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India’s judiciary faces critical test of its objectivity

The writer is a television commentator and anchor
Published : Apr 24, 2019, 1:18 am IST
Updated : Apr 24, 2019, 1:18 am IST

The truth is that the affidavit has a lot of detail. It also has references to station house officers and transcripts of conversation.

It simply doesn’t feel right. If that’s the case I can’t see how any argument based on procedure or law can make it so.
 It simply doesn’t feel right. If that’s the case I can’t see how any argument based on procedure or law can make it so.

The allegations of sexual molestation and victimisation levelled at the Chief Justice of India by a junior employee of the Supreme Court and the way they have been handled raise serious questions. I can only hint at the answers but, nonetheless, I want to draw your attention to the questions. They will help you understand the issues that have come dramatically to the forefront.

First, how serious are these allegations? This may not be the first time a judge of the Supreme Court has been accused of sexual harassment but it’s the first time it has happened to a sitting Chief Justice and, furthermore, the incidents are supposed to have occurred after he assumed the top post. The matter cannot be treated lightly.

Second, should the secretary-general of the Supreme Court have described the allegations as “completely and absolutely false and scurrilous”, and Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Arun Kumar Mishra called them “wild and scandalous”? While they have every right to express their opinion, as important functionaries of the court and judges hearing the case it was inappropriate to be so judgmental without proper examination of the allegations. It may not be so, but it suggests bias.

The truth is that the affidavit has a lot of detail. It also has references to station house officers and transcripts of conversation. Does that suggest a measure of credibility or just highly elaborate fiction? This question must be borne in mind before commenting on the quality of the allegations.

Third, was the Chief Justice’s characterisation of the allegations fitting or inappropriate? He called them a “bigger plot” to “deactivate the office of (the) CJI”. He said the “independence of (the) judiciary is under very, very serious threat”. He may be right but to characterise the allegations as a conspiracy against himself or the judiciary and not as a quest for justice by a victim of sexual harassment is, arguably, unfair and unbecoming.

Fourth, was the Chief Justice right to question the timing of these allegations? He said they surfaced when a bench headed by him is scheduled to hear “many, many sensitive cases this week” and during the Lok Sabha elections. But does the timing make the affidavit questionable? Or is it just coincidental? The Chief Justice was clearly steering us in a particular direction.

Fifth, what about the information the Chief Justice made public about the complainant? He said there were two FIRs against her and, additionally, the Delhi police was being questioned on how she could enter the Supreme Court’s service with pending criminal cases. Separately, the secretary-general of the Supreme Court told the media that a hearing to cancel her bail was listed for the same day. Was it legitimate to mention these details or was it an attempt to present the woman in a particular light? I don’t know, but that of itself suggests this is a troubling issue.

Finally, should the Chief Justice have presided over a bench hearing a matter where he is the accused? I’m not a lawyer, nor am I conversant with the Supreme Court’s administrative procedures, but I instinctively feel the answer cannot be yes. It simply doesn’t feel right. If that’s the case I can’t see how any argument based on procedure or law can make it so.

Of one thing I’m certain: this is an embarrassing and awkward moment for the Indian judiciary and, therefore, a critical test of its objectivity and integrity. The questions that I have raised suggest it might not have made a good start.

Tags: sexual molestation, sexual harassment