The Supreme Court has refused to share any information about how it resolved a former employee’s sexual harassment complaint against former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, reveal RTI documents. It did not even disclose the resolutions and orders under which the committee inquiring into the complaint was formed.
The RTI query was filed by Anjali Bhardwaj on November 20 last year. She had asked for a copy of the resolution through which the in-house committee, led by Justice SA Bobde, which investigated the allegations against Justice Gogoi was formed. She sought a copy of the resolution through which Justice Indu Malhotra was inducted into the committee. Bharadwaj also asked for a copy of any terms of reference, mandate, rules or guidelines governing the committee’s functioning and the date on which the committee’s report was submitted to the Supreme Court.
In its reply, the Supreme Court said that information regarding the setting up of the Bobde-led in-house committee and the induction of Justice Malhotra in place of Justice NV Ramana “may amount to unwarranted invasion of privacy and breach of fiduciary relationships – and hence compromise the independence of the judiciary”.
Regarding the guidelines and terms of reference for the committee, the court’s additional registrar and chief public information officer Ajay Agrawal pointed to the in-house procedure laid down to deal with complaints of sexual harassment against sitting judges. Agrawal added that the Justice Bobde committee’s report was submitted to the court on May 5, 2019.
“Although general details about the in-house procedure are available on the court’s official website, the procedure is completely silent on what is to be done if the complaint is against the CJI,” Bharadwaj told The Wire. “In fact, the CJI is the point person who is supposed to enforce what emerges from the process. The complaint against the CJI was an exceptional case and that is why I sought the information from the Supreme Court.”
In another RTI application filed by Bhardwaj on November 20, Agrawal cited the same case to refuse sharing the Justice Bobde report. The Supreme Court also refused a third RTI request filed by Bharadwaj related to a report by The Indian Express in May. The report said Justice DY Chandrachud had asked the Justice Bobde-led committee not to decide the matter in the absence of the complainant’s cooperation.
“Going by media reports, I had also asked for a copy of Justice DY Chandrachud’s letter to the committee to look into the complainant’s allegations against Justice Gogoi but I was also refused information on that RTI,” said Bhardwaj. She said that the court told her that the letter was not on record. However, on May 5, the Supreme Court took note of the The Indian Express report in a press release. At that time, it did not contest the claim that Justice Chandrachud had written a letter to the committee.
Bharadwaj said that she will file an appeal against the court’s first response. “This has been a very murky case – right from the time when the former court assistant filed her complaint, the way she claimed she was victimised, then reports emerging about the poor handling of her complaint by both the court and CJI. Everything was hush-hush,” she added. “Refusing to give information on such a high-profile case undermines public trust in the hallowed institution. The only way for the Supreme Court to show that justice was done in the case is to come out with its details in a fully transparent way.”
Bharadwaj insisted that she merely asked basic questions. “The Supreme Court could have blackened portions which they thought violated privacy concerns but a blanket denial of how it went about resolving the complaint surely cannot be justified on the grounds of not wanting to invade anyone’s privacy,” she added.
In April last year, the woman, who had earlier worked as a junior court assistant at the Supreme Court, alleged in an affidavit that Gogoi made sexual advances on her at his residence office on October 10 and October 11, 2018. She had sent a complaint to 22 judges of the Supreme Court on April 19 and called for an inquiry into the actions of Gogoi, who she said not only harassed her but was also responsible for her subsequent victimisation, and that of her family.
The complainant had said that after she rebuffed the chief justice, she was moved out of his residence office, where she had been posted in August 2018. Later on December 21, she was dismissed from service. She claimed her husband and brother-in-law were suspended from the Delhi Police on December 28, 2018, for a criminal case involving a colony dispute dating back to 2012 that had been mutually resolved.
Gogoi denied the allegations during a special hearing he called on April 20. The chief justice said he did not “deem it appropriate” to reply to the allegations but claimed they were part of a “bigger plot”, possibly one to “deactivate the office of the CJI”.
On April 30, the woman withdrew from the inquiry as she had not been allowed to have a lawyer present at depositions and was not informed about the procedure that would be followed. On May 6, the in-house committee rejected her complaint and the court’s secretary general said the panel had found “no substance” in her allegations. The next day, the complainant had asked the court’s in-house committee to give her a copy of their report exonerating Gogoi. The court official said that the inquiry committee’s report was not liable to be made public.
On January 22, media reports said the Supreme Court has reinstated the complainant. The woman joined duty and then went on leave. They added that all her arrears have been cleared.