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Justice A.K. Patnaik to probe “conspiracy” behind sexual harassment charge against CJI

Published : Apr 25, 2019 17:19 IST T+T-

The Supreme Court bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Rohinton Fali Nariman and Deepak Gupta today appointed the former judge of the Supreme Court Justice A.K. Patnaik to inquire into an advocate’s “claims” of a larger conspiracy behind the allegations of sexual harassment against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by a 35-year-old woman who worked as a junior court assistant at his residence-office last year. On April 19 she sent an affidavit to 22 judges of the Supreme Court giving details of the sexual harassment and victimisation she and her family suffered and continued to suffer at the hands of the CJI.

The allegations, first published in four news portals on April 20, triggered a chain of events starting with an unprecedented hearing by a three-judge bench of CJI Ranjan Gogoi himself and comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna to deny the allegations. The holding of the hearing on a Saturday (April 20), a holiday, the CJI’s presiding over the bench, the signing of the order giving the CJI a clean chit by only Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna, and the bench asking the media to desist from publishing the “undesirable” allegations created outrage. The fact that the Supreme Court dispensed with due process when it pertained to allegations against the CJI shocked civil society.

 Later, a three-member in-house committee, comprising Justices S.A. Bobde, N.V. Ramana and Indira Banerjee, was set up to inquire into the woman’s allegations. The woman questioned the composition of the committee and sought the recusal of Justice Ramana, who, she claimed, was a frequent visitor to the CJI’s residence. Justice Ramana has since recused himself from the committee.

Meanwhile, the swiftness with which a bench, presided over by Justice Arun Mishra, set up to hear the claims of a larger conspiracy went about its agenda raised eyebrows. The young advocate who made the claims first in his Facebook post and later in a detailed affidavit submitted to the court is Utsav Bains, who so far enjoys a good reputation for taking up public interest cases. The bench was convinced after reading his submissions in a sealed cover that the allegations of fixing of judgments by corporate houses were far more serious and that it ought to go into the roots of the charges in order to restore the court’s credibility. It was alleged by Bains that two former Supreme Court staffers who were dismissed for tampering with the court’s orders in a case involving a corporate house entered into a conspiracy to malign the CJI through the sexual harassment complaint by the former Supreme Court woman employee.

Today’s order by the Arun Mishra bench accepts the arguments advanced by Attorney General K.K. Venugopal and the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) that Bains could not claim privilege over certain information submitted by him to the bench. Justice A.K. Patnaik has been asked to submit his report to the court in a sealed cover. The bench made it clear that Justice Patnaik would not inquire into the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against the CJI. Earlier, senior advocate Indira Jaising urged the court to satisfy itself about Bains’ credentials before ordering an inquiry into his allegations of a larger conspiracy.

Although Justice Patnaik has the reputation of being an impartial judge, it is not clear whether his report will throw light on the role of money power and big corporate houses in influencing the court’s decisions. The concerns that the parallel inquiry into the “larger conspiracy” could prejudice the defence of the woman who made the allegations of sexual harassment against the CJI are valid and cannot be brushed aside as the Special Bench presided over by Justice Arun Mishra has done. Justice Arun Mishra’s clean chit to the CJI as a member of the benches set up on April 20 and later has only heightened the crisis of confidence afflicting the court.