Curious case of justice
A slippery exercise, a ghost judge and a questionable due process
"Nemo judex in causa sua" was pronounced by then Justice Ranjan Gogoi back in 2006 while speaking for Gauhati High Court in a matter which means 'no man shall be a judge in his own case'. And, 13 years later, irony seems to have its say in this regard. Saturday morning was unprecedented in the judicial history of independent India. The news may have already leaked through sources but curiosity was omnipresent as a special bench comprising the Chief Justice of India along with Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna convened a sitting to deal with "a matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of the judiciary". As it stood, the proceedings of the bench, in the absence of a petition, was tending to an affidavit received Friday evening by 22 judges of the apex court. A former Supreme Court woman employee had directed serious sexual harassment allegations against the CJI Ranjan Gogoi. The emergency bench was constituted to deal with the allegations which the Chief Justice of India perceived as a direct threat to the independence of the judiciary. While the news spread like wildfire to every corner of the country, the apex court refrained from passing any judicial order. Not just that, it also left the extraordinary event to the "wisdom of the media to publish it or not". As the contents of the affidavit brought upon the apex court a dismal cloud, an anguished CJI asserted how the judiciary of this country was under serious threat. In CJI's opinion, a bigger plot was at play to dismantle CJI's office and thereby hurt the judiciary, bringing it down to its nadir. With details and annexures in place, the affidavit elucidated the chain of events beginning from sexual advances made by CJI at his residence on the employee back on October 10, 2018, to her and her family's detention and mistreatment at a police station in March. In a 28 page write up, she summarised her plight of being victimised for refusing unwanted sexual advances by CJI with ramifications of her refusal extending to her family. Through her affidavit, the employee requested the Hon'ble Judges of the Supreme Court to constitute a special enquiry committee of senior retired Supreme Court judges to inquire into those charges of sexual harassment and consequent victimisation. Keeping what followed as proceedings for the day aside, the due procedure under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013 states that in such an event, Supreme Court's Internal Complaints Committee must confidentially inquire into the allegation and furnish a report within 90 days. But instead of choosing an already present procedure for such events, the 3-judge bench hurled in the angle of conspiracy theories. Ranjan Gogoi mentioned his selfless service and bank balance probably to convince the courtroom of how baseless the accusation in contention was besides being aimed at someone who just cannot be involved in such a horrendous act. CJI's attitude did not deem a response fit to the direct questions raised following the victim's allegation. Holding an evident high ground played out well for CJI who informed the courtroom, and the country, through a powerful office that the judiciary has been threatened and pitched his unwavering service to the nation despite conspirators' malice intent to create trouble. But the pertinent question still remains that why did CJI not address the courtroom to his response against the allegations, unless this was his way of responding. Moreover, the record of proceedings furnished of the emergency session does not feature CJI's name on the bench. The situation demands to know how the one accused was on the bench but as the records stand, this question becomes baseless, since there was no CJI on the bench to begin with. This in itself damages the reputation of the highest institution in the country. Ranjan Gogoi was one of the judges present in the unprecedented press conference held back in January 2018 wherein the issue was an open objection to the constitution of a bench in a most selective manner. Well, Saturday's proceedings did not exactly witness Ranjan Gogoi of 2018 since the bench was indeed selectively constituted.
Saturday's special bench might have served its unknown purpose since the obvious purpose – directly responding to the allegations by initiating an inquiry through the Internal Complaints Committee – did not happen. But, with that, it also stirred public confidence to some extent, if not much, in the judiciary. It should not be sidelined that the Supreme Court, in all its glory, also sets an example to subordinate courts and in this regard, it has certainly not kept up to the mark expected of it. While Saturday saw complete negation of due process which leaves an utterly demoralising remark on the employee, the order furnished thereafter in itself damaged the reputation of the apex court. Under no circumstance should the CJI had sat on the bench, contrary to what the records say, and by no stretch of the imagination would a bench have acted so recklessly as it did on Saturday. For the former Supreme Court employee who sent the affidavit to the residences of 22 Supreme Court judges clinging to faith in the judiciary, this was the wildest of responses that could have surfaced. Now the country will demand an inquiry anyway and the process will invariably be initiated. But this slippery exercise by the Supreme Court has further incited discussions regarding power abuse and neglected due procedure which would have been the ideal way forward in the light of such an event. The magnitude of the allegation and the person against whom it was made should have facilitated a more careful examination from the Supreme Court rather than a hasty activity to garner a legal audience and frame the allegations as a direct attack on the independence of the judiciary! With this, the matter will now be in public interest and investigation must be initiated to get to the bottom of this fiasco. The reputation of the apex court has been plunged into a turmoil with CJI walking a thin line and at a time when crucial cases are coming up. Bar council supports CJI by asserting that the allegations were 'false and cooked up' while the Women in Criminal Law Association want an inquiry "at the earliest" besides asserting that CJI should not hold office during the process against CJI's assertion that he will continue to function, unmoved by the forces that are threatening the independence of judiciary. An unprecedented Saturday in the halls of judiciary could have been more productive and leally sound than it turned out to be. A women judge on the bench would have been appreciable and CJI should have opted out of it considering how he is the accused in the matter. He could have directed an inquiry if he was baffled by the accusations. But none of that happened. Now while the victim waits for the apex court to hold another hearing with a new bench or direct the Internal Complaints Committee to conduct its inquiry, discussions over the adversity that has grappled the country's highest judicial institution will spread to every corner of the country. Offices, Courts, groups, media and even foreign elements, having no relation to this, will have their say on the matter which so far has been deemed as another case of #MeToo. And, worse than the instance or accusation is the way it was handled, given that it is the Supreme Court of India and CJI in focus.