Thursday, March 4, 2021

Crisis of credibility

The Indian judiciary which is already facing a crisis of credibility of late has been further burdened by the manner in which the apex court has handled the allegations of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi. The allegations levelled by a former staffer of court cannot simply be wished away with a cosmetic sitting of the court and peddling the conspiracy theory. They deserve to be investigated fairly without anybody’s sense of judgement clouding the probe and trial. That should have been ensured by the Supreme Court for dispensation of justice and to restore public faith in the judiciary. Instead the court has tried its best to create confusion by holding a special court in which the CJI, against whom the petitioner has made allegations in an affidavit, was present. This has given the impression that CJI is above the law and has thus severely compromised the independence of the judiciary. Judges cannot judge themselves and begin churning out statements of conspiracy theories without furnishing any evidence, as has happened in this particular case. The unethical manner in which the CJI has behaved has only encouraged the case to be judged by others without any evidence. Lobbies of lawyers have already begun rallying behind the conspiracy theory and turning the entire affair into another public panchayat. The Chief Justice must understand the larger repercussions of this and come forward to both stem the rot that is likely to follow. Besides, the only way he can credibly prove his ‘innocence’ if he so believes that the allegations are frivolous, malicious and are inspired by a conspiracy against him is to subject himself to an independent inquiry. The allegations cannot be allowed to follow the same pattern as the case of then sitting union minister M J Akbar, who used similar pretexts when faced by allegations and refused to resign. If Akbar’s refusal to step down and submit himself to an inquiry following serious allegations of sexual misconduct by at least a dozen former women journalists and the government’s silence over the issue were an indication of both the BJP government’s consistent position with respect to grave charges of all sorts against its functionaries as well as the government’s contempt for gender equality, then this time it is the judiciary that will be seen as prejudiced, irresponsible with scant regard for either gender equality or law of the land. The credibility of institutions that restore public faith in them and in democracy is extremely crucial and this must not be eroded. The credibility of an independent judiciary is vital not only to act as a check on the other institutions of democracy but to also effectively act as a check against itself. That is why there is greater need for the court to conduct itself on the basis of morality and ethics. As former Supreme Court judge, N Santosh Hegde said the integrity of the top court as an institution has taken a big blow, and that it will take a long time for the Supreme Court to come out of “these problems.” “It’s a very sad state of affairs irrespective of the ultimate results. The institutional integrity has taken a big blow,” a PTI report quoted him as having said. In a belated action aimed at damage control after much criticism over the handling of the allegations against CJI, a three-member committee of Supreme Court judges led by Justice SA Bobde has been formed to look into allegations of sexual harassment raised by a former employee against the CJI. While a full bench hearing or an independent probe in the case would have been more appropriate what is important is that the three-member committee is guided not by prejudice but by evidence and principles of justice and fair play. At the same time, the case also highlights the need for an adequate mechanism that is credible for dealing with allegations against sitting judges.