The sexual harassment complaint against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by a woman who once worked in his office is about much more than an individual accusing an individual. Given that it names the chief of the highest court, an institution fundamental to the health of the nation’s democracy, the complaint tests the integrity of the entire institution. More so at a time of delicate — and sometimes indelicate — balancing of powers between the executive and unelected supervisory institutions. In January last year, it was Justice Gogoi who risked his elevation to the highest judicial office by joining three of his colleagues in the collegium — at a press conference — to caution the nation against attempts to undermine the independence of the judiciary. The jury is still out on how that unprecedented airing of an internal dispute affected the institution but one thing is clear. Since then, a lot more of the Supreme Court has been in public glare than ever, there is, often, a frenetic rush to judge judicial independence through the prism of politics. Into this swirl, drops the sexual harassment complaint.
Curiously, the court responded in a hurried manner convening an “extraordinary” sitting barely hours after the allegations went public. The government’s representative, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, with the CJI himself in attendance, tore into the complaint, questioned the motives of the complainant. In the presence of two brother justices, Justice Gogoi warned of “a bigger force” behind the complaint set off by people who “want to deactivate the office of the CJI”. The alarm bells couldn’t have been more ominous; they raised more questions than they answered. Who are these people the CJI refers to, what constitutes this bigger force out to “de-activate” his office, what about the woman’s right to be heard — these questions can’t be brushed aside by anger or piety. Justice Gogoi’s warning of a plot needs elaboration. So does the complaint that details dates and names and records — each can and should be probed. How, that’s for the court to decide. For one, there is already an in-house mechanism but it’s required to seek the CJI’s permission. Surely, the judges can find a way around this. After all, it is the Supreme Court that has, over the years, interpreted and re-interpreted the Constitution to empower women, to lay down the law for their protection at work and at home, underlined the primacy of due process for every voice to be heard — whatever its motive.
That’s why how the court responds to the complaint will test its institutional integrity and resolve. The Supreme Court is its history, its tradition, its verdicts, its formulation of Constitutional morality, it is also its Chief Justice and the 26 Justices of the Court, they shape its future, fortify it against any attack. So, over to Their Lordships.
This first appeared in print under the headline: Your Honour