Days after a woman accused India’s top judge of sexually harassing her while she worked at the Supreme Court, the country’s two top legal bodies have rallied to her defense.
The Supreme Court Bar Association and the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association (SCAORA) said in statements released on Monday that Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, 65, had violated the “principles of natural justice” and accused the judge of breaking the law.
The bar association described emergency proceedings held by Gogoi following the woman’s allegations as “a violation of the procedure established by law.”
The woman — who cannot be identified per Indian law which protects the anonymity of sexual assault survivors — alleged in a sworn affidavit filed on April 19 that Gogoi had sexually harassed her when she was a junior assistant at the court last year, and then carried out a campaign of retaliation against her and her family after she rebuffed his advances.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News before her affidavit became public, the woman said that she was living through her “worst nightmare.”
“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?”
After the woman’s complaint went public on Saturday, Gogoi denied her version of events and said it was part of a bigger conspiracy to “deactivate the office of the CJI,” referring to the Chief Justice of India. He also called an emergency meeting of judges to discuss a “Matter of Great Public Importance Touching upon the Independence of the Judiciary’.”
Although the court was technically on vacation, the special bench of judges met on Saturday and addressed the allegations. Gogoi, as well as several junior judges, sat on the panel, describing the allegations as “unbelievable.” He said that he would not “stoop low” to even deny the accusations, and added that there was some “bigger force” behind the woman.
“They cannot catch me on money, so they have brought up this,” he said, adding that he only had Rs. 6.8 lakh ($9,758) in his bank account. “This is the reward a Chief Justice of India gets after 20 years and a bank balance of Rs. 6.8 lakh. Independence of judiciary is under very, very serious threat. I had to tell this from the judicial seat."
The hearing caused immediate outrage among several Indian lawyers. On Saturday, the Women in Criminal Law Association (WCLA) wrote an open letter to the judges of the special bench demanding answers to several questions, including why the chief justice was sitting in judgment over his own case, why no women were included on the bench, and why the complainant was not informed or present at a hearing about her own case.
The Supreme Court Bar Association has said it will collect all the facts and evidence presented in the affidavit, as well as media reports and posts on social media, to review the facts of the case.
SCAORA, which counts over 2,000 members, shared its “deep disapproval” of Saturday’s proceedings, and demanded that a committee be appointed immediately to investigate the accusations against the chief justice.
Some, however, spoke out against the woman. The Supreme Court Employees Welfare Association condemned the junior assistant’s sworn affidavit as “false, fabricated and baseless” and said employees of the court stood with Gogoi against the attempt by “external forces” to target the Indian judiciary.
No legal precedent or procedure is in place for dealing with a sexual harassment complaint against the chief justice. Mihira Sood, a lawyer who has written of her own experience with sexual harassment by an older lawyer, told BuzzFeed News that she believed the woman’s case should be taken up by the Gender Sensitization Internal Complaints Committee (GSICC) of the court, a body that was set up specifically to address harassment complaints.
“They could dispense with the usual process of getting permission from the CJI to proceed, set up a committee of retired supreme court judges, feminists, activists, with a majority of women and external members who have no known familiarity with Gogoi,” she said.
Sood told BuzzFeed News that many potential supporters could fear speaking out in support of the woman: “Many are afraid of repercussions and so are not speaking out or putting their name on any petitions.”
She said, “It is worrying, because there is so much power at the senior levels of this profession, and its abuse is then all the more severe. Most survivors even now would rather put such incidents behind them rather than seek justice.”