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Courting trouble

The recent allegation of sexual misconduct against the Chief Justice of India cloud the office for the second time in two years

Judges, especially those of the Supreme Court, are next to God – they can do no wrong. This is what we have been told for ages. But the recent allegation of sexual misconduct against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi questions the probity of the top judicial office. It is for the second time in two years that the office of CJI has come under a cloud.

In January 2018, four senior judges of the Supreme Court – Justices Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, M B Lokur and Kurian Joseph – mounted a virtual revolt against the chief justice, listing a litany of problems that they said are afflicting the country’s highest court and warned they could destroy Indian democracy. The judges, including Gogoi, held a joint press conference to tell India that integrity of the institution was in jeopardy.

“Four of us have been telling the CJI Dipak Misra to correct his ways for the sake of the institution. We have spotted things in the last few months. Tried to intervene but to no avail. 20 years from now, nation should not say we sold our souls. We tried to collectively tell CJI Dipak Misra that certain things in the administration of the SC are not in order. Unfortunately our efforts failed. So we are saying this before the nation,” said Justice Chelameswar, who was at that time the second senior most judge of the SC.

The press conference was unprecedented, first of its kind in Independent India. Justice Gogoi had said: “Nobody is breaking the rank; it’s a discharge of debt to the nation which we have done.”

The judges raised two major concerns – first, regarding the manner in which then CJI was constituting benches for important cases, and second, regarding finalisation of the Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) for appointment of judges which was still pending with the government.

In the first case, the CJI’s exercise of powers as the master of the roster was questioned for being against well-settled conventions, with allegations of hand-picked benches being constituted for politically sensitive cases. Given that the Indian Supreme Court has a tendency of speaking in different voices through multiple benches, as well as the chronic backlog of cases, this administrative function of the CJI potentially has the power to influence the outcome of cases.

Regarding appointments, the judges expressed their displeasure that the MoP was not considered final yet, with governmental inaction being allowed to stall the process. According to them, the Centre’s silence on the issue, several months after the court had finalised the MoP and sent it across, should have been construed as approval.

A little over one year later, the CJI is again under a cloud. This time the charge is more serious. A former junior court assistant sent a very detailed account of the alleged sexual misconduct by Gogoi to all the judges of the court. In the letter, the 35-year-old former SC staff wrote about the victimisation she, her husband and their family have faced since she spurned what she claimed were inappropriate advances by the judge last October.

“I am requesting the Hon’ble Judges of the Supreme Court to constitute a special enquiry committee of senior retired judges of the Hon’ble Supreme Court to enquire into these charges of sexual harassment and consequent victimisation,” she wrote.

The secretary general of the Supreme Court, in a common email sent to reporters who had contacted Justice Gogoi to get his response to the former employee’s charges, said the allegations by the woman – who served as a junior court assistant in Justice Gogoi’s court for two years, from October, 2016 to October, 2018 – were “completely and absolutely false and scurrilous and are totally denied.”

According to the woman’s affidavit, the alleged incidents of harassment happened on October 10 and 11, 2018. The woman has since been dismissed from service and seen her whole life fall apart.

The woman was dismissed from service on December 21, 2018, after a disciplinary enquiry found her guilty of three charges: one, that she showed “reluctance and questioned the decision of senior officers” when she was asked to sit in the Admin Materials section; two, that she tried to “bring influence” from “unacceptable quarters” to exert pressure on her supervisors who changed her seat; and three, that she “unauthorisedly absented herself from duty” on November 17 and showed “insubordination, indiscipline and lack of devotion to duty”.

A week after she was dismissed, her husband and one of her brothers-in-law – also a constable in Delhi police – were suspended from service on December 29, 2018. The reason was not specified at the time.

After the letter bomb, the Supreme Court has set up a committee led by Justice SA Bobde and including Justice Indira Banerjee, and another inquiry headed by retired judge, Justice AK Patnaik, to look into the allegations of a conspiracy against the CJI. Justice Patnaik’s panel will probe lawyer Utsav Bain’s allegations that there was a larger conspiracy to frame the CJI.

The three-judge bench that ordered the inquiry also ordered the chiefs of Central Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence Bureau, and commissioner of Delhi Police to assist Justice Patnaik as and when he needed them.

Several people, including the complainant, have misgivings about the fairness of the inquiry headed by Justice Bobde. It comprises judges alone; is headed by a man; and its report will have to be submitted to the full court which, according to newspaper reports, has already rallied behind the CJI.

There are questions and more questions on the case. The former CJI faced an unsuccessful attempt to impeach him (the first ever impeachment attempt against a sitting Chief Justice of India). Justice Gogoi restored some public confidence in the administration of justice in his tenure as the CJI before the letter bomb exploded.

The case will unfold when the two inquiry committees submit their reports. There are fears of an unfair investigation but those are just fears. There’s no reason to believe that the Justice Bobde committee will not ensure justice without fear or favour but the office of the CJI has been besmirched with these allegations.

And that is the saddest part of this episode.

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