Unprecedented: Sexual harassment allegation against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi

A former junior court assistant has said the CJI took 'undue interest in me and supported me professionally, as his motive was to make sexual advances'

By The Telegraph and PTI in New Delhi
  • Published 20.04.19, 9:32 PM
  • Updated 21.04.19, 12:55 PM
  • 5 mins read
  •  
Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi. Telegraph file photo

It burst like a bombshell on the legal world. Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi on Saturday morning called an extraordinary hearing after a former staff member of the top court levelled sexual harassment charges against him. 

The former junior court assistant's charges are grave and unprecedented. She has alleged that Chief Justice Gogoi made "unwanted" advances twice last year that were "well planned for a fairly long period of time".

Chief Justice Gogoi has called the allegations "unbelievable" and said in court that "there has to be a bigger, bigger force behind this".  

The woman did not mention anywhere in her affidavit that she had filed a police complaint against the CJI. She said she had approached the National Human Rights Commission and the Delhi Commission for Women. She also sent her sworn affidavit - dated April 18, 2019 - to the residences of all 22 Supreme Court judges and selected media outlets, after which the top court held the extraordinary hearing this morning, presided by CJI Gogoi himself. The bench did not pass any order.

She appealed to the judges to set up a special inquiry committee of retired Supreme Court judges to investigate the charges.

The allegations, unprecedented in the history of the Supreme Court and the office of the Chief Justice of India, have come when the country is in the middle of a bitterly fought general election. The timing of the development has baffled many. 

This is the second time during the tenure of the current BJP-led government that the higher judiciary is in the middle of developments that would reflect negatively on the country's topmost court and the legal system. In January 2018, four Supreme Court judges - Justice Gogoi was among them - held a news conference to point out problematic practices of the court. Their allegations were directed at then CJI Dipak Misra, who is Chief Justice Gogoi's predecessor. 

The reactions to today's development on social media were primarily in two directions. Some saw the development as #MeToo in the Supreme Court. Others said there was political motivation at play, possibly taking into consideration the Chief Justice of India's own remarks in court during an extraordinary hearing on Saturday.    

What was unusual was how the bench documented what happened in Court No. 1 on Saturday morning. The written record of proceedings had the names of Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna, not CJI Gogoi although he presided over the bench.

The court said it would "refrain from passing any judicial order" and left it to the "wisdom of the media" to show restraint. It said that "wild and scandalous allegations undermine... the independence of the judiciary". Nowhere in the proceedings was the Chief Justice of India mentioned, nor the allegations against him. The record of proceedings said this was "a matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of judiciary".

The allegations that the woman has listed are many and grave. How - if or when the court deals with the case - the proceedings will roll is unclear. 

This website spoke to two lawyers - Rebecca John and Sanjay Hegde. They labelled the situation "unprecedented" as no CJI has faced allegations of sexual harassment while in office before. Without going into the veracity of the allegations, they said there has to be a process in place to tackle such a situation as the allegations need to be probed impartially.

In her affidavit, the woman has cited two instances of sexual harassment - on October 10 and 11, 2018. She also mentioned a later instance when CJI Gogoi allegedly asked her if she would want to work with him again, and she refused to.

Justice Gogoi was sworn in as Chief Justice of India on October 3, 2018. He retires on November 17, 2019.

According to the woman's account, at the time she supposedly came to know him, he was not the CJI, but a Supreme Court judge.

The woman has given details about alleged harassment that her family, especially her police constable husband, faced after she spurned the Chief Justice's alleged sexual advances.

She said that although she was a junior member in the Supreme Court staff, Justice Gogoi gave her the opportunity to take up more responsible tasks. The unwanted sexual advances and sexual harassment "was well planned for a fairly long period of time, before it actually occurred. In hindsight I say that it is clear that the CJI took and undue interest in me and supported me professionally, as his motive was to make sexual advances me."

She alleged that when she spurned Gogoi's advances, he unleashed "his wrath on me and my family".

She said that she was ultimately dismissed from service in December 2018 on the basis of trumped up charges and a departmental inquiry, where she was not given the opportunity to defend herself.

She also wrote that her constable husband and brother-in-law were suspended from Delhi police after she spurned Gogoi's advances and this was "part of a well planned strategy to intimidate me".

On Saturday morning, Chief Justice Gogoi said a larger conspiracy was behind the allegations and he would not stoop too low even to deny these allegations.

The apex court, which held the hearing for about 30 minutes, said the independence of the judiciary was under "very serious threat" and "unscrupulous allegations" of sexual harassment had been levelled against the Chief Justice of India as some "bigger force" wanted to "deactivate" the office of the CJI.

The judiciary "cannot be made a scapegoat" and the media should not publish the woman's complaint without verifying its truth, the bench said, but also left it to the "wisdom of media" to show restraint.

CJI Gogoi pointed out that the issue had cropped up when a bench headed by him is scheduled to hear "many, many sensitive cases" next week. This triggered several conspiracy theories on social media.

Although the Chief Justice was heading the bench, he left it to Justice Mishra to take a call on passing a judicial order.

While speaking about a "bigger force" being involved the matter, the CJI mentioned the Prime Minister's Office. "There has to be a bigger, bigger force behind this," he was quoted as saying by PTI. "There are two offices -- one of the Prime Minister and one of the CJI. They (people behind this controversy) want to deactivate the office of the CJI," he said, according to PTI. "This is the reward a CJI gets after 20 years of service," he added.

"I will sit on this chair and discharge my judicial functions without any fear. I will decide the cases in the seven months (of his remaining tenure as the CJI). I will do that," he said.

This website asked Rebecca John, who has represented Priya Ramani in the defamation case filed by M.J. Akbar, about the court's proceeding today, during which CJI Gogoi was present. “Even if one were not to give any credence to the allegations, it was important for the Supreme Court to test those allegations. You can’t act as judge, jury and the executioner and not test the allegations.”

At this stage, "these are only allegations", John said. "But even if one were to suspect these allegations you have to put a process in place... You are not a judge in your own case," she said, but also added that the CJI "has not signed any order at the end of the day".

Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde said: “Never before has a sitting chief justice been accused of this.” He too said that the Supreme Court would have to set up a process to deal with this matter because "judges don’t come under the normal gender sensitisation committees". “Vishaka guidelines apply to all workplaces, but in so far as allegations against judges with constitutional immunity is concerned, you have to have some other procedure,” he emphasised.

Whether the CJI should have done this sitting in court or whether he should have just issued a statement, that’s a personal decision to take, Hegde said. "But from now on the institutional process has to take over.” 

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