In the latest instalment of a dismal saga, a three-judge in-house committee of the Supreme Court has found “no substance” in the sexual harassment allegations against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. From the start, the court has shown itself to be more eager to examine conspiracy theories that allegedly motivated the complaint rather than to give the complainant a fair hearing.
The way the charges have been handled by the court has serious implications for its integrity as an institution. At a time when conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace have gained new momentum, it also sends out a disheartening message from the institution that is supposed to guarantee the rights of individuals. The consensus to protect the powerful remains undisturbed, the court has signalled.
Consider how the events have unfolded. Last month, in an affidavit to 22 judges, a 35-year-old former employee of the court gave a harrowing account of how Gogoi had made advances on her, and how she was humiliated and her family targeted after she rebuffed him. The next day, a three-judge bench led by Gogoi ruled on the allegations against Gogoi. It ordered the constitution of the in-house committee. As members of the judiciary rushed to denounce the charges against Gogoi, another inquiry was set up: to examine the “larger conspiracy” of vested interests behind the complaint.
The in-house committee has functioned like a parody of justice. First, going by the complainant’s account, it was not an in-house proceeding but an “informal proceeding” not bound by the Vishakha guidelines, which regulate the investigation of workplace harassment. So it is not clear what due process the court was following to begin with. Besides, even the rules for in-house proceedings have regulatory lacunae when it comes to dealing with charges against the Chief Justice of India.
Second, the complainant was denied the right to be represented by a lawyer. Third, when she withdrew from the process, the committee decided to continue with the probe ex-parte. Fourth, a letter by DY Chandrachud, a senior judge of the Supreme Court, expresses serious disquiet about ex-parte probe – concerns that the committee appears to have dismissed. Finally, the committee has said, citing precedent, that its report is not open to the public. So why and how it came to its conclusions may never be known.
Just a few months ago, institutions in India seemed poised for a moment of accountability on sexual harassment. As the #MeToo movement gained ground across industries and professions, it singed senior editors, a serving minister, artists and actors. In many cases, especially that of former Union minister MJ Akbar and actor Alok Nath, the knee-jerk response was to dismiss charges and cast aspersions on the accuser. It was the response of angry, powerful men reacting with disbelief that they could ever have to account for their actions. The manner in which charges against the chief justice were dismissed suggests such a reaction still has robust institutional backing.