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SC panel's handling of sexual harassment charges against CJI Ranjan Gogoi shows why women suffer in silence

The woman who accused Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment has withdrawn from the Supreme Court's inquiry into the matter. At least that's what most media will have you believe.

What she actually said was, "I felt I was not likely to get justice from this committee, and so I am no longer participating in the three-judge committee proceedings."

The complainant has not just withdrawn from the Supreme Court's peculiar and unethical hearings — she has rejected and repudiated them.

In a press release, the complainant elaborated on the proceedings so far and her reasons for not continuing with them. The panel of judges — Justice SA Bobde, Justice Indira Banjeree and Justice Indu Malhotra, all of whom are junior to the accused CJI Gogoi — apparently told the woman that theirs was actually neither an in-house committee proceeding nor a proceeding under the Vishakha Guidelines (framed by the Supreme Court in 1997 to deal with workplace sexual harassment), but just an informal proceeding, whatever that meant. The panel not only did not follow the Vishakha Guidelines and the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Against Women at the Workplace Act, it did not bother to inform the complainant about the procedure it would be following despite her multiple requests for this information.

 SC panels handling of sexual harassment charges against CJI Ranjan Gogoi shows why women suffer in silence

File photo of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. PTI

The complainant said she was not allowed any lawyer or support person despite cross-questioning by these senior judges, and she was not supplied a copy of her own statements to the court. To top it all, the judges apparently told her to not only not disclose the proceedings to the media but also forbade her from discussing them with her own lawyer, in addition to threatening her that if she didn't cooperate and participate with these bizarre rules, they would proceed ex parte without her.

In her statement, the woman also pointed out that the judges repeatedly asked her why she had made her complaint "so late" — a classic question posed to try to discredit sexual harassment accusers. The very reason women hesitate or delay filing complaints is because of intimidation and obfuscation tactics, and a delay in reporting is not an indicator of questionable veracity but of the odds stacked against any complainant, of how men control proceedings and close ranks to protect each other.

The backlash against complaining about a powerful man is real. The woman claimed that the CJI had not only sexually harassed her but had also been also relentless in persecuting her and her family, due to which she and other family members lost their jobs and criminal cases were filed against them. Once she finally went public with her complaint, the structural sexism of the top court became clear for everyone to see. Exhibit A is lawyer Utsav Bains' wild conspiracy theories — that the CJI was being targeted at the behest of other "disgruntled" judges, court fixers, corporate scamsters and corrupt politicians — and how the Supreme Court has taken him much more seriously than the woman who complained against the chief justice.

During the #MeToo movement, many bemoaned the whisper network of accusations, both online and offline, against sexual harassers and wished that accusers would instead just follow some "due process". In this case, the complainant seems to be the only one who actually believes in due process — she has engaged a lawyer and asked the panel of Supreme court judges for a fair hearing and process. She formally couriered a notarised 28-page affidavit with 108 pages of annexures to 22 Supreme Court judges, outlining her allegations and victimisation and asking for a special inquiry committee of senior retired judges of the top court.

The Supreme Court has shown a startling disregard for following the laws of the land in investigating one of its own. The CJI, other Supreme Court judges, the Attorney General of India, solicitor general, the Supreme Court Secretary General, the Bar Council of India, the Supreme Court Employees' Welfare Association and even Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made prejudiced remarks and dismissed the former court staffer's allegations against the CJI without asking for any investigation. All these men indicated that they consider the CJI, and perhaps by extension themselves, above the law.

As senior advocate Rebecca M John said in a recent interview: "But obviously, women are not getting the sort of relief from courts, or even from the investigating system, that they should be getting. They are not prepared to face the kind of hostility the system is offering. So women think twice before deciding to go through judicial process… Most women complainants have had no redressal from the legal system."

The three-judge panel that was eventually set up after a public outcry turned out to be arbitrary at best, hijacking the space for a legitimately legal process. This is precisely why accusers often don't come forward and don't believe that any due process will be fair to them.

The complainant has refused to be bulldozed into submission by these tactics. Instead, she seems to have decided to trust our institutions and push them to be more transparent, follow the law and serve justice to survivors of sexual harassment. Instead of asking why she took so long to complain, the system needs to appreciate the courage required to point a finger at a man who has so much more power than her.

The author is the co-founder of The Ladies Finger, India's leading online feminist magazine

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Updated Date: May 02, 2019 15:31:44 IST