An initial Intelligence Bureau report about corruption claims against former Madras High Court Chief Justice Vijaya Kamlesh Tahilramani “prima facie” found “some truth in the allegations”. Current Supreme Court Chief Justice NV Ramana asked to be excluded from the bench hearing the Ayodhya case. The independence of India’s judiciary is threatened not so much by executive interference in the process of justice but by “self-proclaimed champions of human rights and free speech”.
These are among the claims made by former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi in his book Justice for the Judge: An Autobiography, which was released on December 8.
In addition to elaborating on episodes that garnered intense media scrutiny such as the sexual harassment allegations against him by a Supreme Court staffer, the updating of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the Babri Masjid verdict, Gogoi discusses the credibility of some of his critics, such as former Supreme Court judges Markandey Katju and Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah.
Here are some of the claims made by Gogoi, who accepted a nomination to the Rajya Sabha four months after he retired from the Supreme Court in November 2019.
Allegations against politician and judge
Gogoi alleges impropriety on the part of several judges and one politician, Tarun Gogoi. He claims that when Tarun Gogoi was Assam chief minister, he met with the judge’s mother and “requested her to speak to me to secure a favourable order” in a case.
“When she informed me about what had transpired, I was disappointed as I had held the person concerned in very high esteem,” Ranjan Gogoi writes.
In one section of the book, Gogoi discusses VK Tahilramani, who resigned as chief justice of the Madras High Court in 2019 after she was transferred to the Meghalaya High Court. Gogoi says he ordered an Intelligence Bureau enquiry after he received several complaints against Tahilramani. The enquiry “prima facie” found “some truth in the allegations” of corruption against Tahilramani. The director of the Bureau submitted a written report to Gogoi in September 2019.
“The disclosure of the report of the director, IB, would not do any good either to the system or to the concerned Chief Justice,” he writes. Gogoi says that he had also informed the Central Bureau of Investigation about this incident.
Scroll.in was unable to contact Tahilramani to seek her reaction to these allegations. However, in 2019, The Times of India had reported on the Central Bureau of Investigation action and the Intelligence Bureau report against her and sought her response. She said that she has not commented “on any issue whatsoever and that is the stand I will continue to take”.
Taking on his critics
One of Gogoi’s strongest critics, former Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah, also finds mention in the book. Shah has criticised Gogoi earlier over the sexual harassment complaint and his nomination to the Rajya Sabha. The book reproduces a Times of India report about a letter by advocates of the Madras High Court alleging impropriety by Shah. In a response to the newspaper, Shah denied the allegations and said he had never heard of such a letter.
“A complaint of the kind referred to in the news item does exist in the records of the Supreme Court,” Gogoi writes. “I am not commenting on the merits, truth or falsity or otherwise of the complaint and the allegations made. But Shah’s public utterances on a host of issues may have acquired greater credibility if he had volunteered to have the allegations against him duly verified.”
When Scroll.in contacted Shah, he declined to comment on Gogoi’s observations.
Gogoi also responds to former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, who has had a long-standingfeud with him. He cites a judgment where a court in the United Kingdom disregards Katju’s comments that the Indian judiciary is not independent. The British court said that Katju’s evidence “appeared tinged with resentment towards former senior judicial colleagues. It had hallmarks of an outspoken critic with his own personal agenda…”
Quoting paragraphs from the judgment, Gogoi asks: “Do I need to say anything more?”
The Ayodhya dispute
Gogoi offers explanations for many of the important cases decided during his tenure as chief justice. These include the Ayodhya dispute and the preparation of the National Register of Citizens to identify undocumented immigrants in Assam.
He writes that his decision to conduct daily hearings in the Ayodhya case about who owned the plot of land that had housed the 16th-century Babri Masjid, which was demolished by a mob of Hindutva supporters in 1992, “was an occasion for India’s judiciary to make an invaluable contribution to the odyssey of mankind” and to inspire many others on how to resolve inter-faith disputes.
While he was forming the bench for the case, he writes that NV Ramana, the current chief justice of India, met him “and requested that he should be excluded from the Bench...I asked why and he indicated his difficulties.”
He also sheds some light on one of the biggest mysteries of the judgment: why the name of the author was not in it, as is the usual practice.
“About a week before the hearing concluded, I suggested that the opinion of the Court should not only be unanimous, which it was going to be as the trend of discussions and mutual exchanges indicated, there should also be only one judgment and the name of the author of the judgment should not be disclosed.”
He adds: “The practice followed is in consonance with the legal concept of per curiam, meaning the order of the court.”
Gogoi also says that on the last day of the hearing he received a note from the court’s secretary-general that one of the litigants wanted to enter the Supreme Court premises. Without revealing who the person was, Gogoi says that he did not allow the person to enter court as he knew the individual would have “disrupted the hearing” since a bona fide visitor could get a proper court pass, while this person had approached the secretary-general to gain entry.
‘Lutyens Delhi’ critics of the NRC
Gogoi claims that the critics of the role he played in expediting the updating of National Register of Citizens in Assam ignored “the decades of struggle and sacrifice of a race to preserve and protect its culture and linguistic identity”.
The exercise was aimed at identifying undocumented migrants in the state. He cites a Supreme Court judgment which said that Assam had “an ‘external aggression and internal disturbance” on account of the large-scale migration by Bangladeshi nationals and that the Centre had failed to discharge its constitutional duty under Article 355 which enjoined it to “protect States against external aggression and internal disturbance”.
The criticism of his role in expediting the exercise “has been built on an entirely academic basis”, he writes. “These critics, ensconced in comfortable spaces in Lutyens’ Delhi, have no connection with ground realities…”
Control over the judiciary
One of the primary criticisms he deals with is the allegation that the Supreme Court is controlled by the executive. “I would not like to pretend that the judiciary is totally free from approach by the executive,” he said. However, he maintains that the institution has “perfected the means of retaining their independence without getting into any confrontation with the executive”.
In his opinion, greater danger is posed by “self-proclaimed champions of human rights and free speech or such other public causes”. He writes that this “motley group”, often giving “public speeches and writings in selective agenda-based publications”, criticise judges personally on the basis of misinformation.
“A sentence or a paragraph in an article/write-up/news item with the author’s jaundiced perception of a ‘judicial wrong’ is circulated in the social media and made to go viral. Any judgment of a court or a view expressed, if it does not have the approval of this group, becomes a target, the stick to beat and discredit the judge.”
He says there is a real “danger of judges falling prey to this group of people either consciously or subconsciously”. This could cause damage, he says, citing public interest litigations that were decided against the state, such as the coal allocation and 2G scam cases. This, Gogoi contends, led to a loss to the economy and a reduction in foreign investments.
Sexual harassment complaint
The sexual harassment complaint against Gogoi by a Supreme Court staffer in April 2019 while he was chief justice and the manner in which it was handled has been one of the biggest criticisms against him. He writes that he was unfairly targeted in the case, and that he did not realise “the enormous power of the media to do or undo, make or unmake”.
He contends that media reports wrongly say that he presided over his case and the procedure followed in the case was incorrect. He claims that the same procedure had been used since 1999 and that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, and the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 would not be applicable in this case as they were not meant to apply to the higher judiciary.
At the same time, Gogoi says that in retrospect, his presence on the three-judge bench that remarked that the complaint was an attempt to jeopardise the functioning of the chief justice, “could have been avoided”.
Gogoi says that this incident is discussed so frequently, it seems “as if there is an agenda that public memory [of the issue] has to be kept alive. This is why I have been prodded to title my memoirs Justice for the Judge.”