Complainant Against CJI Withdraws From Inquiry Panel, Citing Lack of Sensitivity

The 35-year-old woman told the panel she had hoped it would approach her in a "sensitive" manner, not cause "further fear, anxiety and trauma".

New Delhi: The former Supreme Court employee who has accused Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment said on Tuesday that that she will not be participating in any further hearings of the in-house committee that has been looking into the complaint.

In a letter to the committee and in a statement to the media, she said she found the committee intimidating and that it did not treat her sensitively. In a statement released to the media, the woman said there is a need to adopt a “procedure that would ensure fairness and equality in the highly unequal circumstances” that she is placed in. “I had hoped that the approach of the committee towards me would be sensitive and not one that would cause me further fear, anxiety and trauma,” she said.

The former junior court assistant has already appeared before the inquiry committee – comprising Justice S.A. Bobde, Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice Indu Malhotra – twice on April 26 and April 29. She appeared before the panel for the third time on Tuesday, when she walked out due to “to serious concerns and reservations”. She said the panel’s questions caused her more “fear and trauma” and was unsure if the process would help end the “stress and harassment” she has faced.

The former junior assistant said that she was “compelled to walk out” of the three-member committee’s proceedings on Tuesday because the judges who are part of it did not seem to appreciate the fact that “this was not an ordinary complaint but was a complaint of sexual harassment against a sitting CJI” and refused to allow her to be accompanied by a lawyer or support person during her deposition.

She said she put all her concerns down in writing in the form of a letter which she handed over to the three judges on Tuesday morning and was warned that if she withdrew from the proceedings, the inquiry panel would reach its findings without her participation:

“I gave this letter to the committee just as the hearing commenced this morning. I told the committee that it would not be possible for me to participate any further if I was not allowed the presence of my lawyer/support person. But this request was still refused by the committee and I was told that if I didn’t participate they would proceed ex parte. I was told that there were certain questions on facts that they wanted me to answer. I declined to participate any further in the absence of my lawyer/support person. The committee also asked me if I wanted to present any witnesses. I informed them that almost all the witnesses are working in the Supreme Court of India and there is no likelihood of them being able to depose fearlessly before the committee. I also informed the committee today that due to my present health condition and personal circumstances, this kind of stress can be detrimental and harmful to me.” (emphasis added)

The Wire was among the four media outlets which reported the allegations first on April 20.

Also Read: Days After SC Sought Probe Into ‘Conspiracy’ Against CJI, Advocate’s Story Under Fire

She described how she was aggressively frisked when she first appeared before the inquiry committee on April 26 by policewomen, leaving her feeling humiliated and degraded. The former Supreme Court employee, whose name is being withheld, also claimed that she was followed by two men on a motorbike when she left the hearing.

The former employee said that she has noted down the partial number of the motor bike that followed her on the first day. Though she informed the committee of this, the judges did not take take it into consideration.

When she appeared before the panel on Monday, she said she was again followed, this time by four men on two motorbikes. On this occasion, she also complained to the SHO of Tughlaq Road police station, who initially agreed to provide security to her. She claimed however, that after the SHO spoke to inspector Pankaj Singh posted at the Supreme Court guesthouse at 34 Prithviraj Road where the panel has been holding its meetings, he refused to provide security, saying, “aap to protected hi hai” (you are already protected).

The 35-year-old woman, who mentioned in her letter to the committee that she is from a Scheduled Caste community and has had to struggle especially hard to accomplish what she had professionally, asked the external committee to look into the complaint given the fact that the allegations are against the “highest seat of justice”.

She added she had agreed to appear before the current in-house committee hoping that the judges would conduct a fair inquiry. Over the course of three hearings, however, she felt that the judges looked at her complaint more with suspicion than with sensitivity.

The committee denied her request that it hold its inquiry under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act and follow the Vishakha guidelines – which the Supreme Court had itself formulated and which were later incorporated into law.

The complainant has also said that the presence of a support person/lawyer was not allowed during the hearings, which made her feel stressed and intimidated. Finally, the woman said that her request to make audio and video recordings of the proceedings was not accepted, apart from not being given a copy of what was being taken on record by the committee.

She said she felt “overawed and scared” when she appeared before the committee. She said the three judges repeatedly told her how, even though she had a law degree, she did not know about the appeals procedure against her dismissal. In her letter, the woman said she only received her LLB degree in August 2018 and is inexperienced and not trained in law. The woman said she was also intimidated by the judges’ insistence to know why she took “so long” to file the complaint.

The former staffer says that when she responded to questions posed by the committee, the judges said, “aise nahin hota” (it cannot be like that).

She claimed that during the first hearing on April 26, Justice Bobde told her that it was an “informal proceeding”. Justice Bobde told the news agency PTI that the proceedings were not a “formal judicial proceeding”. He also said the there was no time-frame to complete the inquiry and the future course of action will depend on “what comes out of the inquiry” which will be “confidential”.

Also Read: Why the Supreme Court Has Found Itself in an Embarrassing Controversy

In a letter,  she said she was unsure what the nature of the inquiry committee was. In the first hearing, she was told that it was an “informal proceeding” and later that it was an “in-house procedure”. She was also unsure what the outcome of her participation would be and if she would get justice.

The woman asked that the proceedings be treated as a formal inquiry. She wanted the committee to follow the “letter and spirit of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act”.

The committee repeatedly asked her why she made the complaint of sexual harassment “so late”, the woman said. She said:

I found the atmosphere of the committee very frightening and I was very nervous because of being confronted and questioned by three Supreme Court Judges and without even the presence of my lawyer/support person. Also because of my impaired hearing I was at times unable to follow what was being dictated as my statement. I was also not shown what was being recorded and no copy of my statement recorded on 26th and 29th April has been given to me till date.

The woman has lost hearing in her right ear, which she attributes to the “stress and harassment” that she and her family has faced.

She said call detail records (CDR) and WhatsApp call and chat information of two numbers, allegedly used by CJI Ranjan Gogoi to contact her, would provide supporting evidence to her allegations. This request was apparently rejected by the committee during the first hearing on April 26, but was accepted on Tuesday.

She has termed as baseless allegations by advocate Utsav Bains that she was part of a “conspiracy”. The Supreme Court has asked Justice (retired) A.K. Patnaik to look into the allegations of a “conspiracy” by “fixers” against the CJI. The claims made by Bains have been questioned by senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan.

Previously, the woman had raised concerns about the panel. She said the Supreme Court’s special hearing on April 20, chaired by the CJI, “damaged her character” and Supreme Court judges and senior law officials declared her complaint as false without listening to her.

After she objected to Justice Ramana’s inclusion in the committee, the judge recused himself and was replaced by Justice Indu Malhotra. The former SC employee had requested a special inquiry committee comprising six former Supreme Court Justices instead of a “in-house” committee.

“I felt I was not likely to get justice from this committee and so I am no longer participating in the three judge committee proceedings,” she said.

The woman’s statement to the media has been attached below.

Complainant’s Press Note by The Wire on Scribd