If independence of the judiciary means unquestioned power without accountability, then that power needs to be counterbalanced by other state organs or institutions apart from the judges themselves. This issue has emerged afresh after the 46th Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi pontificated while heading a thee-judge bench in the Supreme Court about judicial independence being endangered after being charged with sexual molestation by a 35-year-old married former woman employee of the Supreme Court who alleged she, her husband and brothers-in-law were hounded out of their jobs after she rebuffed the CJI’s sexual advances.
Allegedly driven to penury, she took the unprecedented step of sending an affidavit signed, sworn and verified with her signature to the office-cum-residences of 22 Supreme Court judges, giving details of the alleged sexual overtures by CJI Ranjan Gogoi. The woman may not be above board, because an FIR was registered against her for allegedly promising a job in the Supreme Court to a security guard who earns Rs 15,000 per month. The woman claims she has been framed.
Another twist to the drama is the Supreme Court has issued notice to a lawyer, Utsav Bains, who alleged there was a criminal conspiracy to frame CJI Ranjan Gogoi to get him to resign prior to his hearing very sensitive cases with political ramifications. Bains has claimed he was offered Rs 1.50 crore to represent the woman. But Justice Rajan Kochhar who retired from the Bombay high court in 2003 said just because a person occupies high public office does not mean he may not misuse his office.
There have been instances of a few judges having misused their public office for private gain. But another retired judge of the same high court, Justice Kolse-Patil, has said a criminal conspiracy by communal groups to silence the CJI could not be ruled out.
The immediate fall-out of this scandal has been that most male Supreme Court judges have sought male staffers at their office-cum-residences where law interns may be required to work late night hunting for law citations and judgments delivered among a few of the over 192 Supreme Courts spread all over the world.
It is not known if the three women judges of the Supreme Court, Justices R. Bhanumathi, Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee will prefer to opt for all-women staff for their office-cum-residences if their male counterparts prefer all-male staff to avoid controversies. The CJI is first and foremost a citizen of India and cannot use his august office to rebut charges in open court levelled against him by this former Supreme Court staffer in her absence and when the complaint is not on-board.
The complaint has yet to be verified before charges are framed against the accused and a trial commences. Judges get immunity for their actions in court but not for administrative actions such as transferring a woman staffer to his office-cum-residence with dubious intent and allegedly giving her brother-in-law a job as a court attendant by allegedly misusing the CJI’s discretionary quota.
By proclaiming he has a bank balance of just Rs 6,80,000/- after 20 years in the judiciary is not enough to exonerate a CJI of being impervious to so-called feminine pulchritude like any other Indian male. To counter the CJI’s declaration of having meagre life savings, the president of the Gujarat High Court Bar Association, Sr Advocate Yatin Oza, has demanded the CJI make public the income of his son and son-in-law “which runs into billions.
This return would not reflect even ten per cent of income if Your Lordship was not a judge of the Supreme Court,” alleged this senior advocate in his open letter to the CJI. Two earlier Supreme Court judges, Justice Swatanter Kumar and Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly who were former chief justices of the Bombay high court and Madras high court respectively, were also accused of sexual impropriety by two women law interns. Justice Swatanter Kumar filed a Rs 5 crore defamation suit to get his photograph and news related to these allegations of sexual impropriety against him removed from the archives of these national media houses.
But this is the first time in Indian judicial history that a sitting CJI has been accused of sexual impropriety. Before he was sworn-in, his predecessor, the 45th CJI Dipak Misra was accused of alleged “bench-fixing” which he denied by repeatedly proclaiming he was the “master of the roster” which meant he was imbued with the omniscience to decide which bench would hear specific and sensitive cases of national importance.
This sinister doctrine stands demolished with the 45th CJI and 46th CJI being embroiled in controversies. Significantly, former Supreme Court judge, Justice Kurien Joseph had declared after he retired that the former CJI Dipak Misra was (allegedly) “remotely controlled” by an outside agency while delivering sensitive political judgments and while appointing judges to the 24 high courts and the Supreme Court.
What is significant is the former staffer of the Supreme Court has complained 14 months after an earth-shattering press conference by four senior judges of the Supreme Court on January 12, 2018 declaring the independence of the judiciary was at stake. Without naming him, they attacked the former CJI Dipak Misra who kept repeating ad nauseam that he was the master of the roster. Interestingly, CJI Ranjan Gogoi was himself part of these so-called “rebel judges” who attacked the former CJI Dipak Misra.
Justice Gogoi confirmed that a sensitive PIL seeking a probe into the suspicious death of Judge Loya was allotted by his predecessor CJI Dipak Misra to a bench of his choice with pre-determined outcomes. After he returned to Assam, Justice Gogoi made a volte face and declared “everything was okay within the judiciary.”
But to return to the scandal which has erupted, the woman employee gives specifics as to how the 46th CJI allegedly took a personal interest in her career and transferred her to his private office where she alleges he misbehaved with her on October 10 and 11, 2018.
The fact here is that there is no doubt CJI Ranjan Gogoi knew this woman employee of the Supreme Court who was sacked. Whether there exists a sinister conspiracy to force the CJI to resign or he got entangled in a web of his own making remains to be seen.
Olav Albuquerque holds a PhD in Media Law. He is a journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay High Court.