Four days after an In-House Inquiry Committee of the Supreme Court gave a clean chit to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi over sexual harassment charges levelled at him by a former woman employee of the court, Attorney General K K Venugopal said he had written to the CJI and four senior judges that the charges be probed by a panel comprising “three retired judges”.
The in-house panel that “found no substance” in the woman’s allegations against the CJI comprised three sitting judges — Justices S A Bobde, Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra.
Speaking to reporters Friday after the hearing on the Rafale review petitions, Venugopal said he had made the suggestion before the panel under Justice Bobde was constituted.
“I had written on April 22 to the CJI with copy to four most senior judges. The Justice Bobde panel was announced late on the 23rd,” the Attorney General said, adding he wrote a second letter on April 23 to make it clear that what he had said in the first letter was “my personal view”.
The Indian Express had earlier reported that Justice D Y Chandrachud, in a May 2 letter to the panel headed by Justice Bobde, demanded a full court to consider the issues raised by him. Calling the denial of a lawyer to the woman complainant a “serious denial of fair process”, Justice Chandrachud’s letter said it is a question of “her dignity” which needs to be protected. Moreover, provision of a lawyer is not a privilege but “a matter of right” for the complainant.
Justice Chandrachud, who also met Justice Bobde, argued for inclusion of an external member to broadbase the committee, and suggested names of three retired women Supreme Court judges to choose from — retired Justices Ruma Pal, Sujata Manohar and Ranjana Desai who, he said, are all “apolitical and above board”.
Following the allegations, the CJI, on April 22, left it to Justice Bobde, the second most senior judge of the court, to take next steps in the matter. A day later, on April 23, Justice Bobde set up a three-member panel comprising himself and Justices N V Ramana and Indira Banerjee.
Justice Ramana, however, recused after the woman raised concerns over his presence in the committee. In a letter to the panel, she claimed that Justice Ramana, the third most senior judge of the court, “is a close friend of the CJI and like a family member to him” because of which she “fears” that her “affidavit and evidence will not receive an objective and fair hearing.”
On April 25, Justice Ramana opted out saying his “decision to recuse is only based on an intent to avoid any suspicion that this institution will not conduct itself in keeping with the highest standards of judicial propriety and wisdom” and that he “categorically reject these baseless and unfounded aspersions on my capacity to render impartial judgment in this matter”.
He was replaced by Justice Indu Malhotra. The complainant woman appeared before the committee, which held its proceedings in-camera, first on April 26 and then on April 29. However, on April 30, she issued a statement to the press announcing that she would no longer participate in the proceedings before the committee.
She cited four reasons for deciding not to appear before the panel: she had not been allowed the presence of her lawyer despite her “impaired hearing, nervousness and fear” ; there had been no video or audio recording of the committee proceedings; she had not been supplied “even a copy” of her statement recorded on April 26 and 29; and, she had not been informed about the procedure the committee was following.
The committee later examined the CJI and employees of the court. On May 6, it gave a clean chit to the CJI saying it “found no substance in the allegations” of the woman. Its report has not been made public and the complainant has sought a copy.