New Delhi: Four days after a woman alleged in an affidavit that she had been sexually harassed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and wrongfully dismissed from her job as a junior court assistant, the Supreme Court appointed its senior-most puisne judge, Justice S.A. Bobde, to conduct an in-house inquiry into her charges.
The panel headed by Bobde has issued a notice to the complainant, and the first hearing is scheduled for Friday (April 26). The apex court secretary general – who had responded to the allegations on CJI’s behalf – has also been asked to keep all relevant documents ready, LiveLaw reported.
The woman had sent her affidavit to 22 judges on the apex court on April 19. The Wire was among a handful of media organisations to report her allegations and the CJI’s denial, as conveyed on April 20 by the secretary-general of the Supreme Court.
On Tuesday evening, Justice Bobde confirmed to PTI that he had been asked – as the number two judge on the court – by CJI Gogoi to examine the former JCA’s charges against him.
“I decided to have Justice N.V. Ramana in the panel as he is next to me in seniority and Justice Indira Banerjee as she is a woman judge,” Justice Bobde was quoted by the news agency as saying.
It was not immediately clear what timeline or method of inquiry the panel will follow. The Supreme Court has a separate internal complaints committee to deal with cases of sexual harassment on the court’s precincts but its jurisdiction is usually triggered by the complainant herself. There is also a specific in-house procedure for dealing with complaints against judges, for which a three judge committee of inquiry is prescribed. The Bobde panel appears to be in line with that procedure.
“This is going to be an in-house procedure which does not contemplate representation of advocate on behalf of parties. It is not a formal judicial proceeding,” Justice Bobde told PTI.
The appointment of the inquiry committee represents a rethink by Justice Gogoi – whose decision to add himself to a hastily convened special bench that took notice of “a matter of great importance touching upon the independence of the judiciary” was widely condemned by lawyers who saw it as a violation of the legal maxim that no man be a judge in his own cause.
Indeed, during Saturday’s hearing, triggered officially on the basis of a mention by the solicitor general, Justice Gogoi said the allegation against him was a conspiracy to “deactivate” the chief justice of India’s office. He also assailed the complainant, accusing her of having a “criminal background”.
The other members of the bench were Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Sanjiv Khanna, the junior most judge on the court.
According to The Hindu, Justice Bobde “has taken a central role in dealing with the crisis” triggered by the reporting of the former JCA’s sexual harassment allegations which appeared in The Wire, Scroll, Caravan and The Leaflet on Saturday. It is not immediately clear why the “crisis” was not set off on Friday itself, when the woman’s affidavit detailing a harrowing account of victimisation was delivered to Justice Bobde and his colleagues.
The Women in Criminal Law Association has questioned why the former employee’s complaint did not set in motion the court’s in-house procedure and instead became the subject for an unusual hearing on the judicial side.
One senior advocate, Dinesh Dwivedi, has accused CJI Gogoi of using “illegal means” to proclaim his innocence. “In a blatant disregard for the constitution and its principles which it is duty bound to protect, he constituted a bench to gag the press indirectly.”
On Saturday, the Modi government’s chief spokesperson, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley wrote a lengthy blog post questioning the motives of the complainant and those who reported her charge. Describing The Wire and the other three media organisations which covered her story as “institution disruptors” and “institutional destabilisers”, Jaitley urged the Supreme Court to deal with them “in an exemplary manner” by using its powers of contempt.
On Tuesday, the “matter of great importance” was handled by a special bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra and also comprising Justice Rohinton Nariman and Justice Deepak Gupta. According to The Hindu, the composition of the bench was decided by Justice Bobde.
On Wednesday, the bench is scheduled to take up the affidavit filed by Utsav Bains, an advocate who claims to be privy to a sensational plot to frame CJI Gogoi. The dramatis personae in this plot, Bains says, include the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, the Jet Airways founder Naresh Goyal and others.
Now that the Justice Bobde panel has been set up, it is not immediately apparent what the role of the special bench will be, except to examine the charge – echoed by the CJI and Jaitley – that the former JCA’s complaint of sexual harassment is actually part of a wider ‘conspiracy’ to undermine the Supreme Court. However, such an exercise on the judicial side would seem at odds with the in-house procedure which has to treat the woman’s complaint as bona fide in order to objectively evaluate it.