Sexual harassment charges against CJI: After complainant raises concerns, Justice Ramana opts out, Malhotra in

Kaunain Sheriff M, Ananthakrishnan G
Justice Indu Malhotra heads SC's complaints committee

Justice Indu Malhotra was Thursday appointed member of the Supreme Court in-house inquiry committee constituted to look into a former woman employee's allegations of sexual harassment against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, hours after Justice N V Ramana recused himself from the panel.

Justice Ramana opted out after the woman complainant raised concerns over his presence in the panel, saying he is "a close friend of the CJI and like a family friend to him", and that she "fears" her "affidavit and evidence will not receive an objective and fair hearing".

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The reconstituted committee, which includes Justice S A Bobde and Justice Indira Banerjee, is scheduled to meet Friday.

Incidentally, Justice Malhotra heads the Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee (GSICC) of the court, empowered to deal with cases of sexual harassment on the Supreme Court premises.

Justice Ramana conveyed to the Supreme Court judges that his decision to recuse "is only based on an intent to avoid any suspicion that this institution will not conduct itself in keeping with the highest standards of judicial propriety and wisdom".

"It is the extraordinary nature of the complaint, and the evolving circumstances and discourse that underly my decision to recuse and not the grounds cited by the complainant per se. Let my recusal be a clear message to the nation that there should be no fears about probity in our institution, and that we will not refrain from going to any extent to protect the trust reposed in us. That is, after all, our final source of moral strength," he said in a letter.

Observing that "justice must not only be done, but also manifestly seem to be done", Justice Ramana said: "Let me also caution, at this stage, that it is also equally true that no one who approaches the Court should have the power to determine the forum and subvert the processes of justice. Let not my recusal in the instant matter be taken to mean, even in the slightest of measures, that we have transgressed either of these principles."

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In her letter, the woman complainant had referred to a speech by Justice Ramana at the centenary celebrations of the High Court building in Hyderabad on April 20, a day after her complaint. "We have seen such attempts in the past and we will see more in the future. But today, judges are also under attack," her letter quoted Justice Ramana, referring to a report in The Times of India.

Justice Ramana said he "categorically reject these baseless and unfounded aspersions on my capacity to render impartial judgment in this matter". He said the topic of the speech, 'Judicial Journey - The Road Ahead', delivered by him was "decided at least two weeks prior to the receipt of the complaint".

"As a part of a broad analytical and factual discussion of the topic, which included discussions about pendency of cases, use of technology and issues relating to the Bar, I also spoke about personal attacks against members of the judiciary seeking to cast aspersions on their ability to render impartial judgements," he said.

"If anything, the implicit assumption of that portion of my speech was that our conduct as judges ought to be exemplary so as to protect the dignity of the judicial institution from these frequent attacks. Judges, therefore, ought not to be cowed down in upholding the dignity of the judiciary. The dignity of the judiciary, first and foremost, flows from the capacity of judges to render impartial justice. The fact that this assertion, on the need to protect the dignity of the judiciary, is now being used to allege bias is a sad reflection of the state of affairs," he said.

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On the complainant's claim that he is "a close friend of the CJI", Justice Ramana said: "I am, like any other judge of the Honourable Supreme Court, required to attend official meetings at the home office of the Chief Justice of India. We, the judges of Honourable Supreme Court, regularly meet each other - including socially - and also the Chief Justice of India. In fact, we call ourselves a 'family' to encapsulate that fraternity and collegiality. The same, inter alia, are essential for an honest appreciation of differences of opinions among fellow judges, which in turn, is vital for the intellectual growth of a judge."

"The Chief Justice of India is primus inter pares who allots a variety of administrative duties and responsibilities to the Judges. Thus, the Judges often meet Chief Justice of India in connection with the same. My visits to the residence of Chief Justice of India cannot, therefore, suggest any proximity than what is absolutely normal under the circumstances. Thus, the apprehension expressed by the complainant in this regard is wholly misconceived," he said.