Disorder in the House

My Hindustan Times column looks at what is perhaps the biggest scandal to hit the Supreme Court with the Chief Justice of India accused of sexual harassment. 

Their lordships have sworn to uphold Constitutional values of equality and dignity. Their courtrooms have delivered landmark judgments, like Vishaka, which affirmed women’s right to a safe workplace and preceded the law on sexual harassment by 16 years.

Now, one of its own, a first among equals, stands accused of sexual harassment. A signed affidavit by a former Supreme Court employee sits on the desk of 22 Supreme Court judges. It alleges not just sexual harassment but the targeted victimisation of the woman and her family for rebuffing the advances of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi in October last year, she says.

This was the apex court’s chance to shine. Instead, it has lurched from crisis to crisis.

Within days, the CJI himself sat in on an extraordinary Saturday hearing to look into a “matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of the judiciary”. If the charge of sexual harassment is unprecedented, so is the use of a Supreme Court bench to launch a personal defence and malign a complainant.

Then came the brother judges who reportedly said that they would from now on request only male staff at their home offices, implying that either all women are liars trying to trap them or that they cannot be responsible for their libidos. Either way, the underlying threat to women’s right to employment by the country’s top judges is dismaying.

There was a further muddying of matters when a union minister jumped to the CJI’s defence and at least one lawyer came forward with the revelation that he had been approached to “fix” the judge.

Sensational as these claims are, they obfuscate the only questions that matter: Is there merit to the former employee’s complaint? Is she not deserving of a special inquiry headed by a retired judge, as asked by her? Are judges above the law?

Never has it been so crucial for justice to seem to have been done. Yet, on the third day of hearings into the woman’s charges by three sitting judges, the woman announced she was withdrawing from the proceedings. She is being denied a lawyer, the proceedings are not being recorded and she is not being shown what of her statement is being recorded, she complained. “I was not likely to get justice,” reads her press statement.

What now? Will this also be forgotten in the 48-hour news outrage cycle? Certainly, past accusations of other instances of sexual harassment have ended with less than satisfactory outcomes. An actor charged with rape gets a role in a film. A former minister sacked in the face of public outrage files defamation proceedings against the first of his many accusers. A former Nobel Laureate jets around the world attending conferences because trial has not yet concluded in his case.

The Supreme Court remains every citizen’s last hope. For now, India’s women are watching developments there very closely.

Read the column in Hindustan Times

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