What is happening in the top judicial institution of our country is most disturbing. Holding of a historical press conference by four Supreme Court judges, one of whom is the present Chief Justice of India (CJI), Ranjan Gogoi, last January had already raised alarm bells on the independence of the judiciary. Now with the surfacing of the sexual harassment case against the CJI by a former woman employee of the Supreme Court and the subsequent developments have further shaken the people’s confidence in the judiciary.
After reports of the allegations broke on April 20, a Special Bench was immediately convened to look into the matter of grave public importance touching upon the independence of the judiciary. The Special Bench comprised CJI Ranjan Gogoi along with Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna, though the Court order passed that day did not reflect the name of the CJI.
A report on these allegations was published on April 20 by four websites. It provided details of the contents of the 28-page affidavit sent by the woman to all SC judges calling for a probe into the allegations. She stated that she was employed as Junior Court Staff and alleged that while she was on duty at the residential chambers of CJI Gogoi, she was sexually harassed by him.
Many former judges and legal experts, including Supreme Court Bar Association and Supreme Court Advocates on Record Association representing lawyers practising in the Supreme Court, criticised the CJI for hearing his own case and passing comments on the woman’s character in her absence. After the criticism, a three-member in-house committee of the Supreme Court headed by Justice SA Bobde was constituted on April 23 to investigate the allegations against the CJI.
The CJI, who was part of the bench hearing the suo moto case of sexual harassment on April 20, said that a bigger force may be at work to deactivate the office of the CJI. He also mentioned the Prime Minister’s Office along with CJI’s office in referring to the conspiracy of bigger forces.
Providing credence to the apprehension of the CJI, advocate Utsav Bains made sensational claims that he was offered money to frame CJI Gogoi in a sexual harassment case. Bains has claimed in court that the mastermind behind the conspiracy is one of the biggest corporates in the country.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, without waiting for the outcome of the probe, strongly defended CJI Gogoi. Jaitley said that a set of “institution disruptors” with Left and ultra-Left leanings, along with a section of the Bar, had launched an unprecedented assault on the judiciary. The Bar Council of India, a statutory body that regulates legal practice and legal education in India, also immediately condemned the false and cooked-up sexual harassment allegations against CJI Gogoi.
Endorsing the “larger conspiracy” against the CJI office theory, Justice Arun Mishra, who is part of the SC bench said, “We want to send a message to the rich and the powerful that they cannot run the Supreme Court.” While taking note of the issue of the independence of the judiciary, Justice Mishra also observed that no CJI had the courage to take action against certain elements, whereas CJI Gogoi wanted to clean up the system and was taking action without any fear.
Meanwhile, Justice NV Ramana has recused himself from the three-member committee formed to inquire into the allegations of sexual harassment after the complainant expressed apprehensions regarding Justice Ramana’s presence on the panel, owing to his proximity to the CJI.
It is interesting to note that the Facebook post by advocate Bains had alleged that a “lobby of disgruntled judges” was also part of this plot, in addition to corporate scamsters and corrupt politicians. However, the mention of “lobby of disgruntled judges” was omitted in the affidavit. This omission was pointed out in the court by Attorney General KK Venugopal.
All these developments certainly bode ill for the judiciary. Many feel that if there is nothing to hide, then the court should hear the case in the open with a live telecast in the media. This is a good way to restore the credibility of the judiciary, when it is perhaps, facing its biggest test. The SC judges, including CJI Gogoi, expressed its displeasure on the media by asking it to be responsible and wise while publishing news so as to not affect the independence of the judiciary. However, the question arises as to how publication of news in the media on alleged sexual harassment against a judge by none other than an employee of the court affects the independence of the judiciary?
In the #MeToo wave, former Union Minister and veteran journalist MJ Akbar had to resign from the ministry. What if Akbar had argued that publishing news of sexual harassment against him by would affect the independence of his ministry or government? The media cannot totally blackout such news.
Now the case has reached the apex court and inquiry committees have also been set up. The media is covering the court proceedings, comments of former judges, legal experts and social activists. Is this coverage affecting the independence of the media? Should the media keep silent for the sake of the so-called idea of not compromising the independence of the judiciary in such a case?
Journalists covering anomalies and corruption in the judiciary are increasingly facing the ire of the courts. Patricia Mukhim and Sobha Choudhury, editor and publisher, respectively, of The Shillong Times were told to pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh or face imprisonment for 6 months for publishing a story on a row between the officials of Meghalaya government and the Meghalaya High Court on salaries and perks of the judges. The Supreme Court later stayed the conviction, but the action against the editor and the publisher attracted national and international condemnation.
Journalists’ organisations fear that such harassment and pressure on the media by all other estates of democracy may result in self-censorship in the media and curtailment of free speech, which is dangerous for the biggest democracy in the world.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)