In an "extraordinary and unusual hearing" presided over by him and called at a moment's notice on Saturday, Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi took on the allegation of sexual harassment published against him by some online news portals, saying "things have gone too far" and "the judiciary cannot be made a scapegoat."
"Why do you think a person decides to become a judge? Reputation is all that matters for a judge. If that is also under attack, what is left?" he asked.
"This is unbelievable. I should not stoop low even in denying it. Rs. 6.8 lakh is all I have as bank balance... They cannot catch me on money, so they have brought up this. This is the reward a Chief Justice of India gets after 20 years and a bank balance of Rs. 6.8 lakh. Independence of judiciary is under very very serious threat. I had to tell this from the judicial seat," he said.
Justice Arun Mishra, who along with Justice Sanjeev Khanna formed the CJI's companion judges on the Bench, termed the allegation "wild and baseless".
Speaking for the Bench, Justice Mishra asked the media to exercise restraint, but did not pass any judicial order gagging the latter.
Both Attorney General K.K. Venugopal and Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta were present in the courtroom along with Supreme Court Bar Association president and senior advocate Rakesh Khanna.
The Court declined Mr. Mehta's request to allow him to register formal proceedings in the matter.
Mr. Mehta termed the allegation "rubbish". Mr. Venugopal said not only the judges but lawyers were also under attack for representing their clients. The media reports have violated the dictates of absolute confidentiality required in such allegations.
The day saw a sudden rush of events with news websites publishing the report about a former Court employee accusing the CJI of making sexual advances towards her while she was working as a junior court assistant last year.
The article said that the woman, in her mid-thirties, complained of subsequent police harassment against her and alleged that she was unceremoniously dismissed from service. She also reportedly wrote to 22 Supreme Court judges on April 19 about her allegation.
One of the websites reported that the Secretary General of the Court had denied her claims and called them “completely and absolutely false and scurrilous”.
The publication of the allegation saw the Court react almost instantly. A notice of a special open court session at 10.30 a.m. was circulated among the media.
"The responsibility of calling this hearing is mine. We had to take this extraordinary and unusual step because things have gone too far. Judiciary cannot be made a scapegoat," Chief Justice Gogoi addressed the assembled court.
“Less than 10 hours' notice was given to me to respond. What I want to tell citizens is that judiciary of this country is under serious threat”, he said.
Justice Khanna, the youngest judge and in line to be Chief Justice of India, said judicial work was guided by zest to learn the truth, however uncomfortable it may be. Such "baseless" allegation and its publication shackled judicial independence. "Judiciary cannot be put under any refrain... We should not be made to feel constrained," he stated.
'Will not be cowed down'
Chief Justice Gogoi said he would continue to perform his duties without fear or favour till the end of his tenure and would not be cowed down.
At the end of the half-hour hearing, the CJI said he would not pass any judicial order in the matter and left it to Justice Mishra to take the lead and do what was necessary.
"My colleague here is probably the senior most among us... I will not pass any orders in this matter. I leave it to him," he said.
‘We leave it to the wisdom of the media’
Justice Mishra, speaking for the Bench, said there was no need to pass a judicial order in the case. Rather, the Court would leave it to the wisdom of the media to show the restraint required of them. The Court left it to the media to act responsibly in publishing anything so that the independence of the judiciary was not affected by the "wild and baseless" allegation against the CJI.
To Mr. Mehta's urging to allow him to register formal proceedings, the CJI did not agree. "We don't want to do anything like that now. We expect the media to exercise restraint, act responsibly and act according to their wisdom," he said.
Whatever judicial orders, if required, may be passed at an appropriate time in the future, he said.