A special bench comprising of the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Sanjiv Khanna convened a sitting at 10.30 am on 20 April to discuss a matter which, according to the notice put up in the Supreme Court of India, was "to deal with a matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of judiciary”.
It was thereafter learned at 10.30 am that the matter pertained to the claim of sexual harassment made against CJI Gogoi by a former Supreme Court employee. Media houses including Scroll, The Wire, The Leaflet and Caravan India had earlier published an article wherein it was alleged that the CJI had sexually harassed the employee in his premises and thereafter her family was adversely affected in terms of loss of jobs and other such institutional torments. This was sworn by the employee in an affidavit which she submitted to 22 Supreme Court judges.
As Live Law reported, the CJI began the hearing by making it clear that every employee in the court is treated fairly and decently. However, there were allegations made by the employee but at that point of time, he did not deem it fit to reply. The CJI pointed out that this cannot just be a plot of a junior assistant but would involve something big which would be trying to deactivate the office of the CJI.
Interestingly, he also remarked that the independence of the judiciary is under serious threat due to this as if judges would be compelled to work under these conditions, then good people will never come to office. Thereafter, the CJI recused himself from this case.
This step taken by the CJI to recuse himself from the case doesn't deserve acclaim but right thing to do when compared to the matter concerning who the master of the roster is; Justice Dipak Misra while acting as the CJI had held that he himself, as the CJI, is the master of the roster.
The question now that lies for our broad consideration is that whether this allegation can be construed to be a personal attack on Justice Gogoi or an attack against the institution of judiciary. To answer this, we need to delve into the rationale behind providing the judiciary with a protection against unruly criticism.
The courts have in many judgments mentioned the reason as being to safeguard public interest which otherwise would be adversely impacted by such criticism. As such a comment holds the power to diminish the reputation of the courts in the eyes of common people and thus fade away the trust that they have in the system, just because of a fake remark, protection of the institution of judiciary is of utmost importance.
However, this does not take away the freedom of the citizens to criticise the judiciary in all honesty, in its inept functioning. What is not allowed is an unfair comment that erodes the public confidence in the institution. Bearing this in mind, when the highest judicial authority in the country is being challenged, the matter itself attains public importance and thus this matter can be said to be one that is against the judiciary as an institution, especially in the context of the important decisions that the Supreme Court is to take in the near future. This matter needs urgent and serious attention.
So, how exactly should the judiciary proceed from here? Ideally, the judiciary should tackle the matter head on and provide the employee all means to fight her case by ensuring that due process is followed. If there is to be the hand of some other external and more powerful force in this matter, and it is found that the employee was just being used as a scapegoat, then that entity should be recognised and admonished but care should be taken while dictating the punishment to the employee.
However, in the unfortunate event of the allegations being proved, the apex court should not hold back from levelling punishment on one of their own, because in the eyes of the law, each and every one is equal in the country, irrespective of the fact that this hasn’t ever happened in our history. This incident should serve as a cause to set strong precedent by the court in such matters instead of brushing them under the carpet.
The author is an assistant professor of law at Maharashtra National Law University in Mumbai
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Updated Date: Apr 21, 2019 13:19:30 IST