In what is likely to trigger fresh questions about the judiciary’s independence, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has written to Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra alleging that investigators had not followed the Vishakha guidelines while looking into allegations of sexual harassment against a district judge The Supreme Court has recommended for promotion to the Karnataka High Court.
The Vishakha guidelines are a set of rules laid out in a 1997 Supreme Court judgment that needs to be followed while dealing with complaints of sexual harassment.
The High Court’s administrative committee had cleared District and Sessions Judge P Krishna Bhat of the sexual harassment charges in 2016 and 2017. Prasad’s letter comes after Karnataka High Court Chief Justice Dinesh Maheshwari wrote to Misra about the matter in March, The Indian Express reported.
The two letters to the chief justice of India follow senior Supreme Court judge Jasti Chelameswar writing to Misra and questioning why the Karnataka chief justice had decided to investigate Bhat when the Supreme Court collegium – a body of top judges, including the chief justice of India, which makes appointments to the higher judiciary – had twice recommended his name for promotion to the High Court.
According to the rules, the government does not directly communicate with High Courts after the collegium recommends a name. As per the Memorandum of Procedure for Appointment of Judges, the government is obliged to comply if the Supreme Court collegium reiterates its recommendation of a name for appointment as a judge.
However, the law minister in his letter alleged that no “proper inquiry” was conducted in the sexual harassment accusations against the district judge, the Hindustan Times reported. “No female judge inquired into the matter,” an official told the newspaper. “The so-called discreet inquiries are not on record.” The daily added that the woman harassed had, in a complaint to the prime minister, said she was not questioned about her case “by any authority from the High Court or the Supreme Court”.
A law ministry official told the daily that new complaints were made to the prime minister and the president in December, and copies were sent to the ministry. Hence, they had asked for information on the matter, though they did not insist on an inquiry, the newspaper reported the official as saying.
The Karnataka High Court chief justice had decided to initiate an inquiry against Judge Bhat after the law ministry wrote to him following the collegium’s recommendation to elevate him to the High Court a second time.
The collegium first recommended that Bhat be promoted to the High Court in August 2016. The Centre had returned the recommendation after the female judge accused him of “atrocities and abuse of power”. The collegium recommended his name a second time in April 2017 after then Karnataka High Court Chief Justice SK Mukherjee found the allegations against the judge “incorrect and concocted”. The law ministry then wrote to Maheshwari, after which Chelameswar questioned the government’s interference in judicial matters.