By Prakash Kona
An Inquiry Committee constituted to investigate sexual harassment charges against the ex-Chief Justice of India, Mr. Ranjan Gogoi apparently said that “a conspiracy to level sexual harassment charges against the former CJI cannot be ruled out.” My simple question to the committee is, where exactly was this conspiracy hatched against the ex-CJI? Who are the conspirators and what is their agenda? Why did they select the ex-CJI as their target and not any other public functionary?
Sexual harassment allegations, supposed to be part of a so-called conspiracy, were made by a junior staffer against the then CJI Mr. Ranjan Gogoi and the article “From the Supreme Court, a Reminder that Justice Was Sacrificed to Save a Judge” by Mr. Siddharth Varadarajan provides an elaborate account of the entire shady episode reading like a James Baldwin short story where private lives constantly tend to undo the masks people wear in public life. This includes the really sinister parts when the woman was sacked from her position at the Supreme Court, her husband and his brother suspended from their jobs, and another of the husband’s brothers – a person with disability, terminated from his work.
There are strong reasons why I am inclined to believe in the junior staffer’s version and not the man who used his power against her or his proximity to the government to get a clean chit from the inquiry committee. One is that it is extremely unusual for working women in these parts of the world, especially South Asia, to make sexual harassment complaints at the employment site without any basis. Normally, South Asian women don’t like to be associated with the kind of publicity and attention that follows these accusations which often is intrusive and degrading. There is always the possibility of the woman being stigmatized for somehow being responsible for the harassment.
There is no golden rule to it as such, but I am simply saying that I have not come across a single instance of such complaints being made by women at workplaces without any reason. In fact, more often than not, I can think of numerous instances that I personally am aware of where women out of fear of losing their reputation or jobs conceal the fact that they are being harassed. In other words, it is extremely unlikely, according to me, for the woman to actually make up a story of this kind and try to manipulate her boss for personal gains. Just doesn’t happen that way!
The second reason is the extraordinary power difference between the CJI and the junior staffer; in such situations, often younger women occupying smaller positions tend to see the man in power as a sort of a father figure. The emotional and social distance between the powerful man and the woman working under him is an unbridgeable gulf that is not easily transcended, merely because they occupy the same working space. For the woman who is a junior staffer to dare go beyond the hierarchy and try to attack power in a way as to embarrass the man occupying the position of the Chief Justice of India is really stretching the imagination. This is India where positions of authority are viewed as sacrosanct and I cannot think of somebody daring to make a false accusation of this kind as part of a conspiracy.
It is theoretically possible that there is indeed such a conspiracy to defame the ex-CJI, but then, where is the evidence to support such a statement?
In the epic Ramayana, at some point when he is a king Sri Ramachandra has to send his wife Sita on exile because of slanderous comments made by a washerman. Whatever might be the feminist take on it, Sri Ramachandra is morally correct. As a leader of his people his character has to be beyond reproach. He cannot say that he does not care for what a washerman thinks about him. That’s not how moral leadership works.
A judge is not a third world politician who is used to lying, cheating and backstabbing as a way of life. A judge is a moral leader and his personal conduct must be without a stain. He cannot say that the accusations made by a junior staffer don’t matter or that they are the result of a conspiracy. They do absolutely matter and if she is proved right he should be willing to face the consequences like any other common person. What instead happened was that the common person, in this case the junior staffer and her family, were subjected to the worst kind of trauma imaginable when harassed and persecuted, because she did not respond favorably to the advances of the senior person.
The collective conscience has a system of checks and balances in every society and every age. Leaders are always capable of violating an unwritten code of common decency and even someone of impeccable character like Sri Ramachandra has little choice but to be subjected to the scrutiny of an ignoble man on the street, thereby proving an important point that his loyalty to his people is greater than the loyalty to his family or even himself.
In the Old Testament unlike Sri Ramachandra, King David succumbs to the temptation to possess the beautiful wife of an ordinary soldier, who the king will have killed in cold blood by sending him to the war front. Finding such a gross abuse of power intolerable, the Prophet Nathan relates to the king the story of a rich man who appropriated the lamb of a poor man despite owning plenty of sheep and cattle. King David is indignant hearing the story only to discover that he is the man guilty of such abuse. What follows of course is terrible punishment which he has to undergo having betrayed a man who trusted him.
The point of the narrative is that even in the older world when power was absolute there were restraints placed by the masses preventing violent and abusive men from having a free rein.
It is hard to believe that in a modern context where people in power are expected to be much more accountable for their actions that the young woman should suffer injustice while the collective conscience remains a mute spectator to the blatant violation of dignity. A judge more than anyone else should know that the words “consent” and “legitimacy” are not empty terms but the hallmark of a society where an individual is free to decide what she thinks is right for her. The absence of such a freedom questions the very basis of what we call democracy in this country. In South Asia older men are supposed to set an example for the younger people to follow. But unfortunately some of the most shameless men in the world are the older ones who become politicians and administrators occupying public positions to fulfill their dark obsessions.
I recently heard a lawyer say that courts exist to provide justice for the politicians and the moneyed classes. I certainly disagree with him. Maybe a man can get away from a lot of things only because he has money and power. But I don’t think he can escape from himself. In the end nobody is spared and life punishes everyone, the guilty and the not so guilty. But with the guilty, the punishment is greater because the man knows that he is being punished for a reason, unlike the ones who are innocent and need not have to fear the voice of conscience.
Thus, says, James Baldwin, in the tone taken by the Prophet Nathan when he condemns David for his wrongdoing, “In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified, and the accusing finger, there, is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but the truth. People pay for what they do, and, still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives they lead.” The life that a man leads is a punishment in itself. This is particularly true of those who have power and use that power to bring human suffering only because they think that they can escape the consequences of their actions. The fact however is that they don’t. In fact, they never do.