This is the season of clean chits. Some clean chits given by the Election Commission have lowered its credibility. On Monday, the Supreme Court too lost few points on the perception index because of the manner in which the three-member in-house committee gave a clean chit to the CJI Ranjan Gogoi in the sexual harassment probe.
There is no reason to express any doubts about the finding of ‘no substance’ in the complainant’s allegations, yet the way the proceedings were conducted have dented the court’s reputation. Although one is confident that justice must have certainly been done by the probe panel, which included judges of impeccable character and integrity, unfortunately, the public perception is otherwise.
This is a classic case where it was far more important that justice should appear to have been done rather than really done. After all, it was a perception battle.
We cannot simply brush aside the complainant’s reaction to the clean chit. Out of her frustration and disappointment, she has said that her worst fears have come true and she is on “the verge of losing faith” in the idea of justice. Even if one citizen has such an opinion, it is a matter of introspection for all of us. This is nobody’s case that the CJI should not get justice. He is equally entitled to fairness, justice and protection from motivated and false allegations.
True the three-judge panel was picked by the full court minus the CJI, and after Justice Ramana’s recusal it did have two women judges, yet the withdrawal of the complainant from the proceedings after three appearances has cast doubt on the due process followed in an all-important and historic probe. An external member would have added greater credibility.
According to the complainant, she was reportedly told by the panel that it was an informal proceeding, not an in-house proceeding nor one in line with the Vishakha (1997) guidelines.
Even if it was just a preliminary fact-finding inquiry, it should have permitted the complainant to have her lawyer and acceded to her request of video/audio recording of the proceedings.
Is it not a fact that here an underprivileged former junior female employee was pitted against the might of the Indian judiciary and therefore the burden of compliance with the due process weighed heavily on the Justice Bobde-led in-house panel? The panel should have gone out of its way to demonstrate its impartiality and fairness.
For instance, the panel’s decision to request the CJI to appear before it was widely appreciated by everyone as it was in consonance with the principles of rule of law. But had the complainant been promptly given at least the copy of the CJI’s disposition, it would have put all doubts to rest.
Strangely according to the statement issued by the complainant, she was given even the copy of her own statements made on 26 April, 29 April and 30 April before the Justice Bobde-led panel only at 8 pm on 4 May. She submitted her corrections at 10.30 am on 6 May, and within a few hours, the clean chit order was pronounced.
Finally, the report will not be made public due to the Supreme Court’s 2003 judgment in the Indira Jaising case where the decision of keeping a similar report about Karnataka high court judges outside the public domain was upheld by the Supreme Court. The court had said that findings of such in-house proceedings were confidential and meant only for the CJI.
This analogy is not relevant as this time around, the complaint is against the CJI himself. One does understand the serious implications of making such reports public, but here is an unprecedented case against the head of the Indian judiciary.
In terms of legality, it may not be right to make Justice Bobde committee’s report public. But if we want to undo the damage done to the institution of the judiciary, particularly due to the hasty hearing of the court on 20 April, which was in violation of all known principles of natural justice, here is a chance for the court to make a course correction.
Once the report is in the public domain, it will not only add to the prestige of the CJI and the Supreme Court but also restore people’s confidence and trust in our judicial system. Most Indians will then wholeheartedly endorse the clean chit and public sympathy will be entirely with the CJI rather than the complainant. Judges, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion.
The author is an expert on constitutional law. Views are personal.