The Chief Justice of India (CJI) has denied allegations that he sexually harassed an employee. He did this by taking an unprecedented step of convening a special bench to deny charges saying they were baseless and part of a “larger conspiracy.” Now, a panel led by Justice SA Bobde will conduct an inquiry.
The CJI, by taking the step of convening a hearing in which he presided over, involving serious allegations against him, is odd to say the least. He made his case by portraying himself as the victim and referring to the damage to his reputation. This took place, while neither the woman, nor any legal representative from her side was present. Apurva Vishwanath, in a column
for the Print writes on the reaction –
“The judiciary has always failed the victim when sexual harassment allegations are made against one of its own. CJI Gogoi’s case has not been handled any differently so far. By ignoring the issue after responding with haste, anger and paranoia, the Supreme Court will further dent whatever is left of its moral authority.
The woman, a former junior court assistant, came forward with the allegations and said she and her family were victimised, in a complaint that was sent to all the Supreme Court judges. The affidavit sent last Friday lays out
the trauma she and her family had to face in light of the incidents which she detailed
as taking place last October.
The woman details in the affidavit a pattern of Justice Gogoi mentoring and taking interest in her career to earn her trust and eventually bringing her in to his inner circle; enquiring about her family and helping them on professional matters. According to the woman, she was one of two employees with whom the Justice shared his personal number and would message her after work hours and one day even asked her to delete the messages he had sent.
She then started working from the Justices’ residence office, which is where things took a turn. In the affidavit, she describes the behaviour of Gogoi increasingly making her feel uncomfortable and on October 10 and 11 she says was when the incidents took place – “The CJI asked me to come and stand next to him; he got up from his chair. The CJI then asked me, “What can you do for me?” The CJI then slid his hand from the back of my head, along my back to my hipline, till my lower back” She then details the incident the following day of the 11th - “he then took my hands into his and told me that my hands smell nice, he then pinched my cheeks…He told me “hold me”, he did not let go of me despite the fact that I froze and tried to get out of his embrace.
In the following weeks, the woman was transferred multiple times and in November, she was issued a memo that detailed a disciplinary enquiry was being initiated against her. She was arrested in a bribery case for which she is currently out on bail, prior to which members of her family were either suspended or dismissed from their respective government jobs.
Complicating things further was a plea filed in the Supreme Court on Monday by an advocate claiming he was offered Rs 1.5 crore to frame false case of sexual harassment against Justice Gogoi. He said a man, who claimed to represent the woman who came forward with the allegations, asked him to arrange a press conference.
Response & Reaction
The Bar Council of India (BCI) strongly defended Gogoi and said the allegations made against him were false and cooked up. Manan Kumar Mishra, BCI chairperson said in part, “These kinds of allegations and actions should not be encouraged. This is an attempt to malign the institution. Entire bar is standing in solidarity with the Chief Justice of India.” The National Green Tribunal (NGT) Bar Association also defended Gogoi as did the Supreme Court’s Employee Association.
Some groups however, were taken aback by the reaction of Justice Gogoi and the steps he took once the allegations became public. The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) called on the apex court to “collate all the materials and facts”, while the Supreme Court Advocates?On-Record Association sought the appointment of a committee to investigate the matter. Mihira Sood, a lawyer at the Supreme Court, in a column
for the Huffington Post, writes on the response from the legal community –
“The Attorney General and Solicitor General seem to have forgotten that there exists something called separation of powers, demarcating clear boundaries between the executive and the judiciary. Their rush to defend the CJI is deeply troubling. If there is any threat to the integrity of the judiciary, it is not from such allegations, but from within.
The reaction from Justice Gogoi saying the judiciary is under threat is striking considering his predecessor was also under the scanner when it came to assigning cases. Gogoi was among those senior justices who took part in the press conference where they publically spoke out about their concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary. The Hindu editorial
makes it clear the position Gogoi has put himself in –
“…it is clear that the CJI ought not to have presided over the special Bench that took up the matter that concerned himself. It is ironical that as one who was aggrieved that senior-most judges were kept out of Benches handling major cases, he went on to form a Bench that included himself but not the two senior-most judges after him.
The allegations are serious and the formation of an independent panel is the right decision. However, the actions from Justice Gogoi in the immediate aftermath was nothing more than an attempt to try and steer the conversation away from the allegation and towards a false sense of danger to the judiciary arising from the very allegations against him.
A position as lofty as the CJI warrants some sense of decorum and the larger collegiate should remain impartial, else that would be a danger to the independence of the judiciary. The woman in question surely knew the onslaught she would receive but refused to remain silent. This should not become another example of the courts failing victims of sexual harassment, but the initial reaction show signs of it already.
More columns by Varun Sukumar