Unfair process


Former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, Justice A P Shah has rightly pointed out that the case of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice of India would “haunt the Supreme Court for years to come”. The highly insensitive manner without a proper and transparent investigation in which the petition of a lady staffer of the apex court against the Chief Justice has been dealt with, in complete disregard of rule of law and principles of natural justice. It is nobody’s case that the woman complainant’s word is the gospel truth but her detailed affidavit merits a proper probe. As a citizen of the country she enjoys the constitutional right to due process. Her complaint needed to be handled by following the Vishakha guidelines that sets down a due process for dealing with instances of sexual harassment at workplaces. According to these guidelines, a complainant deserves a fair and just inquiry into the allegations made. The Supreme Court should have followed that process. But what the judiciary has done is to set a terrible precedent, which will have long-term implications on the cases of sexual harassment particularly those at workplace. The handling of the case also lowers the esteem and credibility of the judiciary which is one of the vital pillars of democracy and keeps undemocratic practices in check, thus restoring public faith and confidence in the country’s democracy and all its democratic institutions. Instead of following a standard operating procedure or an in-house mechanism for dealing with the complaint, much haste and secrecy shrouded the handling of the case from day one. In an emergency hearing a three judge bench sat to decide on the complaint in which the complainant was missing but the Chief Justice, against whom the allegations had been made, was present. The final order, signed by two of the three judges, passed on the first day outrightly dismissed the charges, creating a perception of bias. It goes against the principles of natural justice for any judge to judge his own case. By going a step further to call the woman complainant’s allegations as a conspiracy, the apex court has caused great damage and harm to the country’s fight against sexual harassment as the convenient presumption that “women are habitual of lying” has come from the highest echelons of the judicial hierarchy. Some hopes of a fair procedure being adopted that had been aroused by the decision of the full bench of the apex court to constitute an in-house committee to look into the allegations, even though the more appropriate step would have been to conduct an independent committee, preferably headed by a retired Chief Justice of Supreme Court to ensure that it is bias free. But when the committee came out with its report in a sealed envelope, details of which will not be made public, and giving the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi a clean chit, the fairness of the enquiry was questionable. After two sittings in which she was asked uncomfortable questions, the woman complainant refused to be part of the proceedings after her plea that she be represented by a lawyer was turned down by the in-house panel. The complainant’s plea needs to be assessed by keeping in mind the powerful person her allegations are pitted against and an outright rejection of that request creates the perception of intimidating her. The Supreme Court has conveniently sought to close this case and nobody other than those present in the in-house committee will ever know. This is a complete mockery of justice. The case assumes significance not only because it pertains to fairness and justice in one complaint but because the shroud of secrecy that the judiciary has maintained on the proceedings of the case have eroded its credibility and set a wrong precedent that will have an over-reaching impact on future complaints of sexual violence, specially those made against extremely powerful people.