It seems no institution is sacrosanct. Not any longer. The highest court itself has not escaped unseemly controversy either, often of its own making. Last year in January, the current Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi joined three other senior-most judges to rail against alleged attempts to compromise the independence of the judiciary. That was an unprecedented move. Four senior-most judges of the apex court leveled unsubstantiated charges against the then CJI Dipak Mishra.
That did no credit to the four judges. Soon doubts arose that the protest could jeopardize the chances of the senior-most judge Gogoi succeeding Mishra as CJI. Those doubts were misconceived. Ironically, now Gogoi himself is at the receiving end of damaging allegations of sexual harassment leveled by a junior court assistant. There may not be an iota of truth in these allegations but it is bound to further harm the image of the higher judiciary.
The way the story unfolded last Saturday would suggest a deep-rooted conspiracy to browbeat the CJI, to compromise the integrity and independence of the court. The woman-assistant, who had since been dismissed, claimed in a petition sent to four anti-government news portals and to 22 judges of the apex court that Gogoi sought sexual favours from her. This allegedly happened on a number of occasions, ending finally in her removal from his personal office back in October last year. What was she doing from October to April 19 remains unexplained.
Could it be that she was put up to it by those who have reason to be unhappy at the judicial pronouncements of the court in key politically-sensitive cases? If reports doing the rounds in the legal circles are to be believed, the affidavit was the handiwork of an activist woman lawyer who had enjoyed the patronage of the UPA government. Of course, in the age of the #MeToo movement, charges of sexual harassment ought to be probed thoroughly. In this case, CJI Gogoi in an extraordinary move convened a hearing on Saturday itself after the online news portals in a coordinated manner published the woman’s affidavit.
Gogoi expressed pain and anguish that `things have gone too far’, suggesting the judiciary was being made a scapegoat in a political fight being waged outside in the country. What he left unsaid was that those wanting him to weigh judicially in favour of the opposition were out to smear him. Finance Minister and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitely in a blog virtually laid bare the dirty conspiracy when he wrote that elements in the Opposition were trying to `disrupt’ the independent functioning of the higher judiciary.
After making preliminary remarks against attempts to tarnish his reputation, saying that this was an attack on judiciary, Gogoi withdrew himself from the bench, leaving the two judges to carry on with the proceedings. Presiding judge Arun Mishra termed the allegations `wild and baseless.’ Justice Khanna said such allegations were meant to `shackle judicial independence.’
The two senior-most law officers, Attorney General K K Venugopal and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Rakesh Khanna, rubbished the allegations. In a rebuke to the media, Justice Mishra ended the proceedings with a word of advice. It was for the media to have the wisdom to show restraint, to act responsibly and not to publish anything `wild and baseless’ that affected the independence of the judiciary.
In January last year, Gogoi was lauded by the same forces for his courage and independence, while his critics obliquely suggested a political bias since his father was once a Congress chief minister of Assam. Feeling angry and let down that the same Gogoi refuses to provide relief to the same forces which had applauded him last year seems to have resulted in the allegations of sexual harassment.
It will be interesting to publicly reveal the identity of the crafty woman lawyer who wrote her petition and selected the favourable news portals for release of the same on a Saturday when the court normally does not sit and the media generally has space due to a lean news weekend. However, the victim of the calumny neutralized the well-conceived conspiracy by convening a special bench on Saturday itself.
Of course, the episode has further besmirched the institution of higher judiciary. But then politicians who threatened to impeach CJI Dipak Mishra last year can stoop to any level to serve their partisan interests. They too need to be named and shamed for serial conspiracies against judicial independence.