NEWS
20/04/2019 12:32 PM IST

India Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi Accused Of Sexual Harassment

The Supreme Court assembled a special bench, chaired by CJI Gogoi, to dismiss the allegations, and described them as an attack on the judiciary.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Ranjan Gogoi, Chief Justice of India, in a file photo.

NEW DELHI — A junior court assistant has accused Ranjan Gogoi, the Chief Justice of India, of sexually harassing her, and using his influence as the senior-most judge in the country to terminate her employment at the Supreme Court, and have her imprisoned under false pretexts when she refused his advances.

Her husband and one brother-in-law have been suspended from their positions as head constables in the Delhi police, while another brother-in-law has been terminated from his position as a junior court attendant — a job that Gogoi allegedly granted using his discretionary powers.

These allegations were first made public by four news websites TheWire.in, Scroll.in, Caravan and Leaflet, who published their reports this morning, on April 20, 2019.

Soon after these stories were published, a special bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Chief Justice Gogoi, Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Sanjiv Khanna was constituted on Saturday morning to dismiss the allegations as baseless. The judges, however, stopped short of passing a gag order on reporting the story.

“Independence of judiciary is under very very serious threat. I had to tell this from the judicial seat,” Chief Justice Gogoi said in remarks reported by legal news service Bar & Bench

 CJI Gogoi described the allegations as “unbelievable”. 

“I should not stoop low in even denying it,” he said.

HuffPost India has written to Justice Gogoi for comment, and will update this story when he responds. Separately, the four news websites that first published the story have carried denials by the Secretary General of the Supreme Court.

 In his denial to Scroll.in, the Secretary General described the allegations as “completely and absolutely false and scurrilous”, said the woman was employed at Chief Justice Gogoi’s residence office for a short duration as a matter of routine, and was dismissed from service as per procedure.

According to the response, the woman’s brother-in-law was dismissed because his “performance and conduct were not found to be satisfactory”.

The Secretary General has also drawn attention to police reports pending against the woman. HuffPost India has reviewed documentation showing these cases were mutually resolved between the woman and the opposing party.

The 35-year-old woman at the centre of this storm is currently out on bail and said she was making her allegations public as she feared she would be arrested afresh, and was worried for her personal safety and that of her family — particularly her young daughter.  

The immediate trigger for her decision to speak out is a bail-cancellation hearing scheduled for April 20, 2019. If her bail is cancelled, the woman told HuffPost India in an interview on April 19, she fears she might disappear into the depths of India’s legal system where it is not uncommon for undertrials to spend years in prison while their cases are heard.

The immediate trigger for her decision to speak out is a bail-cancellation hearing scheduled for April 20, 2019

The woman told HuffPost India that the alleged harassment occurred on October 10 and October 11, 2018 when she was assigned to work in CJI Gogoi’s office at his residence on 10 Tees January Marg in Delhi. A week previously, on October 3 that year, Gogoi was sworn in as the 46th Chief Justice of India.

Her allegations are compiled in a notarised 28-page affidavit, supported by an additional 108 pages of annexures, that were couriered to 22 Justices of the Supreme Court on April 19, 2019. In her cover letter addressed to these judges of India’s highest court, the woman writes that she fears her family will be further victimised, and that she is “left with no option but to appeal to your Lordships to take cognisance of this matter”. HuffPost India has accessed these documents.

“I am requesting the honourable Judges of the Supreme Court to constitute a special enquiry committee of senior retired judges of the honourable Supreme Court to enquire into these charges of sexual harassment and consequent victimisation,” the cover letter concludes.

Taken together, the affidavit and annexures detail an extraordinary account that, if true, comes at a time when the opacity of the Indian judiciary has prompted demands for greater accountability and transparency from an institution crucial to the vitality of Indian democracy.

Eager worker

On 2 May, 2014, the woman was appointed to the Legislation Section of the Supreme Court of India — according to Office Order 102/2014, a copy of which was provided to HuffPost India — as a junior court assistant.

At the time, the woman had no formal legal training; she had graduated with a Bachelors in Commerce degree from a Delhi college and had worked a few private jobs including at an Indian back-office for Bank of America, before dropping out of the workforce when her daughter was born.

“When my daughter was a little older, I saw an application for a government job,” she said. “I filled the form, and luckily I got the job.”

Once selected, she enrolled herself in a distance-learning law programme, and immersed herself in the work of the courts. Her Annual Confidential Reports (ACR), essentially a yearly appraisal, indicate she was good at her job. Her ACR for 2014-15 rated her performance as “Good”, while her ACR for the following year rated her performance as “Very Good.”

In October 2016, she began working in Justice Gogoi’s court, her affidavit states, two years before he rose to his current position as Chief Justice. In January 2018, her affidavit says, Justice Gogoi called her to his private chambers and commended her work and diligence. Thereafter, she said, Justice Gogoi took an interest in her career growth and occasionally tasked her with important assignments.

When she told Justice Gogoi that her family was conservative and did not want her to work, the woman alleges, he offered to speak with her husband.

On July 31, 2018, she said, Justice Gogoi invited her husband and her to his residence where he told them that the woman had a bright future ahead of her.

“He said (she) was very intelligent, and she can rise to a higher level,” the husband told HuffPost India in an interview. “I thought, he has seen her capability and so wants to help us.”

On August 27, 2018, according to a copy of circular No F 5/2018-SCA(I) appended to the woman’s affidavit, she was assigned to work in Justice Gogoi’s office at his residence.

The Secretary General of the Supreme Court, in his response to Scroll.in, has  termed her appointment as routine.

A little over a month later, on October 2, 2018, the affidavit alleges, she and her husband were invited to Gogoi’s residence for a social function. An undated photograph included in the annexures shows Justice Gogoi standing with the woman, her husband and her daughter.

The following day, on October 3, 2018, according to copies of formal invitation cards annexed with the woman’s affidavit, she and her husband were invited to Justice Gogoi’s swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan at 10:45 am.

A week later, on October 9, 2018, office order 231/2018 states, the woman’s brother-in-law was appointed as a temporary junior court attendant at the registry of the Supreme Court for an initial period of two years.

The woman said the man was physically disabled, and was appointed to his position by Justice Gogoi to help her family out.

His appointment order, states, “Hon’ble Chief Justice of India has been pleased to appoint [Name Redacted] as temporary Junior Court Attendant in the Registry of the Supreme Court of India with effect from 9th October, 2018.”

The next day, on October 10, 2018, the woman alleges, Chief Justice Gogoi called her to his office at his residence and asked her what she would do for him in return. When she said she was extremely grateful for his help, she alleges, Chief Justice Gogoi touched her inappropriately in a manner that made her uncomfortable. The following day, on October 11, 2018, the woman alleges that he called her to his office at his residence again, once more asked her what she could do for him and forcibly embraced her, which she resisted by instinctively pushing him away.

Thereafter, the affidavit notes, Chief Justice Gogoi’s attitude towards her changed.

Eleven days later, on October 22, 2018, transfer orders show the woman was transferred out of Chief Justice Gogoi’s office to the Centre for Research and Planning with immediate effect.

Two months later, on December 21, 2018, the woman states in her affidavit, she was fired.

Sudden termination

The process began on November 19, 2018 when the woman was charged with expressing unhappiness at being assigned to a particular seat, and for missing a half-day of work on a given Saturday.

These acts, the registrar Deepak Jain wrote, “show a lack of devotion to duty, indiscipline and insubordination”. In her reply, she apologised for missing work on a Saturday as she had to attend a function at her daughter’s school. The school programme went on for longer than anticipated, and the woman couldn’t make it to work on time.

The registrar was not convinced. The woman was suspended and asked to appear before a panel of inquiry. On December 17, 2018, the day of her appearance, she was so stressed out that she fainted at the Supreme Court and had to be rushed to the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. Hospital records, appended with her affidavit, establish that she was brought in due to a “sudden onset of hyperventilation”.

Meanwhile, at the Supreme Court that day, the enquiry panel continued proceedings in her absence. A record of the proceedings justifies their decision as follows, “the delinquent official neither appeared before the inquiry offer on 17-12-2018 nor she moved any request for adjournment. Therefore, the inquiry officer decided to proceed with the inquiry ex parte against her.”

Missing from this record is the fact that the woman — who had fainted — was taken to the hospital by an employee of the court. She was brought to the hospital, the medical report states, because the “Patient was found lying on the floor and not responding to any command with her eyes open and staring on ceiling.”

The Secretary General has termed her dismissal as “as per procedure” in his statement to Scroll.in

Intimidation

While the woman was fighting to keep her job, her husband was facing problems of his own. Delhi Police documents show he too was suspended from his post for allegedly running a gambling scheme, a charge he denies. He remains under suspension, as does his elder brother, who is also a police head constable. Meanwhile, his younger, disabled brother, who had been granted a position as a junior court attendant at the Supreme Court, was terminated from his position as well.

Her husband was also charged with inappropriately reaching out to the Office of the Chief Justice of India. This inappropriate approach, her husband told HuffPost India, was when he sought to reach out to Chief Justice Gogoi to try to save the woman’s job.

Just when it appeared that things couldn’t get worse, they did.

On March 8, 2019, the woman and her husband were in Rajasthan at their village when a team of police officers arrived to summon them back to Delhi where, the police said, she was wanted in connection with a complaint filed against her. The complaint, filed by a man called Naveen Kumar, who the woman said she did not know, alleged that — two years ago in 2017 — she offered to provide him with a job.

When the woman returned to Delhi and visited the Tilak Marg police station the following day, she was forced to spend the whole day and most of the night at the police station before she was arrested and produced before a magistrate. She was formally held in police custody on March 10, 2019, then in judicial custody on March 11, 2019, before she was finally granted bail on March 12 2019.

That bail is up for cancellation on Saturday, April 20.

The prospect of going back into jail, she said, as she broke down into tears, has pushed her to take this extreme step of going public with allegations against one of the most powerful men in the country.

“I really don’t want to go behind bars. I have a really small daughter,” she said. “He can do anything. He can just destroy my life.”