New Delhi: Surya Pratap Singh, the Supreme Court registrar who conducted the controversial ‘disciplinary inquiry’ that led to the dismissal of a junior court assistant (JCA) weeks after she was allegedly sexually harassed by Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, has had a prior association with Justice Gogoi going back to the latter’s tenure as chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana high court.
The woman JCA in question, whose name is being withheld at her request, submitted an affidavit last month to all judges of the Supreme Court in which she accused the CJI of making sexual advances while she worked at his residential office in October 2018. She was dismissed from service in December 2018.
The allegations, published on April 20, 2019, by The Wire and three other media platforms, were first dismissed as “false and malicious” by the Supreme Court’s secretary general in an email he sent on April 20 in response to media queries. The same morning, CJI Gogoi also dismissed the allegations in open court during hearings conducted by a special bench which he himself headed.
Appointed a registrar in the Supreme Court in August 2018, Surya Pratap Singh, better known as S.P. Singh, had earlier worked as principal secretary to Justice Gogoi when the latter headed the Punjab and Haryana high court in 2012.
In the light of the woman’s allegation that disciplinary proceedings were instituted against her as a consequence of her alleged run-in with CJI Gogoi, Singh’s prior association with the chief justice puts a further question mark on his decision to dismiss her for what were at best minor acts of ‘indiscipline’.
Criticising what he said was a “clear institutional bias”, evident in the manner in which the Supreme Court has handled the woman’s allegations of sexual harassment and victimisation, a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Madan B. Lokur, has publicly questioned why the manner in which the former JCA was sacked was not made part of the mandate of the three-judge in-house inquiry committee .
Sources at the Punjab and Haryana high court told The Wire that Singh regarded Gogoi as his mentor and was so close to the judge that he remained at the PGI hospital in Chandigarh virtually throughout the period Justice Gogoi underwent surgery in 2012 for a serious ailment.
Singh was appointed one of the apex court’s eight registrars in August, a few weeks before Justice Gogoi’s elevation as CJI on October 3, 2018.
Apart from describing the alleged incident of sexual harassment, the former JCA’s affidavit narrated how she was dismissed without being heard even once by the inquiry officer-cum-registrar, S.P. Singh. He also denied the woman the assistance of any person other than an employee of the Supreme Court to present her case before him, as reported earlier by The Wire.
Singh had sent a notice to her that inquiry proceedings in her case would be held at 10:30 am on December 17, 2018, and that the “inquiry shall proceed ex parte” if she failed to appear at the appointed time and place.
The woman was then already traumatised as her husband had apparently been manhandled while in custody at the Tilak Marg police station. Though the record shows she entered the Supreme Court’s premises at 10:17 am on the day of the inquiry, she fainted just outside Singh’s office and had to be hospitalised.
Four days later, on December 21, she was informed by another registrar, Deepak Jain, that she had been dismissed from service. The inquiry committee headed by S.P. Singh had decided her fate “ex parte” while she was recovering, not giving her a chance again to be heard.
On Monday, after attempts to reach S.P. Singh by telephone provided unsuccessful, The Wire sent him a short questionnaire through WhatsApp and text message:
1. Why didn’t you give the JCA in question enough time to recover so that she could be heard in person, face to face, after she fainted oustide your office room on December 17?
2: Since you have been the CJI’s principal secretary in Punjab and Haryana high court (when he was chief justice there) in the past, why didn’t you recuse yourself from the inquiry that led to the dismissal of the JCA on December 21 last?
Singh has yet to reply, but this story will be updated with his responses if/when he does.
Dismissal for ‘indiscipline’ unprecedented?
The three charges made against the JCA included that she showed “reluctance and questioned the decision of senior officers” when she was asked to change her seat, secondly, that she tried to “bring influence” from “unacceptable quarters” to exert pressure on her supervisors not to change her seat, and, thirdly, that she “unauthorisedly absented herself from duty” on November 17 and showed “insubordination, indiscipline and lack of devotion to duty”.
Before her scheduled personal appearance before S.P. Singh, the woman filed a reply, saying she had no intention of influencing her supervisor; she had casually discussed her anxiety with one B.A. Rao only because she had worked with him before, and that she only wanted to know from Rao what wrong she had done to warrant repeated shifts within the court.
She apologised for remaining absent from office on Saturday, November 17, but added that she had duly applied for a casual leave a day before to attend a function at her daughter’s school. Despite Saturday being a half day, she said she was asked to come to office after the function, to which she had agreed. She, however, could not make it to office as the school function ended late and her husband also reached home late, and their young daughter could not be left alone and unattended.
Although sources in the Supreme Court say there has been no precedent of an employee having been dismissed for such minor acts of ‘indiscipline’, The Wire has asked Singh and the secretary-general’s office how many employees of the Supreme Court have been dismissed so far for indiscipline in the past 20 years.
Under the scanner
Ironically, S.P. Singh, the apex court registrar who handed down the harshest possible administrative penalty – dismissal – for these minor acts of ‘indiscipline’, is himself indirectly involved in a serious complaint that was lodged in the Punjab and Haryana high court against two subordinate judges in November 2017.
Singh, as a district session judge then at Sonipat, had transferred the hearing of a bail plea in an abetment to suicide case from one additional session judge (ASJ) to another, which in turn led the complainant to suspect foul play.
As per the complaint, dated November 27, 2017, the first judge, ASJ Sushil Kumar, had dismissed the bail plea and subsequently disposed the case on November 21, 2017, with his dismissal order even uploaded online on the court’s website. Soon after uploading his decision, however, Kumar appears to have had a change of heart, withdrew his order, and asked that the bail application be handled by some other judge.
“Due to some personal reasons I do not want to decide this bail application,” he wrote in the changed order. “Therefore, file be put before learned District and Sessions Judge today itself with the request to transfer this application to some other court. Parties are directed to appear before learned District and Sessions Judge, Sonipat after some time. File be sent forthwith”.
Singh, who was then the Sonipat district court’s session judge, passed an order the same day, i.e. November 21, 2017, transferring the same bail plea to another judge, S.K. Garg.
The Wire has a copy of Singh’s court order, signed as ‘Surya Pratap Singh, Sessions Judge, Sonipat’. It stated:
“Reference made by Shri Sushil Kumar, the learned Addl. Sessions Judge Sonipat perused. The reference has been for transfer of the bail application on the ground that due to personal reasons he does not want to decide the above-mentioned bail application… In view of the above mentioned reference, the bail application in question is withdrawn from the concerned court, and transferred to some other court.”
While the first judge had denied bail, only to recuse himself, the new judge, ASJ S.K. Garg, granted the accused bail the very next day (November 22, 2017) on a bond of Rs 1 lakh.
Unfortunately for the judges, the affected party in the main case – complainant Karan Batra – whose father committed suicide, had already taken a snapshot of the online orders from the court’s official website confirming disposal of the bail plea after its dismissal by Kumar.
Aggrieved by the grant of bail in this fashion, Batra lodged a detailed complaint with the chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana high court on November 27, 2017, demanding a “strict vigilance inquiry” against both the said judges. He accused both the judges – Kumar, who recused himself, and Garg, whom Singh had chosen to take over the case – of acting in connivance with the accused.
“It is requested that the complete case files pertaining to the above mentioned bail application may be seized from the concerned court. Furthermore, most importantly, the computer systems/hard disks/laptops of both the judicial officers may please be seized with immediate effect and sent to a forensic science lab to cull out the real facts pertaining to the decision on the above mentioned bail application”, Batra stated in his complaint that has now been gathering dust in the high court for one and half years.
When asked about the fate of Batra’s complaint, the high court’s registrar general, who is also a key spokesman of the institution, said, “You may contact honourable chief justice’s secretariat”.
Varinder Kalra, an official at the Punjab and Haryana chief justice’s secretariat, told The Wire he would look for the case papers and get back.
Prabhjit Singh is a freelance journalist with extensive experience covering Punjab and Haryana.