An unprecedented crisis has engulfed the Supreme Court and the office of the Chief Justice of India in the past few weeks. The allegation of sexual harassment against CJI Ranjan Gogoi, his initial handling of the complaint, the clean chit he got in the case from an in-house panel of three peer judges and the attempt at muzzling protests against the decision—none of these reconcile with the hopes Justice Ranjan Gogoi had raised 14 months ago when he wasn’t yet occupant of the highest chair of the country’s judiciary.
On January 12 last year, when four senior-most judges of the SC rebelled against the then CJI, Dipak Misra, to red-flag the “less than desirable things” in the apex judiciary, it was the participation of Gogoi that alarmed many. Unlike Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Madan B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph—the other judges at the presser—who were not in line to succeed CJI Misra, Gogoi had put his elevation as the next CJI at stake. He was singled out for praise for putting the credibility of the institution before personal interests.
On October 3 last year, when Justice Gogoi was sworn in as the 46th Chief Justice of India, the euphoria amongst those who had hailed him for his commitment to constitutional morality and institutional integrity was expected. And in the initial weeks, he did not disappoint. Within days, the new CJI indicated that some critical administrative reforms to help in more judicious utilisation of the court’s time were in the offing. He showed a distaste for petitions that, in his opinion, were a waste of the court’s time and brusquely junked frivolous pleas. At a video-conference he had convened within a fortnight of taking over as the CJI, he urged chief justices of all high courts to expedite criminal and civil cases in an effort to bring down the number of pending trials. He advised them to ensure punctuality, not take unnecessary leaves and be available in courts during working hours.
The central government too seemed to be acting on the Supreme Court Collegium’s recommendation to urgently appoint judges. On November 2, Justices Hemant Gupta, R. Subhash Reddy, M.R. Shah and Ajay Rastogi were sworn in as judges of the apex court within 48 hours of the collegium recommending their names to the Centre for appointment to the SC.
For nearly two months after he took over, Gogoi was highly feted. But soon questions began to surface. In December 2018, days before a bench he led dismissed petitions that had sought a court-monitored probe into the contentious Rafale deal, Gogoi invited the PM to the SC premises for a dinner hosted in honour of visiting chief justices of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, who were in New Delhi to attend a conference. After the dinner ended, Gogoi and Modi had a personal meeting even though the latter was named as the main respondent in one of the Rafale petitions.
The following month, hopes that the complex decision-making process of the collegium—comprising five senior-most judges of the SC, including the CJI—would become more transparent under Gogoi also began to dissipate. The collegium recommended the elevation of Karnataka HC Chief Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Delhi HC’s Justice Sanjeev Khanna to the SC. Justice Khanna was set to supersede three judges senior to him at the Delhi HC, his parent court, and as many as 29 other senior judges of different high courts, which he eventually did.
A month ago, the collegium had recommended the elevation of Rajasthan HC Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice Rajendra Menon to the apex court, but, giving convention the slip, did not put this decision on the Supreme Court website. It then rescinded these recommendations without giving any justification.
When controversy over the elevation of Justice Khanna broke out, Madan Lokur, who was part of the collegium when the elevation of Justices Nandrajog and Menon was recommended (on December 12, 2018), publicly declared he was disappointed. Khanna is now in line to be Chief Justice of India in November 2024.
Kailash Gambhir, a retired judge of the Delhi HC, wrote a stinging letter to President Ram Nath Kovind: “It will be another black day when there will be supersession of 32 judges… The legacy that we all are so proud of and which the collegium so scrupulously wants to preserve will become nothing but an unfortunate irony.” The protestation, however, had no impact.
Criticism kept piling up against the Chief Justice over his behaviour in court too. “In recent months, the Chief Justice has put in place a welcome mechanism for prompt listing of new and urgent cases, but his harsh reprimand of lawyers and petitioners who dare to question his wisdom has betrayed an impatience that does not behove his office,” a senior SC advocate told Outlook while requesting anonymity. He cited the example of a recent decision by the CJI to strike off activist Harsh Mander’s name as a petitioner in a case and “over a dozen instances where the CJI bench dismissed petitions on grounds of lack of merit without even giving the lawyer or petitioner a chance to be heard”.
Mander had moved a plea urging the CJI to recuse from hearing his petition challenging the deportation of suspected illegal immigrants from Assam. He claimed that some remarks made by Gogoi while hearing the case showed a personal bias against illegal immigrants. The CJI flared up at the accusation and struck off Mander’s name as the petitioner in the case.
The criticism of his steering of the collegium or impatience in hearing frivolous cases, however, pale in comparison to his handling of the sexual harassment complaint filed against him. A judge who was part of the January 12, 2018 press conference told Outlook on condition of anonymity, “This whole affair has been a huge disappointment… irrespective of the facts in the former staffer’s case, the principles of justice have not been followed.”
Women’s rights activists have criticised the clean chit given to Gogoi by the in-house panel of Justices S. A. Bobde, Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee. They took out protest marches in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai amongst other cities. On May 7 and 8, a group of activists protesting outside the Supreme Court were detained and Section 144 was imposed around its premises to prevent “unlawful assembly”—another first in the growing list of unprecedented actions attributed to a CJI who has often spoken passionately about freedom of expression.
Senior advocate Indira Jaising dubbed the in-house panel’s proceedings a “scandal” and demanded that its report be made public. Though refusing to comment on the allegation against the CJI, senior advocate Arvind Datar admitted that “over the past few years, the credibility of the institution has suffered and urgent steps need to be taken to repair the dignity of the institution.”
The court has closed for its annual summer vacation and protests seem to have abated for now. Petitions related to the sexual harassment complaint, including one that has alleged a “conspiracy to frame the CJI”, are pending before the court and will be heard after it reopens in end-June. With six months left before he demits office, can Gogoi do justice to the plaudits he earned when he talked about the need to save the judiciary at the press conference last year? More importantly, can he stem the credibility crisis gnawing at the top court?