A complaint of unwelcome sexual advances by the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Ranjan Gogoi, and allegations of subsequent victimisation of not just the accuser, but also her family, have now roiled the Supreme Court into what could be its deepest crisis ever. The CJI’s hastily convened special bench hearing on Saturday to proclaim his innocence, and to malign the accuser’s motivations, has only highlighted how skewed the power balance is in this instance.
Now, make no mistake, there are questions to be raised about the allegations too. There is a pending criminal proceeding that the accuser promised jobs in the SC for money. Also, the CJI claims he was given just a day to respond to the allegations (it is a standard journalistic practice to give up to 24 hours to a person named in a story for comments).
However, in this case, the allegations, as published, leave enough of crumbs for an impartial investigation. The accuser says that she had good performance reviews from Justice Gogoi prior to the incident. Afterwards though, she was transferred thrice in quick succession. These are easily verifiable. Allegations are made about the conduct of disciplinary proceedings that were commenced, naming officials who were refused permission to represent her. The same can be verified, with her preferred defence assistant already on record. The final cause for termination appears to be absenting herself from work for one day. She claims that she was attending a function at her daughter’s school. These can be verified too.
On the date of the disciplinary proceedings, she allegedly fainted, and was taken to the hospital. This obviously is verifiable from hospital records. She has apparently annexed her entry pass to the Supreme Court on that date to the affidavit.
She then alleges that her husband and brother-in-law were both suspended from service on the same date, without specifying any reason. Official records can be summoned. After this, she claims her husband tried calling up an officer of the court to fix a meeting with the CJI to plead forgiveness. Call data records would show this. A complaint was filed against the husband in the Tilak Marg Police Station for making unsolicited calls to the CJI. The complaint also alleges that the Station House Officer took the complainant to the CJI’s residence to engineer a truce. Entry registers can be verified. If there was no merit to the allegations, it is unlikely an SHO will personally take a woman to the residence of the Chief JI, forget being allowed inside.
Meanwhile, she alleges, another brother-in-law, who was appointed to the Supreme Court as a disabled employee through the personal intervention of the CJI, was also dismissed. This again is a verifiable allegation.
As for the allegation that she took a bribe, according to news reports, no action has been taken against the bribe-giver yet. Has the investigation uncovered anything at all? There are too many questions to summarily dismiss the allegations.
Now, let’s be clear, previous good performance does not mitigate against subsequent corrupt activities. However, the lady was allegedly dismissed on grounds that appear flimsy — taking unauthorised leave for one day, and protesting about her allotted seat. Even if such a dismissal was legitimate, the subsequent sacking of two relatives employed in the police force is too much of a coincidence, if the sequence can be established. Another disabled relative employed in the Supreme Court sacked soon after is now a third coincidence, if it happened.
This case, possibly more than any other, holds a mirror at the system. These are not verbal allegations that are difficult to prove or refute. If the establishment gangs up against the accuser, rubbishing allegations outright, or imputing political motives, it will be only because they refuse to acknowledge that a powerful man is capable of sexual harassment — and that is deeply problematic.
It is true that the CJI is hearing several sensitive cases presently. It is also true that he does not have a reputation for being corrupt, or even partisan. However, neither of these are even relevant defences to sexual harassment.
For the CJI, the allegations are such that if they are investigated thoroughly and impartially, he can be cleared. However, to conduct a sham investigation or no investigation at all, would be a direct threat to all women facing sexual harassment, at least in the judiciary. A judicial hearing in open court by fellow judges will not suffice. All trials are preceded by an investigation, and the complainant is entitled to that same protection. A Supreme Court hearing also effectively takes away a right to appeal — sacrosanct in criminal law. For now, it appears that any allegation against a judge (and remember, most cases of sexual harassment leave much less evidence) is merely an assault on the judiciary — therefore to be, ipso facto, dismissed.