Judging a book by its (sealed) cover: A preview of Ranjan Gogoi's 'Justice for the Judge'

Even before the autobiography of former CJI Ranjan Gogoi has hit the stalls, it has generated a lot of heat and controversy on social media, which has surely ensured sufficient oxygen for it.
Former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi
Former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi

As I have no intention to cough up ₹595 to purchase the book I am about to review, I choose to pen the same nonetheless without having read it. I guess this would be as much ‘Justice for the Judge’ as it was for those litigants before him who had to argue their causes without having any clue as to what the government had submitted in sealed covers.

Nominated Rajya Sabha Member Ranjan Gogoi, who incidentally was also the Chief Justice of India, has authored his memoirs under the curious title 'Justice for the Judge.' The publisher, Rupa Publications has a grand launch planned for this book on December 8, 2021, by none other than his worthy successor in office, Justice SA Bobde.

Even before the book has hit the stalls, it has generated a lot of heat and controversy on social media, which has surely ensured sufficient oxygen for it and promises robust sales. Mr Gogoi, who has effortlessly transitioned from judge to parliamentarian, is all set to make another transition as a best-selling author! I wish him all the best.

Perhaps, his personality apart, what could have generated this controversy is the eye-ball catching title Justice for the Judge. Implicit in this is a suggestion that, in some manner, the one-time occupant of India’s highest seat of justice has himself been deprived of justice!

While the title has riled many, I stand aside from the outraged lot and feel that there may be some truth behind this insinuation. I write in defence of the title as well as the insinuation.

Justice for the Judge, by former CJI Ranjan Gogoi
Justice for the Judge, by former CJI Ranjan Gogoi

Mr Gogoi presided over a crucial period of India’s modern history when a majority government was in the process of facing a historic re-election in the midst of serious allegations of a defence-related scandal. Challenges to other controversial initiatives of this government such as its overnight demonetisation and introduction of opaque electoral bonds in the name of transparency had also piled up in court and were pending resolution. The crowning glory was also the what was billed as the ‘litigation of the century’ - the title dispute over the site of a demolished Mughal structure which was brought down by a mob of lawless men as the State looked the other way despite its undertaking to the top court to ensure order.

It is in this backdrop that the bombshell dropped. A terminated staffer of the Supreme Court, who had, for a stint, been assigned duties at the residence of Mr Gogoi, alleged that she was sexually harassed by her employer, the Chief Justice of India! Her well-drafted and elaborate complaint soon made its way to social media.

Gogoi’s initial response was perhaps emotional and not thought through and the poor fellow is still paying a heavy price for that. He engineered a suo motu cognisance of the controversy by the Supreme Court itself on the judicial side, under the lofty title of “In Re Matter of Great Public Importance Touching Upon the Independence of Judiciary”! If this was not enough, he chose to schedule a hearing of this case on a court holiday and that too by a bench presided over by himself! Press reports well document how Mr Gogoi made observations about the motive and conduct of the complainant and claimed that he was being targeted and maligned by vested interests. The only saving grace of that shameful court proceeding was that he chose not to sign the court order passed that day and let his brother judges, Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna own the same.

All are human and to err is human. No one knows what kind of personal turbulence and mental anguish Mr Gogoi may have undergone on account of the public humiliation and embarrassment he had just suffered. If we are willing to condone this lapse, the events that followed actually go on to conclusively establish Mr Gogoi’s complaint that he has been denied justice - the fundamental premise of the title of his memoir!

Mr Gogoi immediately assigned the administrative responsibility to inquire into the sexual harassment complaint to his colleague, Justice Bobde. Also, he did not participate in the suo motu case on the judicial side any further. Therefore, he cannot be faulted for what unfolded thereafter administratively or judicially.

In fact, it is the events that followed, which were now beyond his control, that have caused him to be deprived of justice and he has a right to have a legitimate grouse in respect of the same - including to title his memoir appropriately to reflect his unresolved angst.

Administratively, Bobde J constituted a Committee to inquire into the complaint. The Committee, as per the mandate of The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, did not have an independent outside member. The complainant was not given an opportunity to confront the accused nor was she given a copy of the report. Neither Bobde J, as the administrative judge in charge for addressing the complaint, nor the Committee, asked Mr Gogoi to proceed on leave or cease from discharging his official duties pending the inquiry.

The Committee may have exonerated Mr Gogoi, however, in the end, he was deprived of justice. Infirmities in the procedure put a question mark on the fairness of the same and tongues wagged to unfairly suggest that there was a determination to somehow give a clean chit to the accused.

On the judicial side too, the Court conducted several hearings under the aforesaid lofty title of “Re Matter of Great Public Importance etc. etc”. Here too, great injustice has been meted out to Mr Gogoi as he was deprived of an opportunity to get his accusation - that the charge of sexual harassment was motivated and actually aimed at attacking the ‘independence of the judiciary’ - publicly established. The Court had appointed one of its finest and most independent judges, Justice AK Patnaik, to inquire into Mr Gogoi’s charge. And yet when Justice Patnaik submitted his report, the Court decided to let it remain in a sealed cover and chose to drop the proceedings!

Shockingly, the greatest injustice that was done to Mr Gogoi was that the terminated employee, who had dared to level such serious allegations against the karta of India’s judicial family, allegations which a Committee of judges of the highest court of the land had found to be false and untrue, stood reinstated with full pay merely weeks after the judge who now wants justice demitted office as Chief Justice of India.

Mr Gogoi’s charge that the independence of the judiciary was under threat was a credible and serious one and, at the very least, it deserved to be thoroughly investigated into and the findings published. Contemporary news reports suggested that a senior bureaucrat close to the present regime was actively involved in resolving the controversy. It can be assumed that if this were indeed true, then such an officer was attempting to prevail upon the complainant to agree to maintaining silence possibly in exchange of reinstatement and other favours.

All this at a time when the most key and sensitive litigation of the same government was pending before the Court of the accused. If this indeed were true, and we will never really know if it is, this indeed was the greatest threat to the independence of the judiciary since we became a Republic. Real justice for Mr Gogoi would have been to ensure that the Patnaik Committee thoroughly inquired into all these issues and exposed any attempt by any force or vested interest to compromise Mr Gogoi and thus imperil the independence of the judiciary!

Oscar Wilde had once said “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Either way the memoir ensures that we are not allowed to forget those dark times-so congratulations Mr Gogoi! However, as you have written this book on you not getting justice, let me conclude with yet another gem from the mouth of Oscar Wilde, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”!

Sanjoy Ghose is a Senior Advocate of the Delhi High Court.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bar & Bench.

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