Allegations of sexual harassment have cropped up against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi prompting him to convene an urgent extraordinary hearing on Saturday and assert that the charges by a former apex court staffer were 'unbelievable' and part of a conspiracy by some 'bigger force' to 'deactivate' the CJI's office.
As the allegations by the former woman staffer who had worked at Justice Gogoi's home office in Delhi and dating back to October stunned the judiciary, the CJI said he would not stoop too low even to deny them.
At the hurriedly called hearing in Court No 1 presided by him after the allegations were carried by some news portals based on the affidavit by the woman, the apex court said it is leaving it to the 'wisdom of media' to show restraint and act responsibly so that independence of judiciary is not affected.
The court, however, decided not to issue any gag order.
A three-judge special bench headed by Justice Gogoi was constituted after a sworn affidavit by the woman, copies of which were sent to the residences of 22 apex court judges, became public.
In her affidavit, the woman described two incidents of alleged molestation by Justice Gogoi days after he was appointed CJI last October and her subsequent persecution.
The woman alleged that she was removed from service after she rebuffed his 'sexual advances'. She claimed that her husband and brother-in-law, both of whom were head constables, were suspended for a 2012 criminal case that had been mutually resolved.
She was later also made to prostrate before Justice Gogoi's wife and made to rub her nose at her feet in the chief justice's residence, she alleged in her affidavit, adding that her disabled brother-in-law was removed from service at the Supreme Court.
There was no immediate reaction from the government or any major political party.
The court held the hearing for about 30 minutes during which Justice Gogoi said independence of judiciary was under 'very serious threat' and 'unscrupulous allegations' of sexual harassment had been levelled against the CJI as some 'bigger force' wanted to 'deactivate' the office of the Chief Justice.
He did not elaborate on who the 'bigger force' was that he was referring to.
The CJI also said that the woman had a criminal record and two first information reports were lodged against her.
"How can she become a Supreme Court staff when an FIR was pending against her," the CJI asked, adding that two criminal cases were also pending against her husband.
The court, which said the judiciary 'cannot be made a scapegoat', said the media should not publish the woman's complaint without verifying its truth.
The CJI said this issue has cropped up when a bench headed by him is scheduled to hear 'many, many sensitive cases' next week and this was also last few weeks of the Lok Sabha elections.
The CJI did not name any of the cases.
Besides the CJI, the bench also comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna, said the 'bigger force' behind the controversy has the potential to shake the faith of public in the judicial system.
Though the CJI was heading the bench, he left it to Justice Mishra to take a call on passing any judicial order.
Dictating the order, Justice Mishra said, "Having considered the matter, we refrain from passing any judicial order at this moment, leaving it to the wisdom of the media to show restraint, act responsibly as is expected from them and accordingly decide what should or should not be published, as wild and scandalous allegations undermine and irreparably damage reputation and negate independence of judiciary."
"We would, therefore, at this juncture leave it to the media to take off such material which is undesirable," the order said.
Justice Gogoi and three other senior most judges of the apex court at an unprecedented news conference on January 12, 2018 had staged a virtual revolt against his predecessor Justice Dipak Misra on the issue of allocation of sensitive cases.
During the hearing, the CJI said 'unbelievable' allegations have been levelled against him and "I do not think I should stoop too low even to deny these allegations. But that comes after 20 years of selfless service as a judge".
"Nobody can catch me on money. People have to find something and they have found this," the CJI said, while making it clear that he has a bank balance of Rs 6.80 lakh apart from around Rs 40 lakh in provident fund after being in service for around two decades.
"There has to be a bigger, bigger force behind this. There are two offices -- one of the prime minister and one of the CJI. They (people behind this controversy) want to deactivate the office of the CJI," Justice Gogoi said, adding, "This is the reward a CJI gets after 20 years of service".
Anguished over the allegations, the CJI warned 'the judiciary of this country is under very serious threat. We will not allow this to happen'.
"I will sit on this chair and discharge my judicial functions without any fear or favour. I will decide the cases in the seven months (of his remaining tenure as the CJI). I will do that," he said.
Justice Gogoi, who assumed the office of the CJI on October 3, 2018, will retire on November 17.
'Reputation' is the only thing which a judge has and if it will be attacked on baseless allegations of sexual harassment, no 'sane person' will come forward to take up judgeship, he said.
The apex court registry in a notice earlier in the day said a three-bench headed by the CJI was being set up to deal with a 'matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of judiciary'.