When her name was called out Saturday to receive the gold medal for standing first in her LL.M class at the National Law University, Delhi, Surbhi Karwa was at work. “Unfortunately, she is not here. We will award her the medal in absentia,” Prof (Dr) G S Bajpai, the university registrar, said during the convocation.
Karwa knew she would be awarded the medal. But when she realised that she would most likely receive it from Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, it prompted her to skip the event.
“Everything I learnt in the classroom put me in a moral quandary over the last few weeks on whether I should receive the award from CJI Gogoi. The institution he heads failed when sexual harassment allegations were made against him,” Karwa told The Indian Express.
“I am seeking answers for myself on the role lawyers must play in guarding Constitutional values, and that is something even the CJI mentioned in his speech,” she said.
Karwa cited the manner in which sexual harassment allegations made by a female employee at the Supreme Court against CJI Gogoi was handled by the court as the reason for not wanting to receive the award from the CJI.
Although she did not turn up at the convocation, Karwa has made it clear that she has not refused the award. Karwa specialised in Constitutional law for her Master’s degree and her thesis is a feminist critique of the Constituent assembly debates. “Is the Constitution a feminist document?” is the central question Karwa probed in her thesis.
In April, the female employee sent a 29-page affidavit to all judges of the Supreme Court and alleged that the CJI had made unwelcome advances at her and when she resisted, was transferred and later dismissed after an administrative inquiry.
However, an in-house probe committee that the complainant boycotted, comprising three apex court judges, found “no substance” in her claims. The complainant withdrew from the proceedings after she claimed that she was not allowed legal representation.
In his speech Saturday, CJI Gogoi reminded graduates that the law degree is a “call of duty” to defend Constitutional values.
“Say no and a big no to anything and everything that appear to your mind to be morally and actually regressive. Say yes to everything which you think can be offered to anybody,” Gogoi said.
The CJI is the de-facto Visitor of the National Law University, Delhi, and the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court is the Chancellor. Last year, the then CJI Dipak Misra had been invited as the chief guest for the convocation.
This time, apart from CJI Gogoi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia were the chief guests. Delhi High Court Chief Justice D N Patel delivered the commencement speech. Many senior advocates, judges and academicians, including Prof Upendra Baxi, occupied the front row.
“Getting the gold medal itself is an honour and I am thankful to my parents and teachers who have helped me along the way. Receiving it from one person is not as important as getting it,” Karwa said.