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Chief Justice to hear law intern’s plea
Girl seeks changes in system dealing with harassment complaints

New Delhi, Jan. 13: The Supreme Court will hear on Wednesday a public interest petition filed by a law intern who has alleged sexual harassment by Swatanter Kumar, a former Supreme Court judge and the current chairperson of the National Green Tribunal.

A bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi will take up the matter.

The intern, who has been described as “Ms X” in the petition to protect her identity, has raised questions that go beyond individual cases and seek to bring about changes in the mechanism dealing with sexual harassment complaints. (See chart)

In the petition filed through counsel Purshotham Tripathi and Vrinda Grover, the girl said the petition raised an issue of great public importance and related to women’s right to work with dignity.

Besides seeking an in-house probe into the alleged sexual harassment said to have taken place in 2011, the girl has sought a rethink on a Supreme Court decision that its administrative side would not entertain sexual harassment complaints against retired judges.

The petition also sought a change in the current rule that limits the ambit of anti-sexual harassment cells of courts to alleged incidents that took place within the court precincts.

The apex court needs to broadly define that the workplace in the judiciary should not be confined only to the precincts of the courts but also any place visited by the lawyer, law students, or any other women arising out of or during the course of work, including transportation provided by the court for undertaking any journey in connection with employment, the petition said.

She complained that there was no mechanism to file complaints against sexual harassment till last year, despite the apex court’s own direction in the 1997 Visakha judgment.

The petition questioned the constitutionality, legality and legitimacy of the full court resolution of December 5 and a letter issued by the secretary-general of the Supreme Court that said complaints against a former judge would not be entertained.

The order was passed after a Supreme Court panel looked into allegations levelled by another intern against former judge Asok Kumar Ganguly, who resigned recently from the helm of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission.

Both the interns are alumni of the National University of Juridical Sciences in Calcutta. The intern who has complained against Kumar had also interned under Ganguly. She had worked with Ganguly for a month in 2011 before joining Kumar.

The intern said in the petition today: “The petitioner makes it clear that she is filing this petition in public interest, so that there is an acknowledgement of the truth of the sexual harassment that she had suffered and a declaration that her fundamental rights have been violated.

“She truly believes that such a declaration which acknowledges the truth that sexual harassment has occurred even in high places will prevent other women being sexually harassed in the future.”

The petition said Kumar had tried to reach an “agreement” with her in lieu of sexual favours, to which she did not succumb.

The petition added: “That between 16 May 2011 and 29 May 2011, in the course of fulfilling her duties while interning with the judge, the petitioner was on more than one occasion subjected to sexual harassment at the workplace by the judge, including unwelcome physical contact and advances and suggestions of a quid pro quo arrangement.

“These incidents of sexual harassment by the judge filled the petitioner with fear, anxiety, alarm and made her work environment hostile and intimidating. Apprehensive that these incidents of sexual harassment were escalating, the petitioner, fearful of her personal safety, decided to abruptly end her internship.

“That deeply distressed by these incidents of sexual harassment, the petitioner promptly informed her parents on 28 May 2011, that due to concerns for her personal safety, she had decided to discontinue the internship with the judge and requested her father to make travel arrangements for her to return to Kolkata. On 30 May 2011, the petitioner took a flight from Delhi to Kolkata.”

She submitted in the court a true copy of the purported flight ticket from Delhi.

Former judge Kumar, who did not attend the tribunal today on health grounds, was not available for comment.

However, a legal notice issued on his behalf last week had said the intern “had chosen to work for hardly a period of 3-4 days” at the then judge’s office. The legal notice to some media outlets speaks of an alleged error committed by the intern regarding an invitation to a global conference, which caused “grave embarrassment” to the then judge.

“The complainant who caused the embarrassment did not continue to work thereafter and cited an illness in her family as the reason to do so,” the notice said, adding that the then judge did not ask her to continue.

Today, the Supreme Court bench, before which the matter was mentioned in the morning by senior counsel Harish Salve, said: “We will list the matter for hearing on Wednesday.”

In his brief submission, Salve pointed out: “Your Lordships, this is a petition by an intern against a retired judge of this court. The matter needs to be put to rest for once and all.”