Protesting lawyers and activists were rounded up outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi on May 7 as they agitated against a court committee's decision to clear the chief justice of allegations of sexual harassment. Photo: Twitter

A Supreme Court committee’s decision to clear India’s top judge of sexual harassment has led to massive protests, with protesters charging that the inquiry did not follow due process as laid down by relevant laws in India.

Following the global #MeToo movement that started with the Harvey Weinstein case in the United States, India has also witnessed widespread allegations across the worlds of politics, entertainment, corporations and media. While there had been allegations against senior judges in the past, this is the first time the sitting chief justice of the Supreme Court has been charged with sexual harassment.

On Tuesday, 55 protesters, including more than 52 women lawyers and activists, were detained by the police for agitating outside Supreme Court premises in the Indian capital, New Delhi. More than 10 women protesters were detained by the police again on Wednesday and taken to a police station for unlawful assembly under a law, Section 144, that has been imposed in the area, a detainee said.

Section 144 is a section of the Code of Criminal Procedure that prohibits an assembly of five or more persons and holding of public meetings in an area. The intent of the law is to prevent danger to human life, health or safety or a disturbance of the public tranquility or a riot.

The Supreme Court’s in-house inquiry committee headed by Justice S A Bobde submitted its report on Monday, saying it “has found no substance” in the allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi by a woman formerly employed at the apex court. Copies of the report submitted by the committee were given to Gogoi and to the judge below him in seniority.

The protesters are demanding transparency in the process followed by the in-house inquiry committee and handing over a copy of the inquiry report to the complainant, as it was not made public.

After the in-house committee’s findings, the complainant released a statement saying: “I am alarmed at the conclusion arrived at by the in-house committee, as my accusation of sexual harassment at the workplace and the consequent relentless victimization and reprisals against me and my family are substantiated by documents and are verifiable.”

She also wrote a letter to the committee comprising Justices S A Bobde, Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra, saying that if a copy of the report was being given to the chief justice, directly or indirectly, she was entitled to a copy.

Protesters detained

The 17 protesters detained on Wednesday were not given much clarification by the police about how long they would be held but was released after four hours in custody. They were detained from 10:45 am to 3:30 pm (IST) on Tuesday.

Activist Anjali Bharadwaj, who was detained on Wednesday, told Asia Times: “The demand is for a sound process in the spirit of POSH” – the Prevention of Sexual Harassment policy for workplaces, enacted in 2013 – “and the Vishakha guidelines,” predecessor procedures dating from 1997.

Bharadwaj said the complainant “has not been given a copy of the report which was prepared by the three-member committee. There is a huge violation of natural justice as well because she was not allowed representation by a lawyer, there was no video recording, the proceedings were not accepted by her. We are saying a proper, independent inquiry should be made into the accusations and a copy of the report has to be provided to her so that she can challenge it if she likes.”

After opting out of the committee inquiry, the complainant had cited those circumstances – especially denial of her lawyer’s presence – as her reasons and had issued a press statement describing as “very frightening” the atmosphere of the panel.

The detainment of activists and lawyers stoked outrage, as they were protesting peacefully with placards and banners. The readiness of the police to wield water cannons and batons on Tuesday shocked the protesters.

The protests started at 10:30 am. Even before they could gain a bit of momentum, the police started rounding them up. Protesters said some male police manhandled the female protesters although the majority of the police were female. Even some journalists were taken to the police station in the process but they were let go ahead of the protesters.

Journalist Gaurav Sarkar tweeted saying he was picked up by the police as he was “taking a video of them pushing and manhandling protesters without giving any sort of explanation as to why.”

‘Curbing dissent’

“It was a perfectly peaceful protest on both days,” said Bharadwaj. “We are asking how the chief justice of India can be above the law of the land. There has to be a system to take care of allegations against judges. The credibility of the judiciary is at stake and people are not even being allowed to protest in democratic ways. This is stifling of people’s voices and dissent.”

As India’s general elections are in progress, Section 144 has been imposed on Parliament House, North and South Block and their surrounding areas for 60 days until May 16. Activist Aysha Khan, who was detained on both days of the protest, said the police detained protesters and pushed them into vans and buses on Wednesday morning even after they said they will protest peacefully and not raise slogans.

Among the protesters detained in the two days were prominent theater artist Maya Rao, writer and academic Nandini Sundar, historian Uma Chakravarti, women’s rights activist Annie Raja and Amrita Johari.

The complainant’s lawyer Advocate Vrinda Grover said she stood by her client’s statements. In her reaction to the in-house committee’s report, the complainant said she was “extremely scared and terrified because the In-House Committee, despite having all material placed before them, appears to have given me no justice or protection.”

She also pointed out: “I am not aware whether any of the other persons [than CJI Gogoi] named in my complaint who would have knowledge of matters mentioned in the complaint, especially my victimization, were called by the committee for their evidence.”

The Women in Criminal Law Association in a statement called the detention of protestors “blatantly illegal” and said the court and its inquiry committee had “demonstrated that fundamental values of justice and equality can be ignored when considered inconvenient to those in power.”

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