India Supreme Court rattled by sexual harassment case

Last Friday, a former employee at India's Supreme Court filed sexual harassment charges against India's chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi (main picture), accusing him of making unwanted sexual advances when she worked as an office assistant at Gogoi's official residence in October 2018.

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The 35-year-old woman, who claimed she was fired after she resisted Gogoi, said in an affidavit that the chief justice hugged her around the waist, touched her all over her body, and pressed himself against her. When Gogoi did not stop, the woman said she was forced to push him off of her.

The woman, whose name cannot be released under Indian law, also said that her family members experienced harassment from authorities after the alleged incident, and that her husband was suspended from the New Delhi police.

A conspiracy against the judiciary?

On Saturday, after the affidavit was sent to all 22 Supreme Court judges, Chief Justice Gogoi convened an urgent court session, along with two other judges, to address the accusations. The chief justice dismissed the woman's charges as being "unbelievable" and claimed that they were part of a conspiracy.

"There are forces that are trying to destabilize the judiciary," said Gogoi during the hearing. "There are bigger forces behind these allegations."

"I want to tell the citizens of this country that today, the judiciary is under serious threat," Gogoi said.

On Thursday, the Times of India newspaper reported that the Supreme Court was beginning an investigation into allegations that the sexual harassment claim was an attempt to frame the chief justice and attack the Supreme Court.

"There has been a systemic attack against [the Supreme Court] ... the time has come to take action," the court said in statement reported by the Indian daily.

The court's investigation is based on the claims of a lawyer, Utsav Bains, who claimed that he had been offered a bribe to participate in a "conspiracy" to frame the chief justice.

The lawyer, who had no previous connection to the case, said in a Facebook post on Saturday that he would file an affidavit with "evidence of a conspiracy" against the chief justice by a "lobby of disgruntled judges, corporate scammers and corrupt politicians."

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Violation of judicial independence?

Given the seriousness of the accusations, many in India think that Gogoi should have recused himself from Saturday's court session. And since then, the focus has shifted from investigating Gogoi's alleged actions, to uncovering a conspiracy against the Supreme Court. As a result, India's judiciary is facing widespread criticism over its independence.

"How can you judge your own case, in which the charge of sexual harassment, victimization and intimidation has been made against the person holding the highest judicial office of the country?" New Delhi-based women's rights activist, and lawyer, Vrinda Grover, told DW.

Grover also said that Saturday's hearing should not have been held, as it damaged the credibility of the Supreme Court, along with shaking public confidence in the judiciary.

Kalpana Kannabiran, director of the Council for Social Development in Hyderabad, told DW that the procedure used by the Supreme Court to handle the allegations was "disconcerting" to many legal professionals in India. "This issue has caused disbelief and shock," she said.

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Demands for an independent inquiry

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court appointed a three-judge panel to carry out an internal investigation into the sexual harassment allegations, however, without setting a deadline for findings.

The editor of Bench and Bar, a Indian legal journal, said that the office of chief justice in India was more important than that of the prime minister, because it is instrumental in protecting fundamental rights.

The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), a body of over 6,000 lawyers practicing in the Supreme Court, said the Gogoi hearing on Saturday was "in violation of principles of natural justice."

The Women in Criminal Law Association (WCLA), a collaborative group for women in criminal litigation, also issued a statement demanding a fair inquiry into the allegations.

"Sexual harassment is a very serious matter. The woman in question is entitled to due process of law and is entitled to be heard. Her version is supported by a sworn affidavit and must be investigated," Indira Jaising, India's first female additional solicitor general, told DW.

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Allegations 'destabilize' the institution

Support for Gogoi came from the Supreme Court Employees Welfare Association (SCEWA), which condemned the allegations as "false, fabricated and baseless."

Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the chief justice was extremely well regarded in terms of his ethics and integrity.

Giving credibility to "completely unverified allegations, coming from a disgruntled person with a not-so-glorious track record, is aiding the process of destabilization of the institution of the chief justice of India," Jaitley wrote in his blog. "It's time to stand with the judiciary."

The 64-year-old Gogoi is set to retire in November after having served as India's chief justice for a year.

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