For the Supreme Court, it has been an extraordinary and controversial week with charges of a conspiracy to fix benches and control judicial proceedings. This came in the wake of an unprecedented development—sexual harassment charges against the country’s highest judicial authority, Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi. The accuser is a female ex-staffer of the Court who had worked in his office and was subsequently handpicked by the CJI himself to work in his residential office.
In a sworn affidavit submitted to 22 judges of the apex court, she charged the CJI with sexually harassing her. In the affidavit, she said that after she rebuffed his advances, she was dismissed from service, asked to apologise to Justice Gogoi’s wife, as demanded by the latter, her disabled brother-in-law, who had been appointed to the Supreme Court on October 9 as a temporary junior court attendant, was served a termination letter on January 14 with no reasons given. And on April 26, the ex-Supreme Court staffer recorded her statement before a three-judge Court panel comprising Justices SA Bobde, Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra. The statement was recorded over two hours at the SC guesthouse on Shahjahan Road in Delhi.
The week since the drama began has seen many twists and turns, and it did not take long for the conspiracy theories to start gaining ground. According to well-placed sources, the people behind the conspiracy range from corporates, disgruntled judges and serial petitioners to a few female employees of the apex court and some sacked employees. They said that among those who prepared the 97-para complaint were two well known lawyer activists who are said to have the backing of two former Supreme Court judges. Many more, it is said, are being sounded out. With CJI Gogoi due to retire in November, there is a powerful group that is keen to virtually control the judiciary and put its stamp on the establishment.
Such theories were given credence by the manner and speed with which events were coordinated and ultimately played out. Barely had the woman ex-SC staffer despatched her allegations to 22 Supreme Court judges on April 19, than some news portals went to town with them. Not just that, some burnt the midnight oil preparing and then despatching questionnaires to the chief justice. The editors of one portal, who partied well beyond midnight at a five-star hotel in East Delhi, went back to their offices to prepare and dispatch a questionnaire to the chief justice. In a pre-dawn reply to the questions sent to the CJI, the secretary general of the Supreme Court sent an email denying the allegations.
The CJI, meanwhile, was making his own plans. The courts were closed from April 17 on account of Mahavir Jayanti and scheduled to reopen only after the Easter weekend on April 22. Sources say the “conspirators” probably assumed that the long gap between the night of Good Friday when the letter was sent and Monday morning when courts were scheduled to open gave them enough time to drag the office of the CJI through the dirt.
They were, however, stunned when CJI Gogoi, displaying amazing reflexes, decided to call their bluff and take them head-on. He called for a three-member bench to sit on April 20 (a Saturday) to hear the complaint against himself. The CJI knew it was a decision that would draw much flak and it did. The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association (SCAORA) questioned the propriety of the CJI constituting a committee with himself on it to look into a complaint against him. But cleverly, all that the CJI did at the hurriedly called meeting was to make a few general remarks, the most critical being that “there has to be a bigger force behind this….There are people behind this conspiracy who want to deactivate the office of the CJI”. He went on to add that his Court was scheduled to hear several important cases in the coming week and he sensed a political plot to destabilise the proceedings.
Among them were two that related to politicians—one was connected with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the other involved Congress president Rahul Gandhi. In the first, Modi’s presence was not called for as it related to the biopic on him starring Vivek Oberoi and the case was about staying the release of the film until after the polls were over. But Rahul’s case was more serious, a contempt case that the Court itself had suo motu taken up against him after he had allegedly twisted the Court’s verdict in the Rafale revision petition and put in the words “Chowkidar chor hai”. The case was to come up on April 22, a Monday, when Rahul was asked to reply to the notice. But after the fast-moving events involving the CJI and the Court, Rahul apologised and promised never ever to twist the Court’s words in future.
By then, the subplot had become the main story. On April 23, a three-member bench of the Court asserted that it would get to the “root” of the alleged conspiracy if it was established that “fixers” were targeting the CJI with allegations of sexual harassment.
This came after an advocate, Utsav Bains, filed an affidavit wherein he said he had enough evidence to prove there was a conspiracy by corporate houses and “fixers” to get CJI Gogoi to resign. He reportedly handed over material in a sealed cover, which he said contained CCTV footage that “will reveal many things”. Bains also took to social media, where in one post, he wrote about a “lobby of disgruntled judges” who were also actively involved in the plot to implicate CJI Gogoi and get him to resign.
After Bains made his startling revelations, the Court summoned the chiefs of the CBI, IB and Delhi Police and after “deliberating” with them, a bench was constituted. It comprised Justices Arun Mishra, RF Nariman and Deepak Gupta and said that Bains in his affidavit had said that two court masters, both of whom were sacked after they had manipulated a Court order to favour Anil Ambani, and the former female employee who had worked in the CJI’s court had conspired to concoct these charges.
It may be recalled that four months ago, the Court had ordered the personal appearance of Ambani in a contempt plea filed by Ericsson against the now defunct Reliance Communications and its chairman for failure to pay nearly Rs 500 crore to it. However, the summons that was carried on the Supreme Court website stated that the personal appearance of Ambani was not required. After the counsel for Ericsson pointed out the discrepancy, the Court ordered a probe. The probe revealed that the summons order was deliberately changed by the two court masters. They were subsequently sacked. “We will inquire into the alleged claims of fixers at work and manipulating the judiciary. If they continue to work, then none of us will survive.… Fixing has no role to play in the system. We will inquire and take it to the logical end,” the bench said. It also ordered that the Bains’ affidavit be “kept in a sealed cover in total confidentiality as it contains highly sensitive information pertaining to the alleged conspiracy, according to him, to frame the Chief Justice of India in a case of sexual harassment”.
April 25 brought another twist in the tale as Justice NV Ramana, who was part of the three-member committee constituted to look into the original sexual harassment charges against the CJI, recused himself from the probe. The panel is headed by Justice SA Bobde, the most senior judge who will take over as the head of the Supreme Court when CJI Gogoi retires in November. It also included Justice Indira Banerjee.
Its proceedings began on April 26, but a day earlier, the woman ex-SC staffer expressed her reservations about the presence of Justice Ramana on the panel. She alleged that he was a close friend of the CJI. According to her, at a function in Hyderabad two days after she levelled her charges against CJI Gogoi, Justice Ramana rubbished them. As such, she feared she may not get an “objective and fair hearing” from a committee of which Justice Ramana was a part.
Following this, Justice Ramana, in a three-page letter to his colleagues in the SC, asked to be recused. He wrote: “My decision to recuse is based on an intent to avoid any suspicion that this institution will not conduct itself in keeping with the highest standards of judicial propriety and wisdom….” Referring to the former woman staffer’s complaint that he was a close friend of the CJI, Justice Ramana wrote in his recusal letter: “The Chief Justice of India is primus inter pares, who allots a variety of administrative duties and responsibilities to the Judges…My visits to the residence of Chief Justice of India cannot, therefore, suggest any proximity than what is absolutely normal under the circumstances. Thus, the apprehension expressed by the complainant in this regard is wholly misconceived….” His place was taken by Justice Indu Malhotra.
This scenario is virtually unprecedented in the judiciary. While an in-house committee examines allegations of sexual harassment against the CJI, another one headed by a former SC judge, Justice AK Patnaik, will probe the alleged conspiracy theory.
The core of the issue lies in what Justice Ramana stated in his letter: “Let my recusal be a clear message to the nation that there should be no fears about probity in our institution, and that we will not refrain from going to any extent to protect the trust reposed in us. That is, after all, our final source of moral strength.”
Originally published on India Legal on 28 April 2019, republished with permission.