In the corridors of the headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on Alimuddin Street in Calcutta, a conspiracy theory is being given shape ever since the name of Justice A.K. Ganguly was made public, ending two weeks of speculation about the identity of the Supreme Court judge accused of sexual harassment by a female law intern from Calcutta. Matters reached a head on December 4, as an NGO, the Bharat Bachao Sansthan, submitted a memorandum at a Calcutta police station demanding legal action and filing of an FIR against Justice Ganguly over the allegations.
Since making the charges in a blog, the intern has deposed before a three-member SC committee and told them that Ganguly, also the chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC), had harassed her in a hotel room in Delhi last December—ironically, a time when protests were raging against the December 16 gangrape of a paramedic.
While not wanting to be seen as making light of the charge of sexual harassment, Left leaders point to several ‘facts’ about Justice Ganguly’s “vulnerable political position in the state”. “The Trinamool government has been trying for a very long time to oust Justice A.K. Ganguly from the chairmanship of the WBHRC,” CPI(M) leader Mohammed Selim tells Outlook.
Indeed, though Mamata Banerjee herself appointed Ganguly (who has been serving as the WBHRC chief since April 2012), she has subsequently and openly—in the state Assembly, no less—declared that she made a mistake. The immediate cause of that outburst was the demand of the rights panel, under the leadership of Justice Ganguly, that the TMC government compensate and apologise for what was deemed as several instances of serious “human rights violations”. Amidst a growing personality cult around Mamata and a Trinamool culture of intolerance and intransigence, the WBHRC under Justice Ganguly has often proved to be a thorn in the TMC’s side.
In July this year, Justice Ganguly ordered the government to pay a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to Shiladitya Chowdhury, a farmer from Bengal’s Maoist-affected Jangalmahal who was branded a Maoist by the CM and hauled off to jail for daring to complain to her directly during a rally about the rising prices of fertilisers. The commission has also asked the government to apologise to him. “Shiladitya Chowdhury must be compensated for the loss of dignity and social status at the instance of the honourable chief minister in an open meeting. It cannot be that just because he is a poor farmer his status and dignity can be trifled with by slapping a wild allegation of being a Maoist/terrorist,” the panel had told the state government. Given eight weeks to pay up, the government did not even respond to the rights panel’s ‘recommendations’.
Though Mamata herself cleared Justice Ganguly’s appointment to the panel, she later rued her decision openly.
In fact, the WBHRC’s earlier recommendation to similarly compensate and apologise to Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor who had allegedly been roughed up by TMC goons and then arrested by the police for circulating an e-mail lampooning the CM and TMC general secretary Mukul Roy, also went unheeded. In May 2013, the commission also forced TMC MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar to apologise over her comments that the Park street rape case was a “deal gone bad”. The Trinamool government’s growing displeasure with Justice Ganguly was made evident time and again. Then, in an unprecedented move, the state government asked for ‘clarifications’ from the rights panel chief about why he made a trip to Pakistan earlier this year.
“We are not ruling out the possibility that he was framed or trapped because such things do happen in politics unfortunately,” Selim says. “Mamata Banerjee herself had called the allegations of a rape victim ‘a concocted story’ without an investigation; how is it that they cannot conceive of such a situation? We think there is more to these allegations than meets the eye.”
Speaking to Outlook (see box), Justice Ganguly is ambivalent about allegations of a political conspiracy. “I cannot comment on that right now,” he said. On whether his refusal to step down as WBHRC chief can be attributed to the solidarity shown from human rights groups like APDR (Association for Protection of Democratic Rights) because of the panel’s decisions on cases like those mentioned above, he said he didn’t consider those factors germane to the issue.
Gitanath Ganguly, a Calcutta High Court judge, head of the legal aid cell in West Bengal and a former colleague of Justice Ganguly, explains that “It is immaterial whether he has an endless list of exemplary judgements upholding human rights. He may be a great human being and a greater judge, but in a case of sexual harassment, he will be judged on whether or not at that moment he had committed the alleged offence or not.”
Even as legal experts around the country are divided whether Justice Ganguly should step down as WBHRC chief, Justice Gitanath Ganguly denies that Justice Ganguly has not been arrested yet because he enjoys immunity for having been a SC judge. “In such cases, no one can escape arrest once the matter is forwarded to the police and the accused brought before a magistrate. When the magistrate takes cognizance...and an FIR has been filed, it may be forwarded to the local police (the police station of the area where the alleged offence took place) and then the arrest can be made. This has not yet happened in this case.”
Trinamool leaders severely trashed the “political conspiracy” theory of the Opposition, claiming it is “a vile attempt to politicise the issue.” TMC MP Kalyan Bandyopadhyay told Outlook: “We completely deny the vicious allegations.... This is a serious crime and our demand for Justice Ganguly’s resignation has nothing to do with our political views. He’s the head of a human rights body and if he stands accused of a heinous crime of sexually harassing a woman, it is his moral duty to step down.”
The law intern herself is said to have admitted to some after Justice Ganguly’s name became public, that she felt “scared and overwhelmed” by the way the issue spiralled out of her control. Indeed, considering her comments to a newspaper about how she was browbeaten and intimidated by the SC panel that was set up to interrogate her charges, the theory that she was ‘planted’ seems far-fetched.
A Calcutta HC lawyer, who was present at the Le Meridien hotel in Delhi the morning of the alleged crime says, “I had spent the entire day with Justice Ganguly and had lunch with him. That was the first time I met him. He seemed like the perfect gentleman. But you never know what goes on behind closed doors.” In Calcutta, no one is quite sure what transpired. “He may be a perfect gentleman,” says Justice Gitanath Ganguly. “But he will be judged by that one moment of lapse in a case like this.”