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SC asks why intern took so long

New Delhi, Jan. 15: The Supreme Court today wondered why an intern took time to level allegations of sexual misconduct against former judge Swatanter Kumar and it refrained from ordering a probe straightaway.

But the court sought the response of the former judge, the Centre and the attorney-general to a plea to set up a permanent mechanism to deal with complaints against sitting as well as retired judges.

The apex court made it clear that it was not expressing any views now on the merits of the allegations against Kumar. “It is made clear that at this moment, we are not expressing any opinion on the averments/allegations made by the petitioner against the respondent No. 2 (Kumar),” the bench said.

A three-judge bench headed by P. Sathasivam, the Chief Justice of India, expressed apprehension that entertaining the girl’s plea might open the floodgates on similar complaints even after 20 years. The two other judges on the bench are Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiv Kirti Singh.

“Our grievance is that being a law graduate why did she choose to make a complaint after such a long time? Our apprehension is that someone will file a complaint after 20 years against a judge who had retired. Can we then call to this court a retired judge who must, by that time, be 85 years?” the bench asked senior counsel Harish Salve who appeared for the intern.

Salve said there was no institutional mechanism in the courts to deal with retired judges and hence there was need for a permanent institution.

In November, the Supreme Court had set up a 10-member anti-harassment cell but it covers only serving officials, including judges.

Salve agreed that there has to be a time frame of three months or so to entertain such complaints.

The girl had interned with Kumar in May 2011 and had levelled the allegations nearly three years or 32 months after two instances of sexual harassment were said to have taken place.

Salve told the court that a mechanism was needed, without which there would be “unpalatable” comments in the media. “There has to be a system in place to ensure secrecy,” he told the bench.

The comments came at a time some judicial officials had wondered why complainants are making public allegations through the media instead of going to police. Neither the girl who interned with Kumar nor the intern who spoke out against another former judge, Asok Kumar Ganguly, has filed a formal police complaint yet.

Neither Salve nor the intern’s counsel Vrinda Grover pressed for any directive on four of the five original demands, including a probe into the allegations of sexual harassment by the judge.

“We are inclined to issue notices only on your prayer D,” Justice Sathasivam said, to which Salve agreed.

In the petition, prayer D seeks an appropriate directive to set up a “permanent mechanism to inquire into the complaints of sexual harassment against all judicial officers, sitting or retired judges, whether while holding office or not”.

The bench then proceeded to issue the formal notices. The court has appointed senior counsel Fali Nariman and P.P. Rao as amicus curiae to assist it in the matter and posted the next hearing on February 14.

It also allowed an intervention application filed by Visakha, the Rajasthan-based NGO on whose PIL the apex court had passed the historic judgment in 1997 on anti-sexual harassment panels at work places.

Ambiguity now looms large. Kumar had faced reactions in the media as additional-solicitor general Indira Jaising and others had openly berated him.

If the court decides to set up a mechanism, the formation may take at least over two to three months. In the meantime, a Damocles sword will continue to hang over Kumar who is now heading the National Green Tribunal but had avoided attending office after the controversy broke.