NEW DELHI – India’s #MeToo movement has reached the highest court in the land, in a case that is testing the legal system’s ability to effectively address sexual harassment allegations against men in the judiciary.
In April, a female former staffer accused Ranjan Gogoi, the chief justice of India’s Supreme Court, of making unwanted sexual advances. She claims that she was dismissed from her job on frivolous grounds because she refused those advances.
Gogoi has rejected the accusations, calling them “unbelievable” and part of a plot to discredit the judiciary.
The Washington Post and other news outlets are withholding the identity of the woman because Indian law mandates that victims of sexual assault and harassment not be named in the media.
India’s Supreme Court has been hailed for upholding progressive values in a largely conservative society, but Gogoi’s case has exposed its limitations when it comes to dealing with sensitive allegations against one of its own. The allegations are also a test of India’s nascent #MeToo movement and the country’s struggle to tackle issues such as workplace sexual harassment.
By rules of the court, the chief justice – in this case, Gogoi – is responsible for leading inquiries into any allegations of misconduct against judges. But legal experts say the rules do not provide an alternate process if the top judge is the one facing accusations.
The accuser, who worked as a junior court assistant at Gogoi’s office in his residence for three months, told her story in a notarized affidavit on April 19 addressed to 22 sitting judges of the court requesting an inquiry by retired judges into her situation.
In her complaint, she accused the chief justice of touching her inappropriately in his home office in October.
“He hugged me around the waist, and touched me all over my body with his arms,” she wrote. “Since he did not stop forcibly hugging me, I was forced to push him away.”
In response, Gogoi chaired a hearing of the Supreme Court on April 20 in which he publicly rejected the accusations and alleged the woman had a criminal background. (The woman contends that a minor dispute with a neighbor was settled via mediation and that another accusation of fraud was falsified.) Several lawyers condemned the hearing. One called it a “spectacle fit for a kangaroo court.”
Meanwhile, influential supporters stepped up to defend Gogoi. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley – also a lawyer – wrote a blog defending the chief justice, calling him “extremely well regarded.” The bar council also came out in his support, labeling the woman’s complaint “false and cooked up.”
Three days after the hearing, the court set up an in-house committee of three sitting judges, all of whom are junior to Gogoi, to conduct an inquiry into the allegations. On April 30, after three appearances in front of the committee for which she said she was denied a lawyer, the woman declined to participate further, saying she was “not likely to get justice” under these “highly unequal circumstances.” Gogoi appeared before the panel on Wednesday.
The woman’s statement also alleges that after she resisted Gogoi’s advances, her life changed. In a meeting with a small group of journalists before her allegations were published, the woman said she was transferred three times to different departments before being dismissed from her job in December. One of the reasons cited for her dismissal: taking a half-day leave without approval.
Over the next two months, she said, two members of her family were suspended from their jobs as police officers, a third was dismissed from a job at the court, and she was arrested in a fraud case. A man, whom she said she does not know, filed a police complaint accusing her of taking money from him in exchange for promising to get him a job at the court.
Faizan Mustafa, the vice chancellor of NALSAR Law University in Hyderabad, said the situation presents a “crisis of credibility” for the court. He said that the chief justice could have voluntarily submitted to an inquiry by the committee that is responsible for handling sexual harassment complaints at the court, even though judges ordinarily do not fall under its purview.
The absence of clear mechanisms for dealing with sexual harassment claims against judges is not new. In 2013, a three-judge panel of the court indicted a retired judge for “unwelcome conduct of sexual nature” with an intern. But it did not recommend any action, in part because the judge had already retired.
India’s #MeToo movement erupted late last year. In October, a junior minister resigned after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. He denied the allegations and sued one of the women for defamation.
Rituparna Chatterjee, a journalist who helped compile #MeToo accusations against prominent men on social media last year, said that women’s accounts are invariably questioned. “Whenever a woman speaks up, the system actively fights to keep her down,” she said.
The current case is the biggest test yet. “The court must come out clean and impartial and show commitment to due process,” Mustafa said. “The rule of law must apply equally even to the highest constitutional offices.”