A three-member in-house committee of Supreme Court judges led by justice SA Bobde on Monday unanimously cleared Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment charges levelled by a former court employee, in a decision that was criticised by several leading lawyers for its lack of transparency and process.
The proceedings were ex parte (without the party concerned) after the complainant walked out of her third meeting with the panel citing lack of procedure.
The committee submitted its report to justice Arun Mishra, but refused to share its findings with even the complainant. It also cited a 2003 judgement in a case filed by lawyer Indira Jaising seeking the report of an in-house committee that looked into allegations of sexual harassment against judges of the Karnataka High Court.
Jaising said on Monday that the judgment was before the Right to Information Act and “cannot have any application in today’s time”.
The complainant, who said she was disappointed and dejected by the report, has said she will decide on her next step after consulting her legal advisors.
According to people familiar with the matter in the Supreme Court who spoke on condition of anonymity, justice Mishra will now decide whether the report should be placed before the full court as the committee was set up by a full court’s approval. The report was submitted to him because he is the senior most judge to whom it can be (see box).
In a statement, the secretary general of the Supreme Court said: “The in-house committee (of Justice SA Bobde, Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice Indu Malhotra) has submitted its report dated 5.5.2019, in accordance with the in-house procedure, to the next senior judge competent to receive the report and also sent a copy to the judge concerned, namely, the Chief Justice of India.”
Justifying its stand on not making the report public, the statement by the secretary general’s office said, “The in-house committee has found no substance in the allegations contained in the complaint date, 19.4.2019 of a former employee of the Supreme Court of India. Please take note that in the case of Indira Jaising v. Supreme Court of India and others (2003), it has been held that the report of the committee constituted as a part of the in-house procedure is not liable to be made public.”
Reacting to the committee’s findings, the complainant said in a statement that she was disappointed and dejected. “I am highly disappointed and dejected to learn that the In-House Committee ‘has found no substance’ in my complaint and feel that gross injustice has been done to me as a woman citizen of India. I am now extremely scared and terrified because the In- House Committee, despite having all material placed before them, appears to have given me no justice or protection and said nothing about the absolutely malafide dismissals and suspensions, indignities and humiliations suffered by me and my family. I and my family members remain vulnerable to the ongoing reprisals and attack,” she said.
Hindustan Times has learnt that the three-member committee looked only into sexual harassment allegations and did not go into the merits of the disciplinary action taken by the Supreme Court against the complainant. The woman was dismissed in December 2018 and she has claimed this was part of the harassment she faced.
HT also learns that the panel has said in its findings that before April 19, when she wrote to 22 judges of the court, the complainant did not raise the allegation of sexual harassment or victimisation despite having an opportunity to do so when she challenged the disciplinary action in December 2018.
The panel has said the woman can avail the remedy of a statutory appeal against her dismissal and if she does so the appropriate forum will look into it. She was removed from service on account of insubordination after the woman was moved out of the CJI’s home office to a different department in the Supreme Court premises.
No merit was found by the committee in the allegations of harassment and subsequent victimisation of the complainant and her family members, including her arrest in a cheating case and the suspension of her husband and brother-in law who work as a Delhi police constable, at the instance of the CJI.
The committee in its report has also recorded that despite material being presented against the complainant, it has not relied on it as the same was given after she walked out of the inquiry proceedings on April 30, and could not be confronted with the evidence.
With regard to alleged police excesses against the complainant’s family, the panel has concluded that all the members were booked in criminal cases prior to the alleged incident. An FIR was filed against the complainant in 2011 and 2012 and the one against the husband was lodged in 2015.
In her allegations, the complainant has asserted that her husband was suspended in connection with a 2015 case only in December 2018 which was a part of the victimization effort led by the Chief Justice.
The people familiar with the matter said a letter written by Supreme Court Judge Justice DY Chandrachud demanding an external member – preferably a retired woman Supreme Court judge – on the probe panel, was not accepted.
The committee members felt that as per the procedure of in-house inquiry laid down in 1999, legal assistance is not envisaged. The complainant has also criticised the panel for adopting a non-transparent procedure. She said, “From the media I have learnt that the CJI was perhaps called by the committee for his version. However I am not aware whether any of the other persons named in my complaint who would have knowledge of matters mentioned in the complaint, especially my victimisation, were called by the committee for their evidence.”
Some lawyers say the committee could have been more transparent. Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde said: “The complainant walked out and the inquiry proceeded ex parte. The enquiry committee cannot compel her participation. Yet it proceeded, rendered an ex parte finding, and it’s report while legally defensible, will still remain wanting in public perception. The independence of the judiciary, rests on public trust and public trust is not maintained by one-sided inquiries.”
Senior advocate Gopal Sankarnarayan added: “The procedure adopted has had questions raised about it for more than a week now, and the concerns of the bar associations and stake holders in the court have not been appropriately addressed. It would be incumbent that a methodology be followed that is consistent with sexual harassment law and due process be applied that protects both the accuser and the accused in a truly transparent manner.”
The committee had its defenders too. Senior advocate Aishwarya Bhatti said: “My view is that the committee has submitted its report after following procedure laid down in law. This committee comprised of the second senior most judge of the court, who will also go on to become the CJI and two eminent sitting women judges. I think it is best now to leave things. It is now for the next senior most judge who receives the report to consider it and decide if more needs to be done.”
First Published: May 06, 2019 17:12 IST