A fair hearing denied 

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  • Benjamin Franklin

A day after Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi got a clean chit on allegations of sexual harassment against him, a group of young women and some men held protests, raising objections to the way in which the case was handled. They gathered outside the apex court carrying placards such as “Supremacy of Rule of law must be maintained” and “Be you ever so high, the law is above you.” Section 144 was imposed and protesting women were detained, which conveyed that there is no space for legitimate dissent or protest.  The protest has a justification. The former woman apex court staffer had in an affidavit sent to 22 SC judges described two incidents of alleged molestation, days after Justice Gogoi was appointed CJI last October, and her subsequent persecution. The woman, who had worked at Justice Gogoi’s home office in Delhi, alleged she was removed from service after she rebuffed his “sexual advances”. A committee of Justices S A Bobde, Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra ruled on Monday that there was no substance in the allegations against the country’s top judge. It further said that its report was “not liable to be made public”. The report was not shared with the complainant either which was, one feels, totally against law.  The Indian citizen has a right to raise his or her voice and express anger at the decisions and actions of the government or any of its institutions. The iron fist approach to dissent makes it worse.

Being the highest dispenser of justice in the land, the country expects that Supreme Court would establish exemplary standards in morals and ethics too. In the current case it did not happen. The manner in which the three-judge in-house committee headed by Justice Bobde went ahead with the inquiry despite the complainant opting out of the proceedings has raised more questions than it answered. The panel chose to ignore the woman’s demand to be accompanied by a lawyer and video recording of the closed-door hearings. And then, it refused to make its findings public. The complainant claimed that she felt intimidated with this, and since she was not allowed a lawyer, she withdrew.  No one else, not even the complainant, knows what evidence was examined and who else testified apart from herself. All that is known is that she was heard, and questioned, at two sittings. Perceptions of exemplary fairness were further disturbed at the committee’s decision to continue the inquiry ex parte. . And by not making its report public, the panel has come up short on the requirement of transparency that should have been fundamental in a case of such gravity.

There is no denying that the way the charges have been handled by the court has serious implications for its integrity as an institution. Moreover, the rules for in-house proceedings have regulatory lacunae when it comes to dealing with charges against the Chief Justice of India. The consensus to protect the powerful remains undisturbed, the court has signalled.


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