be seen if justice will be served. However, we will keep up the pressure and extend our full support to Rekha in this.
It’s sheer irony that in a civilised society, a public sector bank could get away with non-compliance with SH guidelines and not protecting its own woman employee.