New Delhi: The Supreme Court has closed the suo motu case initiated after serious sexual harassment allegations were levelled against then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi in 2019. The allegations, levelled by a former staffer of the Supreme Court, had been published simultaneously by The Wire, Scroll.in, Caravan and The Leaflet.
Gogoi is now a member of the Rajya Sabha. His nomination in early 2020 was criticised both because of the sexual harassment allegations against him, as well as because it was seen as ‘quid pro quo’ by the Narendra Modi government for several pro-government rulings during Gogoi’s time as judge.
The case was heard on Thursday morning after one year and nine months. The matter had drawn widespread criticism when it was first initiated, as CJI Gogoi had convened a special bench on “In Re : Matter Of Great Public Importance Touching Upon The Independence Of Judiciary” himself – despite the fact that he was the one being accused of sexual misconduct.
A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian heard the matter on Thursday, though none of them were on the previous bench looking into the matter. The bench said that “two years have passed and possibility of recovery of electronic evidence now is unlikely”, even though the conspiracy allegations could not be “ruled out”. Justice Kaul, delivering the order, also said that the internal panel looking into the sexual harassment allegations had already submitted its report, and so the “Suo motu case is closed and proceedings are disposed off. There is no requirement to keep the case going on.”
On April 15, 2019 – the previous date of hearing in the case – a bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Rohinton Fali Nariman and Deepak Gupta had decided to examine whether there was a conspiracy in place to try and defame then CJI Gogoi and the Supreme Court. While Justices Mishra and Gupta have since retired, Justice Nariman is still serving as a Supreme Court judge.
On April 25, 2019, the court had said that chiefs of the CBI, Delhi Police and Intelligence Bureau will assist the probe into the alleged “conspiracy”, and the probe was to be led by former apex court judge A.K. Patnaik. This probe was based on an affidavit filed by advocate Utsav Bains alleging that the sexual harassment allegations against CJI Gogoi were a part of a larger conspiracy by ‘fixers and plotters’ to frame him.
However, just days after Bains filed his affidavit, serious doubts were raised about it.
The bench headed by Justice Kaul said on Thursday that the enquiry panel headed by retired Justice Patnaik had submitted its report in October 2019, and said that it could not be “ruled out” if there was a conspiracy involved in the sexual harassment allegations, LiveLaw reported. The panel reportedly said that certain “tough stances” taken by Gogoi during his tenure as CJI could have led to these allegations. An IB input in the report apparently refers to how several people were unhappy with Gogoi during the National Register of Citizens process in Assam.
But since two years have passed and electronic evidence could not be recovered, the bench quoted the Justice Patnaik report as saying that “the veracity of the allegations levelled by lawyer Utsav Singh Bains could not be verified completely due to the limited access of records and other collaborative material”.
Former Supreme Court Bar Association president Dushyant Dave said on Thursday that the court was operating in “strange ways”, and the way in which the new bench disposed of the matter “is to say the least very unusual and contrary to its own Rules and Practices which demand that the matter should have been listed before a Bench of which Honble Justice R.F. Nariman was a member”.
The entire “conspiracy” case, Dave continues, was an attempt by the Supreme Court to shield former CJI Gogoi. “I feel deeply disappointed by this whole episode which has tarnished the image of this great institution. The SC ought no longer protect this gentleman who now insults the entire judiciary by calling it “ramshackled” [as Gogoi did in a recent interview]. Let us hope and pray the court takes right steps in the interests of public and no longer shields the culprits,” Dave said.
The internal panel set up by the Supreme Court to look into the allegations gave Gogoi a clean chit in May 2019. The panel continued with its investigation despite the fact that the woman complainant said it was a hostile environment in which she was not allowed to have her lawyer present, and withdrew from the investigation after a certain point.
The final report of the panel was given to then CJI Gogoi, but not made public. Even the complainant was not given a copy of the report – but the accused was.
In January 2020, the complainant – who had been fired, and seen multiple relatives punished and was even sent to prison since she made her allegations public – was reinstated in her position as a Supreme Court staffer. This happened after the woman was put through a series of harrowing experiences, including being sent to prison for allegedly taking a bribe to defame Gogoi – a case that was later dropped.