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When we speak of Indian Criminal law, it should be a well known fact that only a few years ago, sexual harassment of women was not enlisted as a juridical category of crime. It was in the year 1997 that the realm of judicial interpretation widened and the object ‘sexual harassment of working women’ was configured in the light of the famous case of Vishakha and Another’s v. Union of India.

This does not imply that there are no related laws in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that may be evoked when a woman is sexually harassed. However, these related laws are framed as offences that either amount to obscenity in public or act that are seen to violate the modesty of women under sections 294, 354 and 509 of the IPC. While section 294 IPC is a law applicable to both men and women, the latter two are specifically oriented towards women.[1]

The legal definition of the term sexual harassment confines its scope to legal maxims and established phrases like outrage the modesty or insult women. However it is known as eve teasing in normal day to day parlance. Eve teasing owes its genesis to English language and is wide enough to include all the essential attributes of sexual harassment. It normalizes and increases violence against women in public arenas while simultaneously making invisible forms of violence in the domestic arenas as the distinction between the two domains of gender is constantly redefined and challenged at times.

Sections 354 and 509 of the Indian Penal Code have been classified and documented as ‘crimes against women’, in the Crime in India Reports published by the Crimes Records Bureau.

The challenge to the cultural perception of sexual harassment as eve teasing first came from the women’s movements in India. Post the 1980s campaigns against rape leading to the challenge and subsequent amendment of the rape law in 1983, it was recognized that many forms of violence against women are normalized by both societal discourses and state laws.[2]

The women movements in India have criticized the existing stand on sexual harassment. Eve teasing is considered as a device for normalizing the soaring violence against women. The roots of sexual harassment were traced to be embedded in the patriarchal structure of the society where violence against women is an act of oppression rather than an act of perverse mentality. The state at this juncture severely criticized the normalizing trend that had crept into the sphere of sexual harassment.

There have been campaigns and interventions against sexual harassment and most of them have contributed in some positive way. The recent judgment on sexual harassment of working women pronounced by the Supreme Court in 1997 has been an important legal event, marking the emergence of judicial activism in the arena of gender justice. This dominance of feminist jurisprudence has raised many questions about the deployment of law and judicial activism as mode of feminist praxis. [3]

The judgement passed in 1997 is a milestone in this regard. Sexual harassment at work place was recognized as a clear violation of constitutional rights of women. This famous judgement provided guidelines for the prevention, deterrence and redressal of sexual harassment.

In 1995-96, a group of students and teachers in Delhi University conducted research by way of survey and questionnaires to demonstrate the prevalence, nature and extent of sexual harassment in the university. The hope was that it would help convince the university administration to streamline the institutional mechanisms of redressal and complaint resolution.

The mediation of violence of sexual harassment along with the cultural ways of cognizing together constitutes the experience of sexual harassment. Whether the place is public or is confined within the boundaries of the household, a case for sexual harassment can be filed.

Till 1991, the laws related to sexual harassment, sections 354 and 509 of the IPC were subsumed under the category of other IPC crimes. Hence there are no statistics available in absence of a satisfactory framework. The harassment against women was not viewed as a serious crime then. In 1992, ‘crimes against women’ was added to ‘Crime in India report’ to cope with the demand for the statistics to be made available for assessment. This specifically defined ‘crimes against women’ as a category separate from general crimes.

The report listed the following crimes against women as enunciated in the IPC. Rape (376 IPC); kidnapping or abduction for different purposes (363-373 IPC); homicide for dowry, dowry deaths or their attempts (302/304-B IPC); torture, both mental and physical (498A IPC); molestation (354 IPC); and eve teasing (509 IPC).[4]

Although eve teasing or molestation was not a juridical category, the police interpreted the law via social categories. The 1994 Crimes in India Report continued to classify section 354 as molestation; it categorized section 509 as sexual harassment. Thus eve teasing has become a matter of past. This marks a discursive break with the past trends.

Crimes against Women cells have been set up to address the specific crimes against women. An overwhelming number of dowry, and other cases related to the family are addressed at these cells, although rape and cases related to sexual harassment are addressed at local police stations.[5]

Sections 294, 354 and 509 of The Indian Penal Code deals with sexual harassment as a separate category which do not coincide with rape under sections 375 and 376. The sections on sexual harassment have been recognized for a brief span and needs time so that the public makes efficient use of their rights under these sections.


The topic of this project is “Sexual Harassment- Sections 354 and 509 of The Indian Penal Code.” This topic is quite extensive and requires detailed research since the area of research is very comprehensive. For the purpose of research work for the given topic books in the library have been consulted. At the same time various sources on the internet have also been referred to.

However due to constraint of space and paucity of time, this projects only sheds light on the related sections of Indian Penal Code rather than going into an exhaustive study of one of the greatest and oldest criminal laws existing in the world.


Sexual harassment and rape are the two sides of the same coin. In both of them the victim is woman and both are oppressive by nature. Many people extenuate sexual harassment to rape, just because the victims are not physically harmed. But both of them undermine the integrity of woman and add to her physical or mental trauma.

Sexual harassment is considered as a showcase of men’s power and oppressive nature and it is held that given a chance the people who indulge in sexual harassment will resort to fulfill their desires.

The concept of sexual harassment is relatively new; the term was coined in the 1960s. Of course, sexual harassment existed prior to the sixties, but people had no way to talk about it since there was no term by which to name the experience. While thirty years is a relatively short time for the development of a body of scholarship, this topic has drawn a great deal of interest from academic scholars as well as legal scholars. [6]

According to the official statistics of 1991, one woman is molested every 26 minutes. These statistics refer to the reported cases. Whereas, if the unreported cases were to be included, it would be a matter of seconds- rather than minutes. investigation of Most cases are not reported by victims because of various reasons such as family pressures, the manner of the police, the unreasonably long and unjust process and application of law; and the resulting consequences thereof. [7]

An act to constitute sexual harassment is legally defined as an unwelcome sexual gesture or behavior which can comprise of either sexually colored remarks or physical advances or showing pornography or demand for sexual favors or any other conduct which is sexual in nature.

The rape laws in India is wider in comparison to the existing laws on sexual harassment and is to be found under section 375 and section 376 of the IPC. The laws on sexual harassment as mentioned earlier are enlisted under sections 294, 354 and 509 of the IPC. 

The law of rape is not just a few sentences. It is a whole book, which has clearly demarcated chapters and cannot be read selectively. We cannot read the preamble and suddenly reach the last chapter and claim to have understood and applied it.[8]                   

These laws are made for the benefit of the public and hence it is a duty on the part of the state that they should be properly executed so that the needy can avail benefits from them.

Because most victims of sexual harassment don’t speak out, we don’t understand the seriousness and pervasive nature of it. Hence it becomes difficult to document the extent of sexual harassment. Some critics hold the viewpoint that at many times sexual harassment goes underreported as the women who are the victims consider it to be a joke or a compliment. However an act of obscenity in public which lowers the esteem and dignity of woman is sufficient to be categorized under sexual harassment.

While in the case of rape, penetration is essential, it is not in case of sexual harassment. The accused may have in mind the desire to have sex but his thought is overshadowed by his act which lowers the modesty of the victim without the necessary act of penetration as in case of rape.

In cases where an indecent assault is made upon the person of a woman, but where rape is not committed- the culprit is charged with Section.354 of IPC, because unless the Court is satisfied that there was determination in the accused to gratify his passion at any cost, and inspite of all resistance, such person is not charged with rape.[9]


Section 354 of The Indian Penal Code reads as such, “Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”[10]

An indecent assault against a woman is punished under this section. We all know that rape is punished under s. 376, the offence enlisted this section is of a lesser gravity compared to rape.

Their Lordships of the House of Lords have pointed out that a person is guilty of indecent assault if he intentionally assaults the victim and intends to commit not just an assault but an indecent assault, i.e., an assault which right-minded persons would think is indecent.[11]

In the case of R v. Court[12], a 26-year-old shop assistant, pulled a 12-year-old girl visitor to the shop across his knees and smacked her with his hands 12 times on her bottom outside her shores for no apparent reason. On being asked he explained his weakness as “buttock fetish.” But for this admission there was nothing to convert the assault confessed by him into an indecent one. His explanation to his secret motive was held to be relevant to hold him guilty of indecent assault.

Some labourers, including a woman, were taken to a police station for some work. When they demanded wages, they were beaten up. The woman was stripped bare and thrashed. The matter came before the Supreme Court in a writ petition under Article 32 of the constitution. The Supreme Court held that the offence under s. 354, IPC, was established in reference to the woman and awarded compensation to be recovered from the salary of the guilty officers. [13]

By the sexual offences act, 1956, an indecent assault upon a female of any age is made a misdemeanor and on a charge for indecent assault upon a child or a young person under the age of sixteen it is no Defence that she or he consented to the act of indecency. An assault becomes indecent only if it is accompanied by circumstances of indecency towards the person assaulted.

In the case of Keshav Baliram Naik v. State of Maharashtra[14], a woman came out early in the morning to get water from the village well. The accused caught her hand and forcefully pulled her to him to be taken to a nearby place. She resisted and raised shouts. Her bangles were broken and she was injured. The accused was found guilty of the offence under s. 354 and was convicted accordingly setting aside his acquittal.

In the case of Jai Chand v. State[15], the woman was forced on bed where the accused broke the string of her pajamas and tore her underwear. At the same time, he did not make any attempt to undress himself. The offence of rape could not be made out and this case fell under s. 354 of IPC.

If the accused holds the arms of the victim with one hand and put the other hand on her breasts, then such an act is considered to be an offence under s. 354.[16]  In this case the image and stature of the family was disturbed. The accused was directed to pay a fine of Rs. 1000 only because of the fact that the incident was fairly old.

Section 354 offends against article 14 of the Constitution of India. The pronoun “he” used in the expression “that he will thereby outrage her modesty” must be taken under section 8, penal code, as importing a male or a female. It is thus clear that under section 354, penal code, man as well as a woman can be held guilty of the offence and be punished for it. The section, therefore, operates equally upon all persons whether males or females and as women are not exempt from any punishment under the section it does not offend against the provisions of article 14 of the constitution.

It also violates article 15 of the constitution- the word ‘only’ in article 15(1) emphasizes the fact that the discrimination that is prohibited under the article is a discrimination based on the ground of sex, or race, etc., alone. If the discrimination is based not merely on any of the grounds stated under article 15(1) but also on considerations of propriety, public morals, decency, decorum and rectitude, the legislation containing such discrimination would not be hit by the provisions of the article.

If the accused took liberty with the girl with her consent, then he cannot be held guilty under section 354, Penal code, as it would not amount to an assault or use of criminal force with an intention to outrage her modesty.

Where the medical evidence does not corroborate the evidence of prosecutrix in the matter of commission of rape, it would not be proper to convict the accused under section 376, IPC.

The distinction between an attempt to commit rape and an attempt to commit indecent assault is sometimes very meager. For the former, there should be some action on the part of the accused which would show that he is just going to have sexual connection with the prosecutrix. For an offence of an attempt to commit rape the prosecution must establish that it has gone beyond the stage of preparation. The difference between mere preparation and actual attempt to commit an offence consists chiefly in the greater degree of determination.

The test for outrage of modesty should be that whether a reasonable man will think that the act of the accused was intended to or was known to be likely to outrage the modesty of the woman.

Where an accused is tried for an offence under s. 354, and an assault is proved, the next question to be considered is whether he did so with the intent to outrage the woman’s modesty, or with the knowledge that it would be outraged. The story of a person trying to outrage the modesty of two women in presence of two gentlemen is so unnatural, that there must be clear and impeachable evidence before it can be accepted.

There is no warrant for laying down the wide proposition that in a case under s. 354 or for the matter of that in any case relating to a sexual offence, excepting rape independent corroboration of the prosecutrix’s evidence can be insisted upon. [17]

Until recently the law relating to indecent assault appeared to be reasonably settled if not well defined. It was generally accepted that the prosecution had to prove that the defendant had assaulted (assault here including a battery) the victim in circumstances of indecency. Very little attention was paid in the Mens Rea of this offence, apart from recognizing that it required the Mens Rea of a common assault or a battery. [18]

Apart from s. 354 there are other section in IPC which deals with crimes against women. They are s.376 dealing with rape, Ss. 363-373 dealing with kidnapping and abduction of girls and women for different purposes, homicide for dowry and dowry death covered under Ss. 302/ 304B, sexual harassment and eve teasing under s.509 and importation of girls up to 21 years of age covered under s. 366B of IPC.[19]

The punishment for outraging the modesty of a woman under s. 354 is imprisonment for a period of two years, or fine, or both. Section 354A which deals with indecent assault states, “Whoever commits indecent assault against a woman or a man shall be liable to punishment with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both.”[20]

The remedy which s. 354A provides in India is provided under Sexual Offences Act, 1956 in England. It is there to cover both men and women alike as in the case of English law.


This section was substituted for the original section by the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act (III of 1895), section 3. This section applies to obscene talks, acts, gestures, etc.

The section reads as, “Whoever, to the annoyance of others,

(a) does any obscene act in any public place, or

       (b) sings, recites or utters any obscene songs, ballad or word, in or near any public place,shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.”[21]

It is an essential requisite that the obscene act or song must cause annoyance. Annoyance refers to a mental condition and hence it has often to be inferred from proved facts. Where the accused addressed openly two respectable girls who were strangers to him, in amorous words suggestive of illicit sex relations with them and asked them to go along with him on his rickshaw, he was held to have committed an obscene act.[22]

Indecent exposure of one’s person or sexual intercourse in a public place will be punished under this section. The prosecution must prove (i) that the accused did some act; or that the accused sang, recited or uttered any obscene song, ballad or words; (ii) that this was done in or near a public place; (iii) that it was of an obscene nature; (iv) that it caused annoyance to others. A FIR merely alleging the utterance of obscene words without mentioning the objectionable words is liable to be quashed, being vague.[23]

A conviction under this section for uttering an obscene abuse in a public place may amount to a conviction for an offence involving a breach of the peace within the meaning of section 106, Criminal Procedure Code, 1898 (same section of the 1973 code).[24]

Though offence under this section is not compoundable and any agreement between the parties to that effect is not enforceable in law, yet, where, the parties had entered into a compromise to withdraw all cases against each other and were divorced, the continuance of prosecution under this section would not achieve any beneficial result nor it would be in aid of achieving any social or public justice, which is the main aim of a criminal prosecution and, therefore, such prosecution would be liable to be quashed. [25]

The incidents of teasing school girls and passing remarks on them were becoming quite frequent and the courts could not pretend to remain oblivious of this fact. In the view of this fact s.294 laid down the period of maximum sentence to three months. Sections 292,293 and 294, IPC deal with the law relating to obscenity. None of the provisions under these sections cover indecent representation of women in publications and advertisements which play a pernicious role in degrading the mentality of a person.

Accordingly, in 1986 the Parliament enacted the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 60 of 1986 to effectively prohibit indecent representation of women through advertisements, publications, writings, paintings, figures, pamphlets, etc., and to provide punishment against those indulging in such nefarious activities.[26]

Section 294 helps in punishing those unconcerned persons who defame the other party in public by using their nefarious deeds. Such unconventional actions must be severely dealt with and the application of s.294 has been very helpful in this regard. It helps to check that a person on passing an obscene comment or remark does not go unescaped.


“Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine or with both.”[27]

An insult to the modesty of the woman is an essential ingredient of this offence. If a man exposes his person in an indecent way or used obscene words which intend that he should be heard or his obscene drawings should be seen, he is held to be an offender under s.509 of IPC. The intention to insult the modesty of woman must be coupled with the fact that the insult is caused. It means that the other party understands that he is insulted. If a person intrudes upon the privacy of a woman, then also he is considered to be liable under this section.

The question of what constitutes an insult to female modesty requires no description. It is common knowledge that any word, spoken or written, any song, picture, or figure exhibited which suggests lewd thoughts is immoral and insulting to female modesty, unless the woman is a consenting party to it.

Where an accused enters into a woman’s apartment and tries to catch hold of her and persuades her for sexual connection by removing garments, an offence under this section is registered.[28] Likewise, when an accused sent a letter containing indecent overtures, lewd and filthy suggestions to an unmarried nurse, it was held that an offence was made out. [29]

Courts may have defined sexual harassment and also laid down comprehensive guidelines to be followed, but that’s not quite the same as a statutory definition. Notice that annoyance is an important ingredient of the offence under Section 294 and this is associated with a mental condition. Notice that Section 294 also requires the annoyance to occur in or near a public place. While Section 509 has no such requirement, there is perhaps a case for enhancing the punishment to three years. The point to note is that Sections 294 and 509 fall short of physical contact. There are crimes of molestation that fall short of rape, but involve physical contact. As of now, there are no provisions in the IPC that cover these as a substantive offence.

Section 509 basically deals with eve teasing and it serves as a deterrent in curbing the mounting indecency with which lewd and obscene remarks are passed onto the women in public places. A law to curb such an act was urgently required as it leads to lowering of self esteem of a person. However the repercussions are far reaching and at many a places its repetition has resulted in suicide and fatal attempts on one’s life.


Since the Vishakha case in 1997, courts have defined sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual gestures or behavior that involves sexually colored remarks, physical contact and advances, showing pornography, demands and requests for sexual favors and other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal contacts that are sexual in nature. (There was a case involving the Apparel Export Promotion Council.) Sexual harassment was thus defined as a separate illegal behavior. These guidelines have partly been based on fundamental rights guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution.[30]

According to the Protection of Human Right Act, 1993 "human rights" means the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India. It is necessary and expedient for employers in work places as well as other responsible persons or institutions to observe certain guidelines to ensure the prevention of sexual harassment of women as to live with dignity is a human right guaranteed by our constitution.[31]

Sexual harassment of a woman employee at workplace, amounts to violation of the ‘right to gender equality’ and also the ‘right to life and liberty’- the two most precious fundamental rights guaranteed vide articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution.

With increasing gender diversity in our workforce and greater proximity of genders working together, one needs to have a firm policy in the workplace, and sexual harassment by its very nature is a sensitive issue, it needs to be handled expeditiously. Following the visakha[32] case, Supreme Court has set up an appropriate mechanism for redressal of grievances of people at workplace. Preventive as well as corrective steps were taken which included disciplinary action, transfer of erring employees and criminal prosecution, where conduct of such employee’s amounts to a specific offence is important.[33]

In a fairly recent case of A.K Chopra[34], the accused-respondent tried to molest a woman employee (Secretary to the chairman of a Delhi based Apparel Export Promotion Council) Miss X, a clerk cum typist on 12th august, 1988 at Taj Hotel, Delhi. The respondent persuaded Miss ‘X’ to accompany him while taking dictation from the chairman, so that her typing was not found fault with. While Miss ‘X’ was waiting in the room, the respondent taking advantage of the isolated place tried to sit too close to her and touch her despite her objections; and tried to molest her physically in the lift while coming to the basement, but she saved herself by pressing emergency button, which made the door lift open. On a complaint made by Miss ‘X’ a departmental inquiry committee was set up to investigate into alleged allegations. The Bench said:

“In a case involving charge of sexual harassment or attempt to sexually molest, the courts are required to examine the broader probabilities of case and not swayed away by insignificant discrepancies or narrow technicalities or dictionary meaning of the expression ‘molestation’ or ‘physical assault’… The sexual harassment of a female employee at the place of the work is incompatible with the dignity and honour of a female and needs to be eliminated and that there can be no compromise with such violations.”[35]

The Government of India has abided by Supreme Court’s case in vishakha case and has made specific provisions in CCS (Conduct) Rules, 1998 prohibiting sexual harassment of the women by government servants. Circulars and directives are issued to the ministries/departments to take appropriate action against the delinquent Government servants. State Governments and private enterprises have also taken necessary steps in this regard. This would certainly help in creating a healthy and a conducive work culture based on the fundamental values of equality


There is a wide debate in India on the issue that whether laws hold promise of justice for women who have been victims of violence. At the same time a need is felt to compliment this with critical evaluation of new modes of governance and surveillance.

Some preventive steps to keep a check on the cases of sexual harassment are quite necessary. This goal can be achieved when sexual harassment is completely prohibited so that such incidents may be notified and circulated. Provisions for appropriate working conditions for women should also be made.

Legal mechanisms cannot be the sole solution in curbing the increasing incidents of sexual harassment.  At some place and time it is very much required that the apathy and fear of the public concerned with such events should last. If people will be always frightened to speak to demand their rights, then law cannot come for them as a savior. An initiative on the part of public is also required. It is of utmost necessity that such values are to be promoted which detest and vociferously oppose such decadent practices existing in the society. People must be conscious of their rights so that they can avail full benefit out of them. If a person is ignorant of what his rights are then at many a times he is not even in a position to understand the nature of injustice which was just inflicted on him.

And there is still a problem with going to court on such matters, especially if Sections 354 and 509 cannot be invoked. After all, an FIR has to spell out the nature of the offence. And also spell out whether the crime is bailable and cognizable. The law commission (172nd report on “Review of Rape Laws”, March 2000) recommended insertion of Section 376E in the IPC to cover unlawful sexual conduct. The NCW repeats this recommendation. The task force on women and children seems to favor the broadening of the definition of rape to cover sexual assault also.[36] It is definitely a better idea to introduce section 376E dealing with sexual assault.






Peter Seago, “CRIMINAL LAW”, 3rd edition, 1989, SWEET AND MAXWELL, LONDON

Ratanlal and Dhirajlal, “THE INDIAN PENAL CODE”, 30th edition, 2004, WADHWA AND COMPANY, NAGPUR



Look at Rupen Bajaj case.

Explain the concept and practical interpretation of modesty.

Relate Visakha case with section 354 or 509

How the law of sexual harassment can be enforced, or utility of law.


[1] baxi.htm

[2] Ibid

[3] Id

[4] Id

[5] Id



[8] Ibid

[9] Id

[10] Ratanlal and dhirajlal, THE INDIAN PENAL CODE, 30th edition, 2004, p.644

[11] Ibid at p.645

[12] (1988) 2 All ER 221 (HL)

[13] Supra n. 10 at p.646

[14] 1996 Cr LJ 1111 (Bom.)

[15] 1996 Cr LJ 2039 (Del.)

[16] State of H.P v. Ram Das, 1999 Cr LJ 798 (AP)

[17] ILR (1952) Patiala 66

[18] Peter Seago, CRIMINAL LAW, 3rd edition, 1989, p.253

[19] K D Gaur, CRIMINAL LAW CASES AND MATERIALS, 3rd edition, 1999, p.583

[20] K D Gaur, A TEXTBOOK ON THE INDIAN PENAL CODE, 3rd edition, 2004, p. 554

[21] Supra n.10 at p.409

[22] Zafar Ahmad, AIR 1963 All 105

[23] Ratanlal and Dhirajlal, LAW OF CRIMES, 23rd edition, 1987, p.1132

[24] Ibid

[25] Id

[26] Supra n.20 at p.368

[27] Supra n.10 at pp.970-71

[28] Bankey, AIR 1961 All 131

[29] Tarak Das Gupta, AIR 1926 Bom 159



[32] AIR 1997 SC 3011

[33] Supra n.20 at p.770

[34] AIR 1999 SC 625

[35] Supra n.20 at p. 768


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