Woman alleging sexual harassment against CJI walks out of inquiry, fuels more speculation
The sexual harassment allegations against Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi by a former Supreme Court staffer turned murkier when she withdrew from a three-judge panel looking into the case, citing procedural flaws that she felt compromised neutrality. The stakes in the case, that could stigmatise the highest court of the land, just became higher. For there are two interpretations of the story, even before investigations have reached their logical end. One assumption being that the complainant was part of a larger coercive attack on an institution, as had been suggested by the CJI himself, to “deactivate” a position that is tasked with fair dissemination of justice. The other being that of a junior, whose fears, anxieties and the very act of speaking up are of consequence simply because there is no legal framework within the top court’s rulebook whereby a CJI could be investigated on allegations such as these, his removal being only possible through parliamentary impeachment. And her charge is the first of its kind. Neither theory can be taken lightly. The three-judge committee duly took note of the “frame-up by honey-trap” allegation, questioning a lawyer who claimed he was offered money for concocting charges, and involving top police and investigative agencies to look into the veracity of his claims. Similarly, the court has to be equally delicate and proper about hearing out the complainant, lest any move is interpreted as inimical to working women’s rights in a society where they are subjected to cultural innuendos and suppositions. There were initial stutters that got the Bar association and many lawyers rallying behind the woman, too. Neither did the CJI’s special hearing in court include the complainant, though remarks were passed about her and her faulty legal record. Nor did the court check the backstory of the judges on the panel till the complainant pointed out one of them was a friend of the CJI. He recused himself thereafter. Considering the case is based on highly unequal circumstances — a junior employee versus the CJI — the investigation and assessment should appear non-intimidating and trustworthy. Let’s look at the complainant’s concerns — she wanted the presence of her lawyer or any support person so that she didn’t feel too overwhelmed by the topmost judges, she insisted on an audio-video recording of the committee proceedings and a copy of her statements as recorded on two sessions for the sake of fair play and cross-questioning. The present Supreme Court Internal Complaints Committee mechanism is inadequate for an inquiry into the alleged misconduct by the CJI himself. So her request for an external observer is not too far out, in keeping with the spirit of the Vishakha guidelines and the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Against Women at the Workplace Act, none of which can be applied in this case. The court, which is rightfully conducting the matter in secrecy, could actually keep a significant other, be it her counsel or perhaps someone like the National Commission for Women (NCW) chief during proceedings for the sake of balance. Nobody doubts the wisdom and maturity of the three Justices but perhaps certain sensitivities could be considered to prevent this one from being another “he said, she said” battle.
The Supreme Court is being tested most severely in an unprecedented case and how it upholds the law and treads its way without fear or favour is being watched keenly. At no point can it look one-sided without meaning to be so. The court, which has given judgements empowering women, should unravel the truth through procedural propriety for the sake of all women out there. For if the accuser is guilty of fabrication, coercion and mala fide motives, the judges should not let her get away. If not, the court should be seen as acting justly in matters concerning its own women employees. By walking out of the inquiry panel, the accuser has set off enough speculation if this was just another case of silence by intimidation or if she was guilty of a frame-up. Therefore, the panel should create a foolproof atmosphere, one she cannot exit on grounds of “feeling insecure.” This needs a closure without leaving an iota of doubt.
Writer & Courtesy: The Pioneer