NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Sexual harassment allegations against India's chief justice - and his exoneration via an internal committee - has sparked protests across major cities and has the potential to push the country's top court into a leadership crisis.
The three judge panel of the Supreme Court absolved Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual misconduct allegations by a former female employee of the court.
A three-sentence statement released by the Supreme Court on May 6 said the panel found "no substance" in allegations and its report "is not liable to be made public."
The allegations against India's top judge and the discontent over the ensuing inquiry could weaken an important pillar of the world's largest democracy.
The waning confidence in the court could impact several politically and commercially important cases and comes amid India's federal election, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is fighting for another term in office. India last year saw a wave of #MeToo cases that led to a government minister losing his job.
On May 7 and May 8 protests by a group of women outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi were interrupted by police, who forced the demonstrators into a van, took them to a police station and detained them for few hours.
Women, with placards and slogans, took to social media to highlight the heavy handed approach, sparking calls for protests in several cities such as Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Indore, Ahmedabad, and Mumbai. The police told demonstrators that protests were not allowed at the venue.
"Today we are facing an unprecedented crisis of credibility vis-a-vis the Supreme Court," a statement by a group of lawyers, activists and organisations who staged the protest reads.
"In dealing with a complaint of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice, the court has failed to give the complainant a fair hearing."
Calls and emails seeking comment from the Chief Justice and the court's secretary general went unanswered. The complainant's lawyer did not respond to calls or messages.
It's not the first scandal to hit the court in recent years.
Last year, four senior judges of the Supreme Court called an unprecedented press conference to highlight what they described as irregularities in the functioning of the Supreme Court under the previous chief justice.
In 2017, a former Chief Minister of north eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh left a suicide note that made corruption allegations against the then three most senior judges of the Supreme Court and several senior lawyers. And the court was criticised for making a letter by late chief minister's wife part of judicial proceedings and for not opening an investigation into the allegations.
Later, another top judge was accused of covering up an alleged corruption case against him by a group of lawyers.
"The last three to four years have not been a happy state of affairs. The credibility or the reputation of the institute has suffered," senior lawyer Arvind Datar said in an interview to BloombergQuint. "Now the Supreme Court must focus to repair the dignity of the institution."
The latest scandal began when the woman went public alleging two incidents of sexual harassment by Gogoi. She wrote letters to 22 judges of the top court and her allegations were published by four news websites on April 19.
The court formed an in-house panel comprising of three Supreme Court justices. The controversy intensified when the woman walked out of the panel - which was held behind closed doors - saying she was not given a fair hearing.
She alleged the judges on the panel did not allow her to bring along her lawyer and that the proceedings were not recorded. The process of the panel's inquiry wasn't disclosed and neither was she given a copy of her oral statements made to the committee. A notice on Supreme Court's website said the panel followed an in-house procedure.
"I felt I was not likely to get justice from this committee and so I am no longer participating in the three judge committee proceedings," the woman said in a statement made public through her lawyers on April 30.
After she walked out, the committee called Gogoi to present his side of the story and did not consider the evidence presented by the woman, according to reports in local papers citing unnamed officials of court. On Tuesday, she sought a copy of the report. "I have a right to know how, why and on what basis have your lordships found my complaint to have no substance," she said in a statement.
Every litigant deserves a fair and transparent procedure, said Rebecca John, a New Delhi-based senior lawyer and expert in criminal law.
"These past few weeks have been very traumatic, both as a practitioner of law and as a woman," John said. "I have felt the pain of women who go through similar experiences. I think institutionally, the Supreme Court let us down."
The day allegations against Gogoi were made public, there was an extraordinary sitting of a three-judge bench on a Saturday - usually a court holiday. Gogoi said the allegations were an "attack on the independence of judiciary" and the Supreme Court initiated a case calling it "Matter Of Great Public Importance Touching Upon The Independence Of Judiciary." That case is being heard by another bench of three judges.
The move was criticised by several lawyers and activists saying Gogoi became a judge in his own cause by invoking special power to call that hearing and being part of the hearing as a judge.