In a move that reflects the sense of disquiet in the higher judiciary and could have far-reaching consequences, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, Justice D Y Chandrachud, has asked the in-house panel probing allegations of sexual harassment against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi to not proceed with the inquiry “ex parte”, The Indian Express has learnt.
Justice Chandrachud is tenth in the list of seniority and in line to be the Chief Justice for two years, from 2022 to 2024.
Sources have also confirmed to The Indian Express that Justice Chandrachud, accompanied by Justice Rohintan Nariman, met the inquiry panel comprising Justices S A Bobde, Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee on Friday evening. It is believed that the two judges discussed their concerns about the ongoing probe with the panel. Fifth in seniority among the judges of the Supreme Court, Justice Nariman is currently a member of the Collegium.
A statement Sunday by Secretary General, Supreme Court of India, referring to the report in The Sunday Express, said that “Justice R F Nariman and Justice D Y Chandrachud together met Justice S A Bobde on Friday evening..” is “wholly incorrect.”
On May 2, Justice Chandrachud wrote to the three judges in the probe panel that the credibility of the Supreme Court would be further damaged if they decided to continue with the probe in the absence of the complainant, who has withdrawn from the inquiry.
He also suggested that the committee could either accede to the complainant’s ‘request to provide her with a lawyer or appoint an amicus curiae for the probe.
The inquiry committee had decided to proceed “ex parte” or carry on in her absence after the complainant declared that she was withdrawing from the probe.
This decision was taken by the three judges on April 30 when the complainant said that she was “compelled to walk out” because the judges who are part of the panel did not seem to appreciate the fact that “this was not an ordinary complaint but was a complaint of sexual harassment against a sitting CJI” and refused to allow a lawyer or support person to accompany her during her deposition.
The in-house committee was formed after a decision of the full court on the administrative side following the affidavit filed by the complainant. It has since been gripped by controversy, with one of the original members, Justice N V Ramana, recusing after the complainant alleged that he was “like family” to CJI Gogoi.
Justice Ramana was then replaced by Justice Malhotra. After the probe was announced, the complainant had also said that the committee, by virtue of not having a woman member as its head or an external member, was not following “the procedure under the Vishaka guidelines and the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Against Women at the Workplace Act 2013”.
The complainant, after two sittings, lasting about three hours each, chose to withdraw during the third sitting and told the committee about her decision to do so. The three judges are said to have told her they were left with no choice but to continue with the proceedings ex parte. On Wednesday, CJI Gogoi appeared before the probe panel.
The complainant, in a letter to the committee, and in a press release on Tuesday, said that she found the committee intimidating. And that there was a need to adopt a “procedure that would ensure fairness and equality in the highly unequal circumstances” she said she was placed in. “I had hoped that the approach of the committee towards me would be sensitive and not one that would cause me further fear, anxiety and trauma,” she added.
In her 28-page original complaint, the woman had alleged that on October 10 and October 11, 2018, the CJI had made sexual advances in his home office, where she was posted, and touched her inappropriately.
She had said that after she resisted his “sexual advances”, she was fired and her husband and brother-in-law, both posted with the Delhi Police as head constables, were subsequently suspended. CJI Gogoi had called the allegations “unbelievable” and said he wouldn’t’even dignify them with a denial.
Soon after the report on the allegations was first published, a bench led by CJI Gogoi had put out an order signed by two other judges saying this was part of a “conspiracy”.
Subsequently, on an affidavit filed by advocate Utsav Bains, a bench last week appointed retired Justice A K Patnaik to go into the conspiracy, assisted by the CBI Director, Director of Intelligence Bureau and Commissioner of Police (Delhi).
Justice Patnaik had told The Indian Express that his inquiry would commence only after the in-house committee on the sexual harassment allegations concluded its findings.