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Karnataka judge case: Govt asks CJI if fair probe done into sexual harassment allegations

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Law minister’s letter comes in the wake of Justice Chelameswar’s stinging 5-page letter to CJI on delay in appointment of Karnataka district judge Krishna Bhat.

New Delhi: Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has written a letter to Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra asking him if a “discreet enquiry, even if by a High Court Chief Justice”, could be considered a “fair, sufficient and conclusive enquiry in a matter so sensitive as sexual harassment without adhering to the manner, procedure and gender of the enquiry officer in accordance with the highest standards of fair and natural justice”.

ThePrint has a copy of the three-page letter sent to the CJI on 6 April.

Prasad’s letter comes in the wake of growing flak that the government has been receiving for interfering in the functioning of the higher judiciary, especially in the wake of senior SC judge Justice J. Chelameswar’s stinging five-page letter to CJI Misra and 22 other judges of the top court on the issue of the government sitting on the appointment of Karnataka district judge P. Krishna Bhat.

ThePrint had first reported Sunday about the law minister writing to the CJI. The letter is being viewed as the government’s way of responding to Chelameswar’s letter.

In his letter, Prasad has also said that the question of how the inquiry was done “assumes significance in view of the fact that available records do not show that the complainant, a judicial officer subordinate to the officer complained against, was provided a judicious and fair opportunity to defend her allegations and place evidence in support”.

The law minister has also asked if pending the conduct and conclusion of a fair inquiry conducted by a “lady judge or a senior lady judicial officer, which would prove the innocence of the recommended officer, the Supreme Court collegium should withhold recommendation to appoint Bhat judge of the HC.

A discreet probe conducted by the previous Karnataka HC Chief Justice Subhro Kamal Mukherjee on the direction of then-CJI T.S. Thakur had concluded that the woman’s complaint was without basis, and aimed at maligning Bhat and stalling his appointment as an HC judge. Mukherjee had termed the allegations “incorrect and concocted”.

As first reported by ThePrint, Chelameswar had also taken strong exception to the action of the Centre in writing directly to the Karnataka High Court Chief Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, asking him to probe the allegations against Bhat on the basis of a fresh complaint sent by the woman. He had also questioned Maheshwari’s decision to initiate a probe in the matter suo motu on the request of the Centre.

Following the strongly-worded letter, the high court chief justice informed the CJI that he was closing the probe against Bhat.

Bypassing ‘inconvenient’ judges?

In his letter, noting that “inconvenient” but able judges or judges-to-be were “being bypassed through this route”, Chelameswar had also suggested to the CJI and other judges that the issue — of the Centre not clearing names sent by the Supreme Court collegium for a long duration without any reason – was “now ripe for the consideration of the full court on the judicial side, if this institution really is to be any more relevant in the scheme of the Constitution”.

Incidentally, Chelameswar’s letter traces the history of the entire case. “In 2014, when Shri Krishna Bhat, a district and sessions judge, was working in Belagavi district in Karnataka, he sent to the high court a report concerning the (mis)conduct of M.S. Shashikala, a first-class judicial magistrate. The high court registered a vigilance case (HVC) No 93/2014 but did not choose to act upon the same until 18 February 2016. Until that time, Krishna Bhat had faced no allegations from any quarter, including his subordinates,” the letter stated.

“With Shri Krishna Bhat’s elevation around the corner, M.S. Shashikala chose to complain against him. If such retaliatory complaints are entertained, no career-conscious judge would ever risk disciplining his subordinates.”

Chelameswar’s letter refers to records to say that the woman officer offered her resignation in April 2016 and withdrew it in June 2016.

“The then-chief justice of the Karnataka High Court was asked to provide the details and background of Ms Shashikala’s resignation. The then-chief justice, after inquiring into the issue, sent two confidential reports dated 14 October 2016 and 14 November 2016,” Chelameswar wrote.

“He asserted that the allegations levelled against Shri P. Krishna Bhat were incorrect and concocted. He has found that Ms M.S. Shashikala has made her allegations only to malign Shri P. Krishna Bhat,” Chelameswar’s letter read.

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