The allegation of workplace sexual harassment against the Chief Justice and his knee-jerk reaction was certainly a low point in the history of the nation’s judiciary.
The hurried convening of a bench presided by him, in the light of the complaint sent to all Judges of the apex court by the ex-employee was nothing short of dramatic. The CJI went further in referring to the allegations as part of a conspiracy to “deactivate the office of the Chief Justice”. The Advocate General and Solicitor General, as well as the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association called it an assault on judicial independence. The Solicitor General referred to it as a “blackmail technique”.
Condemnations have been pouring in from several quarters against the CJI himself hearing the matter; but the order by the bench could be held as a model of judicial rectitude as the bench refused to pass any order restraining the media from publishing reports on the matter and left it to their discretion as to what should be published. To his credit, the Chief Justice himself seems to have refrained from giving a ruling as he refused to affix his signature to the order issued by the bench.
The timing of the allegations (the alleged harassment took place in Oct. 2018, shortly after he had assumed charge as CJI), in the middle of the elections and as the Court is about to deliberate on matters of considerable political import and the ideological leaning of the media houses championing the cause of the complainant have only contributed to making the allegations seem spurious.
The left-leaning media had a field day with editorialists and op-eds. The cleave in the legal fraternity along ideological lines is readily apparent. Social media trends indicate an equally divided digizenry. Many leading lawyers whose ideology is closely aligned with the left have gone on record questioning the wisdom behind the CJ’s move in convening a bench and presiding over it, and even his utterances from the bench which he used to strongly deny the charges levelled against him.
An equally long list of distinguished lawyers have stood in his defence, as have the employee body representing Supreme Court employees, characterizing his actions as borne out of genuine anguish at being accused without being afforded the opportunity to present his defence (As per reports, the media houses which reported the complainant’s version at length, sent a mail to the Supreme Court’s Secretariat seeking comments late Friday and published their articles by Saturday morning).
By Saturday evening, things started looking even murkier. A lawyer in the Supreme Court claimed in his facebook post that he had been offered ₹1.5 Cr by a person who claimed to be a relative of the complainant were he to aid in tarnishing the Chief Justice’s reputation. He has since filed an affidavit in which he alleged that there is a conspiracy to tarnish the Chief Justice and another Judge of the apex court by an industrial house that had tried but failed to get a matter transferred from the bench of the said Judge through a known “fixer” and apprehends a similar allegation against the said Judge in order to force him to resign.
A bench comprising of Justice Arun Mishra, Justice Rohinton Nariman and Justice Deepak Gupta which heard the matter today was handed over some material in a sealed envelope following which it summoned the chiefs of the Delhi Police, the CBI and Intelligence Bureau to the Judge’s chambers and directed them to institute an enquiry into the allegations.
Senior lawyer and Union Cabinet Minister Arun Jaitley also threw his hat in the ring and came out in support of the Chief Justice; perhaps out of a sense of regret engendered of his championing the cause of an intern who had cast similar aspersions against Justice A K Ganguly, back in 2013. Justice Ganguly had to resign from his appointment as Chairman of the West Bengal State Human Rights Commission after a committee appointed by the Supreme Court returned a finding that there was a prima facie case against him. Later, as things turned out, the complainant in that case refused to appear before the internal complaints committee constituted to look into the matter and the allegations died a quiet death, but not before permanently damaging the reputation of a highly regarded jurist who is still fondly remembered by many in the fraternity. The media that covered the allegation in the beginning with great enthusiasm showed little interest in covering the conclusion of the case.
A separate panel comprising of Justice S A Bobde, Justice Ramana and Justice Indira Banerji has been constituted to look into the allegations against the Chief Justice which has issued notice to the complainant, asking her to present herself before the panel on 26th April.
It goes without saying that the complaint should not only receive a fair hearing, but also a sympathetic one, given the nature of the complaint and the vulnerability of the complainant. In our eagerness to champion the cause of the underdog, we shouldn’t give fairness a miss. It was only human that the prospect of a lifetime of devotion to the profession, years of learning and countless hours spent in service of justice being reduced to ashes would have prompted the intemperate and uncharacteristic actions of the Chief Justice. Like all accused, the Chief Justice deserves the presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond the shadow of doubt.
[The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of VERDiCTUM and VERDiCTUM does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same]