It is possible, as CJI & FM Jaitley have argued, that this is a hit job, but a complete investigation of the facts is essential.
Given the high-profile nature of cases in the Supreme Court (SC), and not just the obvious political ones involving the BJP (Rafale) and the Congress (Rahul Gandhi’s citizenship and his Rafale comments), it is obvious there would be many who would like to see the Chief Justice of India (CJI) hobbled. But that goes for most people in influential positions across the country. That is why, it is difficult to understand why, when faced with a sexual harassment charge, the CJI chose not to delegate the inquiry to a body he was not in charge of; the SC’s Prevention of Sexual Harassment committee, for instance, is not empowered to examine cases relating to sitting judges including the chief justice. Instead, he said this was a larger plot to ‘deactivate’ him; he was quoted by one website as saying the judiciary was under “very, very serious threat” and that, if judges had to “work under these conditions, good people will never come to this office”. Equally astonishing was the manner in which the Attorney General, the Solicitor General and even the finance minister chose to back the CJI. In a blog post on the matter, finance minister Arun Jaitley seemed to suggest the allegations were part of the “assault on the institution” that was on since the 1970s and, while saying it should be left to the SC to decide how to deal with the allegations, he spoke of how this was “not the first case of the ‘institutional destabilizers’ nor will it be the last”.
There have been, as the finance minister has said, some cases of influential members of the Bar trying to browbeat the judges, and it is curious that, apart from the fact that the complainant’s representation was distributed to judges of the SC, only some online news portals were given the details of the plaint when all newspapers/TV channels have legal reporters; and this case is surely of relevance to more than just legal reporters? But surely these statements of support could have followed an independent inquiry? This is, after all, not the first time that a eminent person has been accused of sexual harassment, especially after the #MeToo movement gained momentum, and in many cases, the accusations have been found to be true. Indeed, by presiding over a bench that asked the media to exercise its judgment on publishing details of the case – “leave it to the media to take off such material which is undesirable” – even though his name was not on the brief order, the chief justice did act as a judge in his own cause.
Unlike many sexual harassment charges where, very often, it boils down to one person’s word against another, in this case, the allegations made are very specific and involve many actions that can be verified; similarly, there are fairly detailed allegations about what fate befell the victim’s family after the alleged incident, and these charges involve the action of some other organizations whose conduct has been alleged to be unfair. Each one of these allegations can, and must, be probed; and the results of the probe will go a long way in helping to arrive at a conclusion. This case, as is obvious, is very important from the point of view of the reputation of the chief justice of the country; it is even more important from the point of view of millions of women who face sexual harassment at work, so classifying it as a blackmail attempt without any investigation is unfair to all of them. While the CJI was wrong to preside over the bench that made some observations on the matter, he must do the right thing by now appointing a committee, perhaps of retired chief justices of India, to examine the allegations in detail. Asking the CJI to step aside till the enquiry is over, perhaps, would be succumbing to the “institution disruptors” the finance minister warned about; but giving the committee a tight deadline to investigate the matter, while the CJI continues to preside over SC, would perhaps be the best for all involved.