Allegations of sexual harassment have cropped up against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi prompting him to convene an urgent extraordinary hearing on Saturday and assert that the charges by a former apex court staffer that were “unbelievable” and part of a conspiracy by some “bigger force” to deactivate the CJI’s office.
As the allegations by the former woman staffer who had worked at Gogoi's home office in Delhi and dating back to October stunned the judiciary, Gogoi said he would not stoop too low even to deny them.
He, however, cited the “criminal record” of the accuser during the proceedings in the top court.
The CJI, who along with Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna, assembled to hear the matter which was described as of "great public importance touching upon the independence of judiciary", said that the woman, a former apex court employee, had a criminal record and two FIRs were lodged against her.
Gogoi also hinted in the Supreme Court that allegations of sexual harassment against him could be due to the fact that the bench led by him will deal with “many many sensitive cases” next week. The CJI did not name any of the cases.
According to reports, a CJI-led bench is scheduled to hear next week many cases of political overtone like the contempt plea against Rahul Gandhi over his remarks on the Rafale deal, West Bengal's chit fund case and plea of producers of the biopic on Prime Minister Narendra Modi challenging the Election Commission's order banning the release of the movie.
Besides the CJI, the bench also comprising justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna, said the "bigger force" behind the controversy has the potential to shake the faith of public in the judicial system.
Though the CJI was heading the bench hearing the sexual harassment charges levelled against him, he left it to Justice Mishra to take a call on passing any judicial order.
Dictating the order, Justice Mishra said, "Having considered the matter, we refrain from passing any judicial order at this moment, leaving it to the wisdom of the media to show restraint, act responsibly as is expected from them and accordingly decide what should or should not be published, as wild and scandalous allegations undermine and irreparably damage reputation and negate independence of judiciary."
"We would, therefore, at this juncture leave it to the media to take off such material which is undesirable," the order said.
The bench said the judiciary "cannot be made a scapegoat" and that the media should not publish the woman's complaint without verifying its truth.
Justice Gogoi and three other senior most judges of the apex court at an unprecedented news conference on January 12, 2018 had staged a virtual revolt against his predecessor Justice Dipak Misra on the issue of allocation of sensitive cases.
During the hearing, the CJI said "unbelievable" allegations have been levelled against him and "I do not think I should stoop too low even to deny these allegations. But that comes after 20 years of selfless service as a judge".
"Nobody can catch me on money. People have to find something and they have found this," the CJI said, while making it clear that he has a bank balance of Rs 6.80 lakh apart from around Rs 40 lakh in provident fund after being in service for around two decades.
"There has to be a bigger, bigger force behind this. There are two offices -- one of the Prime Minister and one of the CJI. They (people behind this controversy) want to deactivate the office of the CJI," Justice Gogoi said, adding, "This is the reward a CJI gets after 20 years of service".
Anguished over the allegations, the CJI warned "the judiciary of this country is under very serious threat. We will not allow this to happen".
"I will sit on this chair and discharge my judicial functions without any fear or favour. I will decide the cases in the seven months (of his remaining tenure as the CJI). I will do that," he said.
Gogoi, who assumed the office of the CJI on October 3, 2018, will retire on November 17.
"Reputation" is the only thing which a judge has and if it will be attacked on baseless allegations of sexual harassment, no "sane person" will come forward to take up judgeship, he said.
The apex court took suo motu (on its own) note of reports carried by four news portals on allegations of sexual misconduct levelled by the former apex court woman employee against the CJI.
There have been other instances of unsavoury allegations of sexual misconduct against judges.
But it is for the first time that such an allegation has led to the unprecedented and unscheduled court hearing by a three-judge special bench, which also comprised the CJI.
However, the CJI dissociated himself from the judicial order which contained the names of justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna only.
(With inputs from agencies)