India’s judiciary has been rattled by an allegation of sexual harassment against its most senior member, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi.
In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court (SC) has set up an in-house committee of three sitting judges to probe the allegations. They were leveled by a former junior employee of the court who also worked in his residential office. No time period has been set for completion of the inquiry.
The complainant alleged in a letter to SC judges, accessed by Asia Times, that after she resisted his “sexual advances,” she was fired “unceremoniously” in December 2018. In the same month, her husband and brother-in-law, who were constables with the Delhi Police, were also suspended. “My husband’s other younger brother, who was given a job in group D category in the Supreme Court under the Chief Justice’s discretionary quota in October 2018, was also terminated without giving any reasons, in January 2019,” she wrote.
The panel, led by Justice Bobde, also issued notices on Tuesday to the complainant, a 35-year old junior court assistant, and the top court’s secretary-general Sanjeev Kalgaonkar and asked them to present themselves on Friday. Kalgaonkar has been asked to come with all records of the former staffer and complainant, including her postings during her four-year tenure with the court.
Justices SA Bobde, NV Ramana and Indira Banerjee will be on the committee, which was ratified by a full court meeting — of all SC judges. The inquiry, which will start on Friday, will be a departmental probe, not a judicial inquiry, the Indian Express reported. Justice Bobde will be next in seniority to the Chief Justice in November, while Justice Ramana is next in line to Justice Bobde.
The panel was set up after Gogoi asked Justice Bobde to decide on the next steps after two lawyers’ bodies claimed there was “procedural impropriety” in a controversial April 20 meeting after the allegation was made public. The Chief Justice had convened an “extraordinary” hearing after media reports emerged about the allegation against him and he said the charges were part of a “bigger force… to undermine the independence of the judiciary and deactivate the office of the Chief Justice of India”.
Sitting with Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna, Gogoi called the charges a ploy by a “bigger force to undermine the independence of the judiciary and deactivate the office of the CJI”. He added: “I should not stoop low even in denying it.”
The Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association issued a statement expressing reservations about “procedural impropriety” shown by Gogoi in the Saturday hearing. It said it “strongly disapproves [of] the manner in which the complaint was dealt with and seeks inquiry and action in the above matter.”
The executive committee of the Supreme Court Bar Association also held a meeting on Monday and passed a resolution that Saturday’s hearing was “in violation of procedure established by law as well as principles of natural justice.”
Senior advocate and human rights lawyer Indira Jaising tweeted that, “an inquiry while the Chief Justice of India is still discharging judicial and administrative functions is not a fair and impartial inquiry, all important witnesses are employees of the Supreme Court of India”. In a further tweet, she added: “An inquiry by judges junior to the Chief Justice of India violates the fundamental principle that the fact-finding body cannot be junior to the person being inquired into.”
On Wednesday, a bench of Justices Arun Mishra, RF Nariman and Deepak Gupta called for a meeting with the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Delhi Police Commissioner and the Director of the Intelligence Bureau at the judges’ chambers to decide on an investigation – to see if there was a larger conspiracy to malign the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, Live Law reported.
Meanwhile, advocate Utsav Bains, a young lawyer, claimed that the allegations against the Chief Justice were part of a plot by corporate houses and fixers to compel the Chief Justice to resign and had approached the Court about this. Bains submitted supporting material to back his claims, as directed by the apex court on Tuesday when it took up his affidavit, in a sealed cover. He said that the material contained CCTV footage which would reveal “many things”.
Attorney General K K Venugopal pointed out that there was a significant departure in Bain’s affidavit from the allegations in a Facebook post made by him earlier, as it mentioned a “lobby of disgruntled judges” being part of the conspiracy.
Expressing solidarity with the Chief Justice, Justice Mishra said: “CJI Gogoi was trying to clean up the system. No Chief Justice has shown the courage to take action against certain elements. He was acting without fear of anyone”.
Bains had earlier claimed that he was offered money to take up the case of the former Court staffer and to organize a press conference to make the matter public.