New Delhi: Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi on Wednesday appeared before the in-house inquiry committee of three Supreme Court judges probing allegations of sexual harassment against him by a former woman employee of the apex court.
An official source told PTI that in the history of the Indian judiciary, this is the first time that a CJI has appeared before a committee over allegations of sexual harassment.
The in-house inquiry committee is headed by Justice S.A. Bobde, who is the senior-most judge in the Supreme Court after the CJI, and also comprises Justices Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee.
According to the source, a “letter of request” was issued to the CJI asking him to appear before the committee to present his side of the case.
Once the inquiry is completed, the committee will submit its report to the secretary general of the Supreme Court “in a sealed envelope,” Indian Express reported. Sources told the English daily that practice has been to not divulge to the public the findings of an in-house inquiry. The same procedure shall be followed in the current case.
The CJI appeared before the committee a day after the complainant in the case walked out of the inquiry proceedings on Tuesday and declined to participate in any further hearings, citing lack of sensitivity.
The 35-year-old woman raised four specific objections: that she was not allowed to have her lawyer accompany her, that there were no video or audio recordings of the committee proceedings, that she had not been given copies of her depositions and that she had not been informed of the procedure that the committee was following.
The committee, meanwhile, decided to proceed ex-parte – or carry on in her absence. According to the Indian Express report, the three judges made this decision on Tuesday.
In a press release, the complainant described as “very frightening” the atmosphere of the in-house inquiry committee and said she was also “scared of her safety” as she was followed by 2-4 men while returning from the proceedings. The woman also expressed apprehension that she was “not likely to get justice” from the panel which refused her request for the presence of her lawyer Vrinda Grover during the proceedings.
She added that there was a need to adopt a “procedure that would ensure fairness and equality in the highly unequal circumstances” she was 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,” the woman added.
The former junior court assistant – in a letter to the committee and in a press release on Tuesday – added that she had been forced to withdraw from the proceedings because the judges probing the case failed to acknowledged that “this was not an ordinary complaint but was a complaint of sexual harassment against a sitting CJI”.
In a blog post on Wednesday, lawyer Gautam Bhatia also noted that the three judges “have shown themselves unequipped to address – or even acknowledge – the bleeding heart of the problem: that this is a question of power.”
“And three judges who did finally conduct the in-house enquiry did not follow processes that were sensitive to the power imbalances in this case, but rather, it appears, quite the opposite.”
Soon after the allegations came to light, a three-judge bench headed by CJI on April 20 held an unprecedented hearing in the case. Describing the allegations of sexual harassment against him as “unbelievable”, CJI Gogoi had convened the extraordinary hearing at the Supreme Court during which he said a larger conspiracy was behind it and he would not stoop so low even to deny these allegations.
Justice Gogoi had said some “bigger force” wanted to “deactivate” the office of the CJI.
Additionally, hours after four media houses, including The Wire, published stories on the former SC employee’s allegations of sexual misconduct and victimisation against the CJI, Utsav Bains, a 32-year-old advocate, claimed that the woman’s charges were part of a “larger conspiracy”.
Subsequently, on the basis of an affidavit filed by Bains, the Supreme Court last week appointed former apex court judge A.K. Patnaik to head the inquiry into allegations of ‘conspiracy’ by ‘fixers’ against Gogoi. Justice Patnaik told Indian Express that his probe would begin only after the in-house committee on the sexual harassment allegations submitted its findings.
(With PTI inputs)