New Delhi: In a significant ruling, the Supreme Court Thursday ordered the reinstatement of a former woman judicial officer who resigned in 2014 following alleged sexual harassment by a then sitting judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
The order was pronounced on the woman judge’s plea before the Supreme Court in October 2018 demanding her job back, claiming she resigned due to the hostile work conditions she faced, which included her sudden transfer from Gwalior to a conflict area, after she resisted “illegal demands” of the HC judge.
Employed as an additional district and sessions judge, the woman officer had resigned on 15 July 2014, which was accepted by the state on 17 July 2014.
“We hold the petitioner’s resignation from the post of additional district and sessions judge, Gwalior on 15 July 2014 cannot be construed to be voluntary. As such, the order dated 17 July, 2014 thereby accepting the resignation is quashed and set aside,” a bench of justices L.N. Rao and B.R. Gavai held.
The judgment held that the woman judge’s resignation letter “appears to be on account of exasperation and frustration actuated by a thought that injustice was being meted out to her by the very institution of judiciary.”
On the petitioner’s assertion that she was forced to resign, the court said it may not be possible for it to observe on this submission. However, the circumstances enumerated by her clearly revealed that the resignation was of “frustration”, when she was left with no other alternative, the court said.
Her transfer from Gwalior, an ‘A’ category city, to Sidhi, a ‘C’ category city, was also not in accordance with the HC’s transfer policy, SC observed, saying it was arbitrary.
The court directed the State to reinstate the officer, who shall continue in service with all the consequential benefits with effect from 15 July 2014. However, the officer will not be entitled to any back wages, it said.
The SC had reserved its order on the petition on 1 February 2022.
‘Not going into the correctness’ of HC’s objections
The bench further clarified that it has not gone into the correctness of the reservations expressed by the Madhya Pradesh HC’s full court over the woman’s request to reinstate her.
Under the HC rules a ‘full court’ is an administrative body comprising all the HC judges tasked with taking important administrative decisions.
The full court had considered the woman’s representation to reinstate her on three occasions, but had rejected it each time.
“We have observed that we have full respect for the authority of the full court of the HC and we are not going into the correctness of otherwise,” Justice Gavai, who authored the verdict, told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who had argued against the reinstatement on behalf of the Madhya Pradesh HC.
“We have independently examined the material on record to find out as to whether the transfer orders (by the HC), rejection of the representation (to reinstate) and as to whether the resignation could be considered voluntary in the facts and circumstances,” the order stated.
Plea based on ‘punitive’ transfer
When, in October 2018, the woman judge had moved the top court with a plea to reinstate her in service, she based it on the finding of a parliamentary inquiry panel that was set up to look into the sexual harassment allegations against the then-sitting HC judge.
Though the committee absolved the judge of harassment charges, it found evidence to suggest that he had a role in the woman judge’s transfer, which it termed as “punitive”. Prior to her plea before the apex court, the woman officer had made a representation to the full court of the HC, relying on the inquiry panel’s findings and sought her reinstatement. When this was rejected, she approached the SC for relief.
Twice, the SC had advised the Madhya Pradesh HC to settle the matter amicably and consider the woman’s plea to give her job back and depute her to any state or central quasi-judicial body. The HC was also asked to explore the possibility to transfer her to another state after reinstating her.
However, on both the occasions, the HC had declined the suggestion.
In its judgment, the SC refrained from going into the details of the inquiry panel’s findings, “so as to protect the dignity of all concerned”. Besides, it avoided expressing any final opinion on the petitioner’s allegation that the punitive transfer was issued at the instance of the judge who harassed her. “…we do not find it necessary to go into that aspect of the matter,” the bench noted.
Clarifying that the present case was decided on the basis of peculiar facts and circumstances, the bench hoped that in future, similar issues would never arise for consideration, at least between a high court and judicial officers.
Mehta’s arguments against plea
The woman judge’s lawyers, senior advocate Indira Jaising, and Astha Sharma, told the court that since the judge’s daughter was studying in Class 12 when she was transferred, she forwarded two requests to the HC immediately thereafter. The first was to let her continue in Gwalior. When this was not entertained, she made another request, this time to transfer her to another city where the education of her daughter will not be hampered. But both her requests were turned down, and she resigned.
Speaking on the matter, the SC bench said, “Denial of her legitimate expectation could have led to desperation, exasperation and frustration…. She stated that as she had been transferred to Sidhi in the mid-academic session of her daughter’s Class 12th, it had mostly affected the crucial stage of her daughter’s career…. It appears that in a gruesome battle between a mother and a Judicial Officer, the Judicial Officer lost the battle to the mother.”
Appearing for the HC, Tushar Mehta had asked the court not to accept the woman’s submission. He argued that if the stand is accepted, then it would be impossible for any administrative set-up, civil or judicial, to carry out administrative work, especially since a parliamentary inquiry panel absolved the HC judge, now retired, of harassment charges in December 2017.
This contention of Mehta was not accepted by SC, which rejected it as “without substance”.
Mehta further attacked the former judicial officer’s petition for reinstatement, saying she should have either honoured the transfer or challenged it on the judicial side. But one cannot be allowed to take a “route of sexual harassment allegations to achieve the object of getting the transfer order set aside, that too after having resigned,” he had argued.
Mehta rebutted the woman judge’s contention that she was “picked up (singled out) because she did not succumb to certain illegal demands and was suddenly midway thrown out”.
According to him, the grounds set out in her petition before the SC could have been those either to challenge the transfer or submit a representation against it on the administrative side.
‘Judicial officer is also a human being’
To Mehta’s submission that a judicial officer is trained to be independent, fearless and to act in accordance with law, the court observed: “But a judicial officer is also a human being. A judicial officer is also a parent. He/she could be a father or a mother. The question would be, whether a judicial officer, while taking a decision in his/her personal matter as a human being, in his/her capacity of a father or mother, would be required to be guided by the same yardsticks.”
Applying the legal principles that govern a dispute between an employer and an employee — the HC and a judicial officer in this case — the apex court noted that the breakneck speed at which the petitioner’s two representations against her transfer were decided “gives rise to a suspicion, that there is something more than which meets the eye”.
Even her mid-term transfer in July 2014, which took place just three months after routine transfers happened, was in contravention to the transfer policy, SC concluded.
Moreover, it was done on the basis of an “unverified” complaint written by the District and Sessions Judge (DJ) of Gwalior, the court said. The DJ had admitted before the inquiry panel that he wrote the complaint on the basis of oral complaints by different judicial officers.
According to the SC bench, the woman officer’s representations on the transfer merited a hearing, according to the usual policy. Her second representation requesting the HC to transfer her to a place where her daughters could pursue education in a CBSE school was rejected by the HC in a “mechanical manner” and “depicts total non-application of mind,” the Supreme Court ruled.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)