There is no doubt that the Supreme Court faces a serious challenge of institutional integrity after one of its ex-employees levelled charges of sexual harassment against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. While the apex court showed that it’s alive to this concern by instituting a three-member panel to investigate the charges, the complainant’s walking away from the probe, after expressing fears that she is “not likely to get justice from the committee,” has, by all accounts, muddied the waters even more. Now, a submission by a senior judge of the apex court, Justice D Y Chandrachud, speaks of the sense of disquiet within the higher judiciary. As reported in this paper, Justice Chandrachud has, in a letter to the panel on May 2, asked it to not proceed with the ex parte probe. He also met the panel last week to convey his concerns about the investigation. The committee — and the apex court itself — should do well to pay heed to the most critical of these concerns, as expressed in Justice Chandrachud’s letter: The credibility of the Supreme Court would be further damaged if the panel decided to continue the probe in the complainant’s absence.
In her press statement after walking out of the probe, the complainant had alleged that she was “not informed of the procedure the committee is following”. She had talked of feeling “quite intimidated and nervous in the presence of three Hon’ble Judges of the Supreme Court and without having a lawyer or support person”. The committee, however, declined her request for a lawyer and decided to carry on the probe ex parte. The complainant has held that denying her a lawyer was testimony to the committee’s lack of sensitivity to “the fact that this was not an ordinary complaint”. The panel was dealing “with a complaint of sexual harassment against a sitting CJI and therefore it was required to adopt a procedure that would ensure fairness and equality in the highly unequal circumstances,” she has contended.
It’s true that the victim’s allegations pertain to complex procedural issues. And no doubt the panel’s task has become complicated because the SC’s “in-procedures” do not have explicit provisions for an inquiry against the CJI. But the principles of natural justice — and the SC’s own jurisprudence guaranteeing a level-playing field to working women — demanded that the committee’s first task was to institute processes to mitigate the unequal power relations in this case. Justice Chandrachud’s letter too suggests such an imperative. He has suggested that the committee could either accede to the complainant’s request for a lawyer or appoint an amicus curiae for the probe. The SC should heed the message of its senior judge.