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Above: The recent turn of events has cast a shadow over the apex court; (inset) CJI Ranjan Gogoi/Photo: Anil Shakya

Following a complaint against the CJI in a sexual harassment case, an SC in-house panel which probed it has come to the conclusion that there was no substance in it

By India Legal Bureau

Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.” This maxim has been repeated ad nauseam at several fora ever since a three-member in-house committee of the Supreme Court gave a clean chit to Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi in a sexual harassment case.

The committee said it found “no substance in the allegations” made by a former woman staffer of the apex court that the CJI had sexually harassed her and after she rebuffed his advances, she and her family were targeted and victimised. The in-house panel comprised Justice SA Bobde, the second most-senior judge in the SC, Justice Indu Malhotra and Justice Indira Banerjee.

“The In-House Committee has submitted its report dated 5.5.2019 in accordance with the in-house procedure to the next senior judge competent to receive the report and also sent the copy to the judge concerned, namely, the chief justice of India,” a press release signed by the Supreme Court’s secretary general stated. Referring to the Court’s judgment in the 2003 Indira Jaising case, the panel added that its report constituted a part of the in-house procedure and therefore it was not liable to be made public.

Protests followed the announcement, not just from women’s groups and activists, but several senior advocates. The police imposed Section 144 around the precincts of the apex court and several lawyers and activists were detained.

In a statement released to the press, the complainant said that she was not just “highly disappointed and dejected” to learn that the in-house committee appointed by the Supreme Court found “no substance” in her sexual harassment complaint, but also felt that “gross injustice” had been done. “The committee has announced that I will not even be provided a copy of the report, and so I have no way of comprehending the reasons and basis for the summary dismissal of my complaint of sexual harassment and victimisation. Today, I am on the verge of losing faith in the idea of justice,” she said.

Later in the day, several senior advocates appearing on TV shows said the report could be challenged not just by the aggrieved person but by anybody. The general refrain was that the charges were not against any ordinary person but against the chief justice.

Far from bringing about a resolution of the issue, the in-house committee seems to have planted more doubts in the public mind. Delivering the Nani Palkhivala lecture on May 8, former Union minister Arun Shourie alleged that the inquiry panel acted “like members of a club” and in the process, had done “injustice to the complainant, the chief justice and the Supreme Court as an institution”.

From the moment the complainant’s charges were made public, a series of missteps led the public to wonder if the apex court, while dealing with a matter regarding one of its own, would live up to the lofty standards it sets for others. An unscheduled meeting of judges during the Easter weekend when the controversy broke out was followed by the setting up of a probe committee. However, when the complainant pointed out that one of the judges on the committee, Justice NV Ramana, was a personal friend of the CJI, he recused himself. This was coupled with the setting up of the Justice AS Patnaik committee to probe whether the complaint was part of a larger conspiracy by former “disgruntled employees” and others to bring down the CJI.

This was followed by the complainant talking about being intimidated by the atmosphere during her two sittings before the SC panel, which, incidentally, did not concede her demands. These were that she be allowed to be accompanied by a lawyer and that the probe committee proceedings be video-recorded. She later told an online magazine that she asked for a lawyer’s assistance only because her right ear was fully hearing impaired while she could only partially hear from her left. “During the proceedings, they would ask me, ‘Do you understand?’ I would say, ‘Lordship, can you please repeat?’ You know, it scared me. How many times can I ask them to repeat? That was one of the reasons I was asking for a support person. But they did not allow that.”

She refused to appear before the panel’s subsequent meetings. Later, reports appeared in the press of Justices DY Chandrachud and RF Nariman meeting the three-member panel to convey their reservations about the probe continuing despite the decision of the complainant to refuse to participate in the proceedings. But the apex court secretary general rubbished the reports. “It is most unfortunate that a leading newspaper has chosen to state that Justice RF Nariman and Justice DY Chandrachud together met Justice SA Bobde on Friday evening i.e on 3rd May 2019. This is wholly incorrect. The in-House committee which is deliberating on the issue concerning Hon’ble Chief Justice of India deliberates on its own without any input from any other Hon’ble judge of this Court,” read his statement.

Within two weeks after it was set up, the committee submitted its report, but it will be kept under wraps. A statement by the apex court said that “as part of the in-house procedure, the report would not be placed in the public domain. Copies of the report were given to Chief Justice Gogoi and the next senior judge competent to receive the report”. Justice Ramana, the third most senior judge, was not handed the report as he had recused himself from the committee. Also left out was the complainant herself who will probably never find out the grounds on which the panel had come to the conclusion that there was “no substance”  in the 93-para sworn affidavit in which she had extensively detailed her ordeal.

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