Source: BloombergQuint

Chief Justice Of India Faces Sexual Harassment Charges - The Story So Far

On Saturday, India woke up to yet another controversy surrounding the country’s apex court. An employee of the court has alleged the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi sexually harassed her. The Chief Justice labelled the allegations as a plot and a threat to the independence of the judiciary.

This comes fourteen months after an unprecedented press conference by four Supreme Court judges in which they raised questions regarding the leadership of then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra. Gogoi was among the four judges at the press conference.

Here’s what we know about the sexual harassment allegations and the Supreme Court’s response to them...

Sexual Harassment Allegations Against CJI

On April 19, the complainant sent letters to 22 sitting judges of the Supreme Court detailing her experiences. She said she was a employed by the Supreme Court in May 2014 and served as a court assistant from 2015 till December 2018 when her services were terminated, according to the letter a copy of which is with BloombergQuint.

Around the same time her husband and his brother, both head constables with the Delhi police were suspended, she claimed. Another brother of her husband was given a job in group D category in the Supreme Court under the Chief Justice’s discretionary quota and his employment was terminated in January 2019, the letter alleged. She claimed a frivolous FIR was registered against her in March that led to her detention and harassment by the police.

As you will see from the facts narrated, my and my family’s victimisation is a consequence of my not agreeing to the sexual advances made by the Chief Justice of India, Justice Ranjan Gogoi.
Complainant’s letter to 22 judges

The letter to the judges was accompanied by an affidavit in which the complainant detailed the alleged harassment incidents.

The affidavit describes the nature of her work at the Supreme Court and interactions with Justice Gogoi. It states that in August 2018, before Justice Gogoi was appointed chief justice he transferred her to his residence office.

It also lists two instances of alleged inappropriate behaviour by the chief justice involving physical contact.

The first alleged incident took place late last year according to the affidavit, in which the judge allegedly commented on the complainant’s clothing and then touched her inappropriately.

In another incident in October the judge allegedly hugged the complainant. The affidavit claims the complainant pushed him away and left the room and was called back and warned not discuss the incident with anyone. She was asked to write a note that suggested she had asked to hold him.

Thereafter my work life changed dramatically overnight. My victimisation and harassment began that led to my final dismissal on the basis of a departmental enquiry report that charge sheeted me on completely motivated and frivolous grounds. I was transferred arbitrarily three times to different departments within a short span of a few weeks.  
Complainant’s affidavit

The affidavit states that during the harassment that followed, including the suspension of her husband and his brother, the complainant’s phone was seized by the police and she fears it may have been tampered with.

“In hindsight I say that it is clear that the CJI took an undue interest in me and supported me professionally, as his motive was to make sexual advances me,” the complainant states in the affidavit.

She has sought a special enquiry by retired judges to probe the matter.

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.  
Complainant’s letter to 22 judges
Justice Ranjan Gogoi. (Source: PTI)
Justice Ranjan Gogoi. (Source: PTI)

Also read: ‘CJI Ranjan Gogoi Sexually Harassed Me’: Former Supreme Court Employee, SC Secretary General’s Office Denies Allegations

Special Hearing By Supreme Court

On Saturday, the morning after the complainant’s letter and affidavit were sent to 22 judges, the Supreme Court held a special hearing on the mention of Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general of India. A three-judge bench presided over the hearing, led by Chief Justice Gogoi and Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjeev Khanna.

Curiously, the hearing was listed as a ‘matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of judiciary’.

The Chief Justice of India acknowledged media queries sent to him regarding the allegations and said, “All I would like to say is this, undoubtedly every employee is treated fairly and decently,” as reported by Live Law. He also mentioned that the complainant had pending criminal cases against her.

Justice Gogoi then mentioned his 20 years of “selfless service” to the court and nation.

More after 20 years or selfless service. It is unbelievable...with a bank balance of 6,80,000 that is in my bank account. This is my total asset. When I started as a judge, I had much hope. On the verge of retirement I have 6 lakhs. This is the reward CJI gets after 20 years , a bank balance of Rs 6,80,000. This I thought should be told from highest seat of judiciary.
Chief Justice Gogoi in the Apr. 20 hearing (Source: Live Law)

He also claimed the allegations were a “plot” to “deactivate the office of the CJI” and an attempt the threaten the independence of the judiciary.

Independence of judiciary is under very very serious threat. If the judges have to work under these conditions, good people will never come to this office. I have to say this to the citizens if the country, judiciary of the country is under serious threat. But regardless of that I’ll continue to function.
Chief Justice Gogoi in the Apr. 20 hearing (Source: Live Law)

The Chief Justice’s comments found support from the Attorney General and the Solicitor General of India who were also present in court. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said it “sounds like a blackmail technique”.

The bench refrained from passing any order but, in what can only be described as a statement, signed by only the other two judges, the court requested the media to show restraint.

“Having considered the matter, we refrain from passing any judicial order at this moment leaving it to the wisdom of the media to show restraint, act responsibly as is expected from them and accordingly decide what should or should not be published as wild and scandalous allegations undermine and irreparably damage reputation and negate independence of judiciary. We would therefore at this juncture leave it to the media to take off such material which is undesirable.”

Earlier in the hearing, it was decided that an appropriate bench would hear the sexual harassment allegations matter.

Also read: Chief Justice Gogoi Says Sexual Harassment Allegations Are Attempt To Undermine Judicial Independence

Due Process At The Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court Secretary General has in a statement to some media platforms said the sexual harassment allegations are “false” and “mischievous”.

“It appears that these false allegations are being made as a pressure tactics to somehow come out of the various proceedings which have been initiated in law, against her and her family, for their on wrong doings. It is also very possible that there are mischievous forces behind all this, with an intention to malign the institution,” the statement said.

But the sudden hearing, led by none other than the accused Chief Justice, has raised eyebrows about due process in such matters of alleged sexual harassment.

There is no process going on, said Alok Prasanna Kumar, lawyer and senior resident fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy to BloombergQuint.

If they call it a hearing, that is a joke. You cannot just call the court and sit and say the judiciary is being attacked. Nobody has filed a case there is no issue to be discussed and if there is an issue to be decided why are you (CJI) sitting on the bench? Even if you are sitting on the bench, why did you not sign the order?
Alok Prasanna Kumar, Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy

Over a decade ago, the Supreme Court of India itself set down guidelines to address sexual harassment at the workplace. The acclaimed Vishaka judgment thereafter became the basis of a new law on the prevention of sexual harassment of women in the workplace. POSH, as it’s commonly referred to, provides for the process in which sexual harassment complaints should be addressed, investigated and acted upon.

To be clear, the Supreme Court has its own guidelines on how to address complaints of sexual harassment at the court. Effective 2015, these guidelines mandate the setting up of an internal sub-committee to conduct a fact finding inquiry. The three member committee should have majority women and one external member. The guidelines provide for the complainant and respondent (accuser and accused) to present their case, and for the committee to summon documents, complete the enquiry in 90 days and recommend action to the court’s Gender Sensitization Internal Complaints Committee (GSICC).

While the complainant has filed complaints with the Delhi Commission for Women and the National Human Rights Commission of India, according to her affidavit, there is no mention whether she has also filed a complaint with the Supreme Court’s GSICC. It is also not clear if the same Supreme Court guidelines apply to sitting judges or the chief justice.

In which case should the court follow a different process to determine the veracity of the allegations?

Regardless of the fact that he is the Chief Justice of India , the ordinary law of the land must take its course, said Indira Jaising, senior advocate at the Supreme Court. The woman in question is entitled to due process of law and entitled to be heard. Her version is supported by a sworn affidavit and must be investigated, Jaising said to BloombergQuint.

Jaising also questioned the special hearing held on Saturday.

  • Why a special Bench was constituted on a Saturday?
  • Why the Chief Justice sat on it? No man can be a judge in his own cause after all
  • Why he hand picked one of the junior most judges Justice Sanjeev Khanna who leapfrogged over 33 judges senior to him?
  • Why were the senior most judges not chosen if at all a bench was to be constituted today?
  • Why could this not wait till Monday?
There is in any case no procedure to enquire into allegations of sexual harassment against a Chief Justice of India. Hence she (complainant) is entitled to demand an impartial high power investigation into her allegations. In my opinion it is in the best interest of the Chief Justice of India to have the matter impartially Investigated by a high power committee. This is needed in interest of maintaining the credibility of the institution as a whole.
Indira Jaising, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court

Jaising emphasised that she was not commenting on the truth or otherwise of the allegations. That is for a competent court to decide, she said.

Also read: Indira Jaising Questions Court’s Handling Of Allegations Against Chief Justice

Veteran lawyer and former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee told BloombergQuint he found the allegations “ unbelievable and absurd”. And while he agreed that the chief justice should not have commented on them in Saturday’s hearing, he noted that another bench will decide the matter. “So the Chief Justice is not being a judge in his own cause.”

Due process in this matter is difficult to devise because it concerns with allegations against the most senior decision maker in the country, said lawyer Karuna Nundy to BloombergQuint.

The disparity in power is tremendous where there is a junior court officer making an allegation against the Chief Justice of India, she said. However, she has sworn this on oath, Nundy added, referring to the complainant’s affidavit.

Of course, the most rigorous process needs to be employed to determine the truth. However, any decision maker whether it is an ICC or whether it is another judge of the Supreme Court, they will be junior to the Chief Justice. So, ideally what the complainant has asked for, a special inquiry committee...should be set up and a swift resolution brought to the matter.
Karuna Nundy, Advocate, Supreme Court

Nundy agreed with Jaising that it was “unfortunate that the Chief Justice today spoke about the allegations”.

“Ideally a more detailed statement could have been issued through the secretary general and the case could have gone to next senior most judge to decide the future course of the case.”