Book excerpt: Chintan Chandrachud chronicles ten momentous legal cases from India, erased from public memory

  • In The Cases That India Forgot, constitutional expert Chintan Chandrachud details ten impactful, dramatic legal cases, spanning from the 1950s to the present day, that have become erased from public memory.

  • Dividing the cases across four sections — Politics, Gender, Religion, National Security — he offers overviews of these cases in an easy to follow, lively narrative.

In The Cases That India Forgot, constitutional expert Chintan Chandrachud details ten impactful, dramatic legal cases, spanning from the 1950s to the present day, that have become erased from public memory. Dividing the cases across four sections — Politics, Gender, Religion, National Security — he offers overviews of these cases in an easy to follow, lively narrative.

The following is an excerpt from the book's fifth chapter, 'RD Bajaj versus KPS Gill,' which discusses a case of sexual harassment that spanned seventeen years, and outlines the inherent challenge of providing justice through upholding laws fashioned after a Victorian sensibility of modesty.

This excerpt from The Cases That India Forgot, written by Chintan Chandrachud, has been reproduced here with kind permission from the publisher, Juggernaut Books.

 Book excerpt: Chintan Chandrachud chronicles ten momentous legal cases from India, erased from public memory

The Cases That India Forgot by Chintan Chandrachud.

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On Wednesday, 27 July, 2005, senior civil servant Rupan Deol Bajaj’s quest for justice finally came to a close. The Supreme Court confirmed the conviction of KPS Gill, the ‘supercop’ who ended the militancy and Khalistan separatist movement in Punjab, for slapping her on the bottom at a party in 1988. This was the culmination of a legal process that was neither swift nor easy. It involved no less than eight judgments over a period of seventeen years; decisions by several senior judges; complaints to bureaucrats, by bureaucrats, against bureaucrats; and claims of government secrecy and privilege. In the time that the case meandered from one court to the next, India had seen eighteen chief justices and nine prime ministers. And yet, the legacy of this case remained highly contested.

On 18 July, 1988, Surrinder Lal Kapur – an IAS officer and a senior bureaucrat in the Punjab government – hosted a dinner party at his home in Sector 16, Chandigarh. Kapur was known for throwing ‘lively parties’, with an abundance of alcohol, that were frequented by the city’s elites. This one was no different, with a guest list that included twenty-five of the most senior bureaucrats, police officers and lawyers in the city, many of whom were accompanied by their spouses. The joint director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the inspector general of the Chandigarh Police and the advocate general of Punjab were all present that evening. In the recent past, the government of Punjab had developed a strategy of cultivating the media for better press, in order to secure more favourable coverage of its response to the separatist movement. In step with this strategy, Kapur had also invited a group of journalists (including from the Hindustan Times, the Indian Express, the Press Trust of India and India Today) to the party.

Among the most high-profile attendees that evening was KPS Gill, director general of the Punjab Police. Gill had acquired the reputation of being an uncompromising and ruthless police officer, and was tasked with addressing the widespread violence in the state. As one scholar noted, Gill ‘offered the terrorists a stark choice: they could either die for their idea of God, or live for themselves. There was no third option.’ He had just come off a resounding success in Operation Black Thunder, in which a large group of terrorists was cleared from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Rupan Deol Bajaj and her husband BR Bajaj, both senior IAS officers of the Punjab cadre, arrived at the Kapur residence at about 9 pm. The guests were seated in the lawn at the back of the house. As was customary, cane chairs were arranged to form two semicircles facing one another – the men would sit in one of the semicircles and the women in the other. About an hour later, Gill walked over to the women’s semicircle, and occupied a vacant chair about five to six seats away from Mrs Bajaj. Many of the women seated around Gill happened to be rising from their seats and entering the house around that time. Gill called out to Bajaj, and asked her to sit on the vacant chair next to him. He pulled the chair closer to his as Bajaj was about to sit down. Bajaj pulled the chair back to its original position, but Gill repeated the gesture. Realizing that ‘something was very wrong’, Bajaj returned to her original seat between two women in the semicircle.

A few minutes later, Gill approached and stood directly in front of Bajaj – so close that his legs were about four inches from her knees. Crooking his finger, he demanded that she stand up and come along with him. By this time, the other women in the semicircle were ‘shocked and speechless’. Bajaj responded, ‘Mr Gill, how dare you! You are behaving in an obnoxious manner, go away from here.’ When Gill persisted with his request, Bajaj pulled her chair back, creating enough room to exit between her chair and the chair of one of the women sitting next to her (who was Mrs Bijlani, the wife of the managing director of a company that manufactured machinery). As Bajaj rose from her chair and turned to leave, Gill slapped her on the bottom.

Bajaj was furious and determined not to let this pass. Her initial response was to approach her host Kapur, who was standing on a paved platform adjacent to the lawn. Unrepentant, Gill followed Bajaj on her way to speak to Kapur. She told Kapur that Gill was not fit for decent company, that he had misbehaved with her, and that he had gone to the extent of hitting her. Together with another guest, Kapur then physically escorted Gill away from the lawn and into the house. Bajaj also narrated the incident to GC Pathak, the joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, who was standing by. Pathak promised that he had made a note of this incident and would report it to the relevant authorities within the central government.

Bajaj was congratulated by the other women for her fortitude in dealing with Gill’s conduct. When she informed her husband about what had happened, his instinct was to pursue Gill at that moment. She restrained him from doing so, particularly since members of the press were present. Bajaj later recounted that as they were leaving, she overheard one of the other guests deplore Gill’s behaviour from that evening: ‘This man made me feel like vomiting.’ Even as many of the guests left the party with a bad taste in their mouth, most of them would have expected that what happened at the Kapur residence would stay in the Kapur residence. There was a tacit understanding that these elite gatherings were meant to be closed to the outside world, misbehaviour or not.

Bajaj had other ideas. She was determined on seeing Gill reprimanded for his misconduct. Since they were both members of the civil service, Bajaj thought that disciplinary action against Gill by the government (rather than criminal proceedings) would be the swiftest and most effective response. She approached RP Ojha, chief secretary of Punjab and ‘blue eyed boy’ to Governor SS Ray. Ojha’s response was unsympathetic: ‘Rupan, these things keep happening. You are not diminished. Consider yourself lucky, it could have been worse . . .’ She then approached Julio Ribeiro, Gill’s predecessor as director general of the Punjab Police. Ribeiro was now adviser to the governor. He took note as Bajaj recounted the events of that evening. He promised to share a draft of the note with her before sending it to the governor, to enable Bajaj to confirm that it was accurate. As it happens, the report was sent to the governor the next day without the draft being shared with Bajaj.

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Updated Date: Jan 09, 2020 11:54:17 IST