The reinstatement with retrospective effect of the junior court assistant who, in April 2019, had accused then Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi of sexual misconduct will have to be seen against the fact that an in-house committee of the Supreme Court (SC) had cleared Justice Gogoi, having found “no substance” in the woman’s complaint. Why, indeed, if the apex court committee had found Gogoi falsely accused, did the SC reinstate his accuser? The way the matter had been handled after the accusations surfaced in media reports had raised many questions about the top judiciary’s discharge of justice, and, by extension, about the accountability of the judiciary.
The woman had claimed that, apart from her, her husband and her brothers-in-law had been fired from their government jobs after she had spurned alleged inappropriate advances of the former CJI while a case of cheating had been filed against her in a Delhi court to discredit her. Justice Gogoi, who refuted the allegations, called an “emergency hearing” on the matter and presided over it. At the hearing, it was decided that the matter would be probed in-house by a committee constituting three senior judges, including Justice SA Bobde, the current CJI, and the report would be submitted to the senior-most judge after Bobde. On the face of things, the “emergency hearing” and the decision to have the matter be probed in-house seems to have violated the first principle of natural justice—‘no one shall be a judge in his cause’. What’s worse, the three-member committee chose to continue the inquiry ex parte, after the woman walked out on her third appearance, citing a lack of “sensitivity” on the part of the committee members. Despite another judge of the Supreme Court, Justice DY Chandrachud having written to the committee, urging it not to continue the inquiry ex parte, the committee went ahead and eventually concluded in favour of Justice Gogoi. Whether or not this constitutes a violation of the second principle of natural justice—‘audi alteram partem, or hear the other side’—could be a matter of debate, but the SC and the top judiciary didn’t come out of this smelling of roses. Blindsiding judicial accountability further, the committee’s report was never made public, citing a 2003 judgment. Also, early on, even before the allegations of sexual harassment were probed by the Supreme Court, a special bench of the court had ordered an investigation of an alleged conspiracy to “fix” CJI Gogoi in a “concocted, false sexual harassment” case—this cast a cloud on the woman’s complaint—and formed the Justice AK Patnaik committee to probe the conspiracy. This hasn’t done the institution’s image any good, more so, because the Patnaik committee report was submitted in September last year, but little seems to have happened since.
In the aftermath of the allegations surfacing and the three-judge committee concluding its inquiry, the husband and the brother-in-law of the woman have been reinstated at their jobs in the Delhi Police. The cheating case against the woman has also been dropped. The SC’s handling of the matter, on the other hand, sharply underlines the need for urgent reform to make the judiciary more transparent and accountable.