In the years following Indira Gandhi’s infamous emergency – and the alleged role of the Supreme Court in letting it unconstitutionally extend for 21 months – the Supreme Court has tried to re-establish itself as a venerated institution, constituted to stand for and protect all that is just. The Court has established itself as the upholder of the constitutional values that this country was founded on, more so, when the essence of our democracy might be disintegrating under an authoritarian government.
To say this image was ostensible would be deeply unfair and untrue, for the Court did often live up to its reputation of the lone crusader of justice and fairness. The Supreme Court in 2018 alone has made progressive decisions that have attempted to overturn centuries of discrimination. From allowing entry to women in the Sabarimala, repealing the sexist adultery law, and finally decriminalising homosexuality by stripping away an archaic colonial-era law, the Supreme Court of India has often reaffirmed our faith in the democratic traditions of this country, even in an environment that is increasingly challenging and belittling it.
This isn’t to say that the Court has had a clean run since after Gandhi. There have been allegations of corruption and malfeasance in the last two decades, but none of them gained traction in the media, something that can be largely owed to arbitrary contempt laws. Although, the last two weeks are beginning to erode our faith in the lone institution we could trust to do right by us, as a people.
The bench called the allegations ‘wild and scandalous’ and claimed that it negates the independence of the judiciary.
On April 19, 2019, CJI Ranjan Gogoi was accused of sexual harassment by a former junior assistant, in an affidavit submitted to 22 Supreme Court judges. In response to this, a three-judge bench, comprising of the CJI himself, heard the facts of the case, but without the aggrieved woman’s presence. The bench called the allegations ‘wild and scandalous’ and claimed that it negates the independence of the judiciary.
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This brought severe scrutiny upon the Supreme Court, which led to the Women in Criminal Law Association (WCLA) issuing a statement. Further, feminist activists and groups released a statement signed by 260 people, including lawyers, scholars, and members feminist groups and civil society.
The Supreme Court had asked the media to ‘show restraint’ while reporting on the allegations, but this was largely unnecessary, considering how most mainstream media – especially television media – steered clear of reporting anything relating to this at all, and the news was confined to print media and online media platforms.
To silence the handful of media outlets who were outspoken of the allegations against the CJI and the approach the Supreme Court took in that regard, the Anti-Corruption Council of India, an NGO, moved the Delhi High Court on Monday, seeking the issuance of a gag order to restrict the media from further covering the sexual assault allegations against the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, and the proceedings transpiring in the Supreme Court in this regard. The NGO sought for the Court to direct the Press Council of India and the government to restrain all media – print, televised, and digital, from further publishing anything about the allegations.
The NGO said it ‘strongly suspects the involvement of anti-national elements behind the organisation of such acts.’ Although the Delhi High Court refused to ‘interfere’ and asked the petitioner to go to the Supreme Court for the issuance of the gag order, if issued, the gag order will only further subvert transparency and accountability.
Where the presumption of innocence is a basic judicial tenet, the fact that no man shall be a judge upon his own cause, is a tenet of natural justice, too. When the principal tenet of natural justice has been flouted, the media plays an essential role in maintaining propriety and accountability, and even assuring the continued faith of the people in possibly the most essential institution of our democracy. Any gag-order proscribing reportage on this issue cannot possibly be made in good faith after the course the case has taken.
The NGO also said, “Casting, re-casting the news containing the defamatory contents against the Chief Justice of India is a direct hit on the Indian national judicial system.” Every claim of conspiracy made by individuals and organisations has been on the same lines.
The legal sphere can be exceedingly misogynistic. Sexism in courtrooms, towards women attorneys, and women victims and defendants are rampant. But it can also be a boy’s club that protects men from accountability and consequences.
The Chief Justice is not the Supreme Court, he is merely a part of it. The Supreme Court is an institution that stands for itself, no one man stands for it, so the accusations against the CJI don’t undermine this court, what bears the potential to undermine its standing, is the approach it has taken to these allegations so far.
As a democratic institution, constituted for the people, the Supreme Court must allow the media to monitor the course of the case closely. The Supreme Court can be a revered institution, but it can’t and mustn’t be sacrosanct.
The Attorney General of India, the Solicitor General of India, the Bar Council of India, and many other individuals, offices, and groups immediately and unquestioningly extended their support to the CJI and claimed to hold blind faith in his alleged innocence. In such a state, the media plays a consequential role in assuring that justice is meted out and everyone involved in finding the facts of this case and providing justice to the aggrieved woman, are on the quest for the truth and justice.
The legal sphere can be exceedingly misogynistic. Sexism in courtrooms, towards women attorneys, and women victims and defendants are rampant. But it can also be a boy’s club that protects men from accountability and consequences. Brett Kavanaugh and the misogyny of the nomination fiasco should serve as a reminder to us that accountability doesn’t amount to curtailing judicial independence, it only allows for women to have a place in courtrooms across the world, and the media plays a prime role in realising this.
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Silencing the media and maintaining opacity would be depriving the people of this country from participating in their democracy, it is undemocratic in spirit and in bad faith. This issue hasn’t been taken up with the Supreme Court, yet, and when/if it is, there still is hope that the Supreme Court will refuse to issue a gag order. In today’s polarising and bigoted political climate, the judiciary may be all we have to steer us away from a downward spiral of destruction, and the people deserve to know how their judiciary is keeping our democratic principals alive and if women are truly equal in its courtrooms. Any gag order issued to silence the media, the proverbial fourth pillar of our democracy, will only go on to erode our faith in our democratic institutions because justice doesn’t need to take shelter behind opacity.
Featured Image Source: Telegraph India