NEW DELHI — The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India has been accused of sexual harassment by a junior assistant, and of allegedly orchestrating a campaign of retaliation against her and her family when she rejected him.
The woman, 35, has accused India’s most senior judge, Ranjan Gogoi, 64, of sexually harassing her in October last year when she was employed at his residential office in the capital, New Delhi.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News on Friday, the woman described the “victimisation and harassment” of her and her family that began shortly after she says she rejected him. The woman — who cannot be identified under Indian law because alleged victims of sexual harassment must remain anonymous — and her husband are currently staying at a safe house because they fear for their lives. They said that, in the weeks after the alleged sexual harassment, their lives were sent into freefall after Gogoi allegedly had her transferred multiple times from her position at the Supreme Court, before she was eventually fired.
Driven to desperate measures, the woman said she sent the affidavit containing her testimony to 22 judges on the Supreme Court on Friday. BuzzFeed News has seen a copy of the affidavit, as well as the courier slip that confirms its delivery, as well as other evidence in support of her testimony, including official documents from the Supreme Court, audio and video recordings, and medical reports.
The woman’s story was first reported in the Indian media on Saturday morning. Hours after these stories went online, the Chief Justice called for an emergency meeting of five judges at the Supreme Court, where he “strongly denied” the woman’s allegations and said the “independence of the judiciary” was under threat. He also warned the media to exercise caution and report responsibly and refrain from publishing “wild and scandalous allegations” which “undermine and irreparably damage reputation” the independence of the judiciary.
The woman told BuzzFeed News that the retaliation extended beyond her, and that her husband, an officer in the special branch of the New Delhi police, was suspended on what he said were made-up charges. Her brother-in-law, who was appointed as a court attendant at the Supreme Court by Gogoi, was also dismissed from his job.
The woman said that she had initially wanted to drop the matter but that she was driven to making her story public when the retaliation against her escalated in the months following the alleged harassment, which culminated in her being arrested in March along with her husband, and other members of her family. She described being handcuffed and her legs tied together as she was taken to the police station, where she said her husband was beaten. She also said the police threatened her and her relatives and made them sign various documents that they were not allowed to read.
Sexual harassment at work is an endemic problem in India, and one that keeps thousands of women from seeking jobs, or getting promotions. But this woman has accused one of the most powerful men in the country of abusing his position to gain sexual favor from a junior employee and unleashing a vicious campaign of retribution once she rejected him.
Gogoi, 64, was appointed to the Supreme Court in April 2012, and became the head of the court on Oct. 3, 2018.
The woman started as a junior assistant at the court on May 2, 2014, while she was studying for a law degree.
The woman told BuzzFeed News it was only the second job she’d ever had. The woman and her husband are both children of police officers, and her husband, who is also a police officer, described himself to BuzzFeed News as “conservative” when it came to women working outside the home. After they had their first child, he insisted she stay home to bring her up.
But the woman was adamant about returning to work. “Once our daughter grew up a bit, I saw her interest in law and agreed to let her work,” the man told BuzzFeed News.
According to the affidavit, at first the woman worked at the court’s library, answering the phone, searching for legal books and articles, and typing. Her life changed dramatically in Oct. 2016, when, according to the affidavit, she was moved to work in Gogoi’s court as a research assistant. She claims the judge began to take a close interest in her professional and personal life, asking after her family and how she managed to juggle work with raising her daughter.
The woman said that at first she was overwhelmed by the attention, having never spent any time with a senior member of the judiciary before. “It was a huge, huge deal,” she told BuzzFeed News. “As junior assistants, we weren’t even supposed to look at or make eye contact with judges, so a man like that speaking to me was an honor.”
In her affidavit, the woman said that, beginning in Jan. 2018, Gogoi would give her new and challenging assignments, often the kind of work reserved for more senior staff, even asking her to prepare legal briefs, which she had never done before.
The woman’s affidavit states that on July 31 the judge invited her and her husband to his family home. They described the evening to BuzzFeed News as perplexing. They said Gogoi was warm and friendly, offering praise for her professional abilities, but at one point the judge asked the woman to leave the room. Her husband said that Gogoi told him that his wife was an exceptional worker and that he should let her keep working.
“He was not arrogant, but I could see how much power he had — the number of policemen waiting outside his home, how everyone was so scared of him,” her husband told BuzzFeed News. “He spent almost two hours with us, most of that time he praised my wife, talked about how the police system worked, and finally, told us to approach him if we ever had any trouble.”
The woman’s husband told BuzzFeed News that, when the two men were alone, Gogoi said that he was in the running for the post of Chief Justice, and that he would therefore need more help from his assistants. The judge said that on occasion he might have to ask his wife to come to work early and leave late, the husband said.
The woman’s affidavit describes a pattern of increased attention from Gogoi in the months that followed. She said that after she took her legal exams in Aug. 2018, Gogoi complimented her on her marks and told her that she shouldn’t just be “pulling out books,” which he said “any illiterate person” could do. She described feeling “extremely proud that someone of his stature should encourage” her. She said that shortly after, Gogoi gave her his personal phone number and another phone number, which he said was to be used for “whatsapp communication.”
In the affidavit the woman said that Gogoi called her into his chamber to tell her that he was indeed about to be appointed the Chief Justice and that he needed staff he could trust to work in his residential office, to which she was soon transferred on Aug. 11.
According to the woman’s affidavit, Gogoi insisted that she send him a message every day to say “Good Morning” and that she should also let him know when she got home at night. If she failed to do so, she said he would send her a message on WhatsApp with just a question mark, and would ask her in the morning why she hadn’t responded. She said he would then insist that she delete the WhatsApp messages between them. Although she “found it strange,” she thought at the time it was because those messages occasionally included legal instructions, which she assumed he did not want to remain on her phone.
The woman told BuzzFeed News that Gogoi kept finding ways of ingratiating himself with her family. On Oct. 2, the woman and her husband were invited to the judge’s residence for a private function. It was the evening before Gogoi was to be sworn in as the Chief Justice and the three of them were photographed standing together, along with their daughter. The woman and her husband look proud to be standing next to Gogoi, who then invited them to attend the swearing-in ceremony the following day at the home of the President of India.
“It was unheard of that a junior assistant and their spouse should be invited to such an important event,” the woman told BuzzFeed News. “Someone might invite their own staff, but include an invitation for the spouse? It caused a lot of resentment among my colleagues, whose spouses were not called.”
That same week, according to her affidavit, Gogoi did the woman yet another favor. One of her husband’s brothers — who she described as “disabled” — had long had trouble finding work. But on the morning of Oct. 10, Gogoi told her that he had arranged a job for her brother-in-law as a junior court attendant at the Supreme Court.
The woman claims that it was then that the first instance of physical harassment took place. According to her affidavit, Gogoi called her into his office to tell her how difficult it had been to find her brother-in-law a job. When she thanked him he asked her, “What can you do for me?” She said in her affidavit that Gogoi then, “slid his hand from the back of my head, along my back to my hipline, till my lower back.” The woman said that she immediately froze, and that sensing her discomfort, Gogoi pulled her cheeks, and told her that this was how he behaved with his daughter. She said the judge then asked again what she would do for him. “I told him I was extremely grateful and thanked him, but he asked me to write down what I would do and show it to him,” she said.
After that, the woman said in her affidavit, Gogoi resumed talking about her tasks as if nothing had happened.
The next day, on Oct. 11, when the woman showed up for work at the judge’s residence, she said in her affidavit that he once again asked what she could do for him — and if she had written anything down.
According to the affidavit, Gogoi reiterated to her how hard it had been to find a job for her brother-in-law, and the woman said she had written down how grateful she and her family were for his support. At this point, she said in her affidavit, he took her notepad from her, placed her hands in his, told her they smelled nice, and pinched her cheeks. He then put his arms around her waist, and said, “I want this from you.” The woman said Gogoi forcibly hugged her and “touched her all over her body.” She said that he wouldn’t let go, and that she was left with no choice but to push him away. The woman said that Gogoi hit his head against a bookshelf or cabinet, and that she then left the room.
After 10 to 15 minutes, the woman said in her affidavit, the Chief Justice called her back into his office and told her that she must not share the details of what happened with anyone, or her family would be “disturbed.”
After this, she said, he told her to write down the following words on a piece of paper:
“I will not harm your dignity. Can you hold me.”
The woman told BuzzFeed News that although she knew that the judge might use this piece of paper as evidence against her, as it implied that it was she who had tried to hold Gogoi and not the other way around, she was scared and agreed to write whatever he wanted.
After that, she said she found it impossible to work, and kept “her head down” before leaving at her usual time that day. The woman told BuzzFeed News that she did not tell her husband or anyone else what happened at the time. When she got home she said she tried to call Gogoi to say that she would no longer be able to work for him. She said that he wouldn’t take her call, and that his personal secretary told her not to disturb the judge at night.
In her affidavit, the woman said his behavior in the office changed dramatically from that point on, and that she was “extremely nervous and scared” and that her work suffered.
On Oct. 22, the woman was transferred without explanation from Gogoi’s residential office to a separate unit of the Supreme Court. On Nov. 16, she was moved again, to the admin section of the court. Just a few days later she received a memo telling her that disciplinary proceedings were about to be initiated against her for apparently questioning the decisions of her superiors in moving her, and for taking unauthorized leave. She was then transferred again, this time back to work in the library. She was accused of being an unwilling worker who had “very little regard for the lawful commands of her seniors in duty” and someone who showed “indiscipline and insubordination.” The woman’s response to the disciplinary committee was found to be unsatisfactory by her superiors, and she was suspended.
On Dec. 10 the woman was told that an inquiry into charges of misconduct would be launched, and that she should present herself to the court a week later. On Dec. 17, while she waited in court for her disciplinary hearing, the stress of the past few months caught up with her, and she fainted. She was found lying unresponsive on the floor, and taken to a nearby hospital. Her medical reports, seen by BuzzFeed News, describe her as having hyperventilated and suffered a panic attack.
The following day she learned that she had been found guilty in her absence of all the charges against her, and according to her affidavit, on Dec. 21 she was fired.
Only then did the woman tell her husband about what had happened on Oct. 10 and 11. The woman’s husband told BuzzFeed News he had no doubt she was telling the truth, but “as a policeman” he wished she’d said something sooner. “We see cases like this all the time, the sooner you speak up, the easier it is to prove the crime,” he said.
It was not long after that the alleged campaign of retribution of the woman’s husband and his family began. The husband told BuzzFeed News that he learned on Dec. 28 that he had been suspended from duty, pending an “enquiry into his conduct.” Believing that a coordinated campaign against the family was underway, according to the affidavit the husband tried to contact Gogoi’s personal secretary to ask if he could meet the Chief Justice. This backfired spectacularly when he learned that he would be charged with making unsolicited calls to the Chief Justice. Matters only got worse when the police accused him of being connected to local gamblers, charges he denies.
According to the affidavit, things took an extraordinary turn on Jan. 10, when the husband said he was contacted by the police and told that if his wife apologized to the Chief Justice, their “problems would be sorted.”
The following day the woman was taken to Gogoi’s house by a police officer, where they met the judge’s wife, although Gogoi himself was not present, she said in her affidavit. The woman’s description of the meeting is brief and humiliating: Gogoi’s wife, she alleges, said in Hindi, “naak ragad ke jao,” or “rub your nose at my feet and get out.”
It became clear, the woman said in her affidavit, that Gogoi had indeed “concocted a false story about the sexual harassment,” perhaps using the note he had asked her to write. But by this time the woman was so desperate for their troubles to be over, that she fell to the floor, rubbing her nose at the judge’s wife’s feet, and saying sorry.
Later, the policeman who had accompanied the woman to Gogoi’s house told her that “good days” were about to begin.
Nothing could’ve been further from the truth, according to the woman.
On Jan. 14, the woman’s brother-in-law, who had been appointed as a court attendant by Gogoi, was also removed from his post.
By now, the woman was deeply depressed, she said. She learned she had become the subject of wild rumors among the Supreme Court’s staff: that she had photographed confidential documents and had been caught in the act by Gogoi, and that she had committed suicide.
Needing to get away from it all, she left with her husband and family to return to their village in Rajasthan, in West India.
But there was no respite to be found even at home, said the woman.
According to her affidavit, late at night on March 8, members of the New Delhi police force appeared at their home, demanding that she and her husband return to the capital with them. The woman said she pleaded with the officers not to take them at night, and promised that she would return to New Delhi with her husband the next morning, and show up at the police station.
On March 9, the woman’s husband asked the officers for some more time, but was denied. The police issued a notice asking the woman to be in New Delhi by 2 p.m. that day, then took her and her husband to a police station in a nearby district in Rajasthan and finally escorted them back to the capital. In her affidavit, the woman said that these movements can be confirmed by the police records in the district of Rajasthan.
In New Delhi, the woman finally learned what she was wanted by the police for: A man named had filed a complaint against her for allegedly offering him a job at the Supreme Court in exchange for Rs 50,000 ($720). The woman denies the charges and told BuzzFeed News that she had never heard of the man before, and that, as a junior assistant, she was in no position to offer him employment.
The woman’s affidavit describes police officers showing up at her home in New Delhi unannounced late at night on March 10, handcuffing her husband, and taking her and her sister-in-law into a police van. The women were also handcuffed, their legs tied together and they were verbally and physically abused. In her affidavit, the woman said she was detained in jail overnight and her phone was taken from her — the affidavit says that the woman suspects the police may have deleted evidence or planted false evidence on it at the time.
The woman was taken before a magistrate, where the police asked for her to be jailed for a longer period of time — up to 14 days — at a high-security prison. The woman’s affidavit states that she was given bail after one day in police custody — but that the police wanted her to remain behind bars. The court initially said it would make a decision today about whether to send her to the high-security prison but that has been postponed until Wednesday.
The woman told BuzzFeed News that the entire situation was her “worst nightmare.” She said she just wanted everything to go back to normal — but at this point it’s unclear what that means. Her career and that of her husband may now be over.
“I have a young daughter to take care of, my family is suffering — how are we supposed to take care of them without being able to work?”