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CJI sexual harassment case: Coddling of Utsav Bains, treatment of Ranjan Gogoi's accuser reveal structural sexism

Today, a Supreme Court bench heard lawyer Utsav Bains' allegations of how the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi is being targeted by "a conspiracy". Also today, a Supreme Court panel committee of three judges junior to the CJI, justices SA Bobde, NV Ramana and Indira Banerjee, met on the matter of inquiring into the sexual harassment allegations against the CJI. The committee issued a notice to the accuser requiring her to attend the first hearing on 26 April.

The contrast between the two hearings can’t have been starker and offers a startling view into the structural sexism at play here, and the absurd differences in how both parties are being treated in the highest court of the land.

 CJI sexual harassment case: Coddling of Utsav Bains, treatment of Ranjan Gogois accuser reveal structural sexism

File photo of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. PTI

The bench of justices Arun Mishra, RF Nariman and Deepak Gupta took Bains’ allegations with utmost seriousness, to the extent of summoning the chiefs of the CBI, Delhi Police and the Intelligence Bureau for an in-chamber meeting to discuss the contents of his affidavit. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta suggested that it all be investigated thoroughly by a Special Investigative Team (SIT) under the SC's supervision. Bains has been given permission to file yet another affidavit tomorrow. In contrast, Justice Bobde of the SC panel inquiring into the sexual harassment allegations told the media that theirs would be an "in-house procedure" but not a "formal judicial proceeding" and so wouldn't allow the female accuser to be represented by a lawyer. There is no time limit to the inquiry and in any case, the inquiry will remain confidential.

The judges expressed grave concern for Bains' security and asked multiple times for police protection for him since "he has to be protected from all sources, from everything," given how "this is a very serious issue". Meanwhile, in the third related court hearing today in this saga, the female complainant against the CJI is still being pursued by the Delhi Police in an unrelated case that she claims to be fabricated: the police are seeking cancellation of her bail and have retained her mobile phone and computer (an FIR was originally filed in the case against her on 3 March and the police promptly fetched her from her Rajasthan village on 8 March. She was formally kept in police custody on 10 March, sent to judicial custody on 11 March and released on bail the next day. The Delhi Court adjourned the matter today to 23 May).

Bains, a man who inserted himself willy-nilly into a case that is of larger consequences, was allowed prima donna antics and statements in court.

He was not only handled with kid gloves, he was coddled to an astonishing degree. At one point, he had an outburst against sexual harassment claims: "These claims could be made against me, you, them! My maid could say I raped her... I feel disgusted to be a lawyer!"

He apparently started to walk out of the proceedings since he was annoyed by Justice Nariman, with Justice Mishra having to call him back. And Bains point blank refused when the solicitor general asked for an apology for his earlier conduct, resulting in Justice Mishra again intervening and actually apologising on Bains’ behalf: "With full authority, we say 'sorry'," he reportedly concluded. Imagine the female complainant getting a fraction of this kind of solicitous attention from the court.

All of this rope has been given to someone who is happily weaving one conspiracy theory after another, as pointed out by lawyer Manu Sebastian: First, Bains alleged in his Facebook post that a lobby of judges, fixers, corporate scamsters and corrupt politicians was behind the sexual harassment allegations against the CJI. Then today he claimed in his affidavit that it was actually some corporate bosses and fixers. And now he intends to file another affidavit tomorrow alleging that it was actually some disgruntled ex-SC employees who hatched the conspiracy. (Murali Krishnan, associate editor at Bar & Bench, pointed out that back in July 2017, a Supreme Court bench presided by Justice Ranjan Gogoi had also ordered police protection for Utsav Bains).

All Bains had to do was write a post on Facebook to be taken so seriously by the senior judges of the Supreme Court.

But the same court has dragged its feet over Gogoi’s accuser’s allegations, which she couriered to 22 SC judges in a notarised 28-page affidavit with 108 pages of annexures.

All of this follows the dismal, bizarre and illegal special SC hearing last Saturday when CJI Gogoi presided over a bench and projected the idea of the allegations being a larger conspiracy against the judiciary and himself. That day saw all the various powerful men of our legal system closing ranks around the CJI without any call for due process or investigation, including the attorney general, the solicitor general and the Supreme Court secretary general.

This is again in sharp contrast to 259 women lawyers, scholars and activists who have written a stern letter today to all Supreme Court judges questioning the constitution of the three-judge committee headed by Justice Bobde that has no external members, since it is "complete violation of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act 2013”. Instead, they seek the forming of a Special Enquiry Committee that will probe the allegations within the legally-mandated 90-day period. These women have also demanded that the CJI step down from official duties till the inquiry is complete, and that the female complainant be allowed legal representation from a lawyer of her choice.

The letter further condemned the actions, thus far, of their male peers: “We are both shocked and saddened that the Chief Justice of India as well as the Special Bench have responded as most men, in public office or in positions of authority and power do, when accused of sexual misconduct. Denial of the allegations, maligning the complainant, citing past histories, imputing ulterior motives to the complainant are familiar and regular devices deployed by accused men. Equally common is the undertaking of vindictive measures including administrative harassment and suits of defamation against complainants.”

The complainant raised her own “concerns and apprehensions” today about the inquiry committee of three judges who intend to hear her allegations and requested that she be informed of the committee’s procedure in advance, be allowed a lawyer and support person, and be provided a video recording of the proceedings. She has also declared that the 20 April special hearing “damaged her character” and that various men’s assault on her allegations and character — including other SC judges, the AG, SG and finance minister Arun Jaitley —  left her “frightened and helpless” and “feeling isolated and depressed.”

She also pointed to how Justice NV Ramana of the committee — who later recused himself — made dismissive public remarks about her and is extremely close to the CJI. She reiterated the request from her affidavit for a special inquiry committee of six retired SC justices to investigate the matter.

In the hectic activity of the day, perhaps the most unexpected question to surface was from senior advocate Indira Jaising. Bains had claimed in court today that “just to file the affidavit, I took an auto at 4 am,” whereas Jaising tweeted asking why “a white Jaguar Taxi carrying Utsav Babis [sic] with a Harayana Number plate and no pass allowed to enter the Supreme Court on Monday 22 April and park in the High Security area where the Attorney General and  ASGs park their cars ? Who’s guest was he?”

We don’t know whose guest ‘Babis’ might have been, but while Bains has been the court’s esteemed mehmaan, the complainant is being treated like a marauder.

Gaurav Jain is the co-founder of The Ladies Finger (TLF), India’s leading online women’s magazine.

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 20:39:36 IST