Judge in the dock

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Lawyers of the Calcutta High Court at a rally in support of Justice Ganguly in Kolkata on December 18. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, accused of sexual harassment by a law intern, resigns from the West Bengal Human Rights Commission and alleges a conspiracy to tarnish his image.

THE resignation of the former Supreme Court judge Asok Kumar Ganguly from the post of Chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC), following allegations of sexual harassment, has put to rest a controversy that has been raging since November 2013.

Ganguly, best known for his judgment in the high-profile 2G spectrum scam case, retired from the Supreme Court on February 3, 2012. He was accused by a law intern of sexually harassing her in a hotel room in New Delhi on December 24, 2012. The accusation, made in a blog she wrote on November 6, 2013, caused a furore in social, political and legal circles, throwing up issues relating to law, politics and morality.

Though there was a growing clamour for his removal from civil society and political circles, Ganguly continued in his post in the WBHRC, all through denying the charges made against him. When he finally did step down from office, he wrote in his resignation letter, which he handed over to West Bengal Governor M.K. Narayanan on January 6: “To obviate any further controversy and to ensure peace and happiness of the members of my family and having regard to the fact that I held the high office of a judge and presently holding the post of Chairman of West Bengal Human Rights Commission and being humbly of the view that I have possibly lived up to the expectation of both, I have decided to resign from the post of Chairman of the Commission with immediate effect.”

Earlier, a committee of three judges set up by the Supreme Court to inquire into the charges of sexual harassment against Ganguly, said in its report submitted on November 28, 2013, that “the statement of the law intern, both written and oral, prima facie discloses an act of unwelcome behaviour by Justice Ganguly with her in the room in the hotel on 24.12.2012”.

Ganguly’s resignation came soon after the Union Cabinet gave its assent to a presidential reference to the Supreme Court for a statutory inquiry on charges of three counts of misdemeanour made against him. Earlier, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wrote twice to President Pranab Mukherjee seeking strong action against Ganguly. Apart from the charge of sexual harassment, the presidential reference included an adverse mention of a private trip Ganguly made to Pakistan without prior government permission, allegedly also in violation of the Foreign Currency Regulation Act. The reference also mentions a one-time fee he had accepted for a legal arbitration on a matter between the Mohun Bagan football club and the All India Football Federation.

According to the WBHRC Act, Section 5, “The Chairperson …shall only be removed from his office by order of the President on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity after the Supreme Court, on reference being made to it by the President, has, on inquiry held in accordance with the procedure prescribed in that behalf by the Supreme Court, reported that the Chairperson or such other Member, as the case may be, ought on any such ground to be removed.”

Before this inquiry could be taken up by the Supreme Court, as per the WBHRC Act, a public interest litigation (PIL) had been initiated in the Supreme Court in support of Ganguly. However, on the morning of the day when he handed over his resignation, the Supreme Court rejected the PIL.

The situation took an overtly political tone when, apart from the findings of the Supreme Court Committee, the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal, which had repeated run-ins with Ganguly, demanded action against him. Further, on December 16, excerpts of the affidavit submitted before the Supreme Court by the alleged victim were made public by Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising. Reacting to the issue, in a letter to the Chief Justice of India, P. Sathasivam, dated December 23, Ganguly wrote, “Apart from expressing my deep distress about the manner in which the entire thing happened in Supreme Court, the subsequent events clearly seem to suggest that there is a concerted move to tarnish my image as I had the unfortunate duty of rendering certain judgments against powerful interests.” He also pointed out that the report of the committee consisting of three Supreme Court judges had no “legal status”, since there was no formal proceeding against him in a court of law following the filing of a first information report (FIR) and the due police investigation thereafter. The intern had refrained from filing any FIR despite repeated requests from the police.

Ganguly’s case has elicited widespread and strongly conflicting reactions from political sections and legal and social circles. On the one hand, there are those who feel that he has been treated unfairly as there was no concrete evidence against him. But there are also many who feel that he ought to have resigned immediately after the charges were made against him.

While some burnt effigies of him, demanding his immediate resignation, many found it hard to reconcile Ganguly’s reputation for high probity and legal acumen, displayed in the Supreme Court and in the WBHRC, with the charges made against him. Former Lok Sabha Speaker and eminent barrister Somnath Chatterjee expressed outrage at the circumstances under which Ganguly had to resign. “This was a travesty of justice in which both the West Bengal government and the Union government had a role to play. As an Indian what I feel particularly concerned about is that the highest court of the land got involved —even if it was in an administrative capacity. I feel very sad that the basic principles of civilised jurisprudence—that a man is innocent until proven guilty—has been totally jettisoned. A person has been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. The whole matter seems like a conspiracy to me,” Chatterjee told Frontline. Ganguly also found support from eminent jurists such as former Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir and former Attorney General of India Milon Kumar Banerjee.

However, the main controversy shifted from his alleged offence to his apparent refusal to step down in the face of mounting political and public pressure. Moreover, his defence of himself was perceived by some to be crafted in a manner applicable only in a court of law and did little to quell the outcry of a section of civil society against him.

“One of the main problems a woman faces is that the moment she comes out in the open with her complaint, attempts are made to silence her by calling it a ploy or saying that the complaint was motivated. Unless a woman first comes out with her complaint, nothing can be done. In view of the comments made by the Supreme Court Committee and the high position that Justice Ganguly held, we felt that he should have stepped down. We also felt that the intern should avail herself of the proper judicial process so that the whole truth may come out,” Malini Bhattacharya, president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), told Frontline.

Ganguly’s detractors, particularly those from the Trinamool Congress, have pointed out that he did little to refute the sexual harassment charges against him—he did not challenge it in a court of law, nor did he file a defamation suit against the person accusing him of harassment. Ganguly, however, maintained that he would not be taking the intern to court. “I was her teacher. In her earlier blogs she did show me a lot of respect. She is my disciple. Why should I go to court against her? I would rather go to jail,” he told the media. Not all were convinced by the reason he gave.

It remains to be seen whether the truth behind the whole matter finally surfaces at all, but Ganguly’s case has been a setback for the institution of the human rights commission in West Bengal. The WBHRC never asserted itself as much as it did in the two years that he served as its chairperson. “Such a strong and independent Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission has not been seen in recent times. His departure in such a manner is a huge blow both to the Commission and to the human rights movement,” Ranajit Sur, a well-known human rights activist in West Bengal, told Frontline.

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