There is a profound quote attributed to former United States President Theodore Roosevelt. “Impartial justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong,” he said. “It is in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.”
When he says neutral, what is implied is that justice cannot be a balance between right and wrong. For those who administer justice, to preserve their authority, they have to unabashedly side with the right. The Supreme Court, it seems, has failed in this core duty.
Last year in April, a woman employee of the court wrote letters to 22 judges, detailing how former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had sexually harassed her at the workplace. After she spurned his sexual advances, she was hounded out of her job on frivolous charges, she said. The woman alleged her family too had been victimised, with their jobs put in peril.
When the allegations became public, there was an uproar. The woman was accused of being part of a grand conspiracy of corporate houses to undermine India’s top court.
What followed was a farce. A committee of judges was formed to probe her sexual harassment complaint. This forum functioned in an opaque manner, denied her even the basic right of legal representation in the proceedings, dismissed her complaint as without basis and converted the order into a secret that no one will have access to.
This week, the Indian Express reported that the woman has been given back her job. This was done after extracting an assurance from her that she will not formally challenge her dismissal, the Hindustan Times reported.
There is only one way to look at her “reinstatement”. The court’s conscience, it seems, was indeed troubled by the courage and fortitude the woman displayed. But the remedy given is far from justice. It is the very idea that Roosevelt abhorred, the balancing of right and wrong.
While her sexual harassment complaint was buried in highly questionable and opaque proceedings, had she formally appealed against her dismissal, the court would have been forced to deal with the ghosts of the complaint again. The Supreme Court administration would have been called upon to decide why she was treated shabbily and stripped of her job in the first place.
This would have brought the spotlight back to the alleged harassment as there was no other possible reason for her dismissal but the ire of a man who held high office.
What is doubly concerning is the involvement of a high-ranking official of the central government, as reported by the media, in persuading the woman employee to drop her intentions to pursue the matter.
If the Supreme Court is to redeem itself from how it conducted this case, it has to shed its instincts to protect its own. It must embrace transparency. The country and the people need to be told what prompted the court to restore the woman’s job. The court must respond to claims that an executive functionary had a role to play.
Justice demands that Gogoi faces the law. Anything else would be injustice.