NLU Delhi LL.M. topper skips Convocation to protest handling of sexual harassment allegations against CJI

Bar & Bench August 19 2019
NLU Delhi

This year's convocation ceremony at the National Law University Delhi (NLU Delhi) has made headlines for more reasons than one. In a mark of symbolic protest against the manner in which the Supreme Court handled allegations of sexual harassment against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, the topper of the NLU Delhi LL.M. programme, Surbhi Karwa, decided to skip the ceremony.

Karwa citied moral grounds for her reluctance to accept the gold medal awarded to toppers from the Chief Guest, CJI Ranjan Gogoi. Speaking to the Indian Express, she said,

"Everything I learnt in the classroom put me in a moral quandary over the last few weeks on whether I should receive the award from CJI Gogoi. The institution he heads failed when sexual harassment allegations were made against him...I am seeking answers for myself on the role lawyers must play in guarding Constitutional values, and that is something even the CJI mentioned in his speech."

Karwa is reported to have worked on a thesis focusing on feminist themes of the Constitution titled, "Is the Constitution a feminist document?"

She has, however, clarified that she has not refused to accept the medal awarded to her.

In April this year, a former staff member of the Supreme Court had levelled allegations that Chief Justice Gogoi had made unwelcome advances towards her in October 2018 while she worked as a junior assistant in his office.

In a representation sent out to Supreme Court judges, she had detailed these allegations while seeking the initiation of an inquiry against CJI Gogoi. She had also complained that a false case of bribery was foisted on her, allegedly owing to her having resisted the alleged sexual advances.

After reports of the allegations first broke on April 20, a Special Bench was convened on the same day to look into the matter of grave public importance touching upon the independence of the judiciary. This Special Bench had comprised of CJI Ranjan Gogoi along with Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna. However, the Court order passed that day did not reflect the name of CJI Gogoi.

During the hearing, CJI Gogoi orally observed that an attempt was being made to browbeat the judiciary.

This angle was later examined by a separate Bench of Justices Arun Mishra, RF Nariman and Deepak Gupta. This Bench eventually referred the matter to Justice (retd.) AK Patnaik who is heading a probe into whether there was a larger conspiracy at play.

The complaint itself was referred to a three-judge inquiry panel. The panel comprising Justices SA Bobde, Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra eventually concluded that there was no substance in the sexual harassment allegations levelled by the staffer after four days of sitting. Following summons, CJI Gogoi appeared before the panel to depose on the fourth day.

However, the woman complainant withdrew from the proceedings on the third day on apprehensions that the inquiry was not being conducted fairly. In a letter explaining her reasons, she stated, inter alia, that she was not being allowed to be accompanied by a lawyer or a support person and that no video recording of the proceedings was allowed.

After the inquiry panel gave a clean chit to CJI Gogoi, the complainant also registered her protest over not being served a copy of the panel's report.

The manner in which the allegations were dismissed had earlier invited criticism from several quarters of the legal community as well.

In June this year, it was reported that the suspension orders passed against the staffer's husband and brother-in-law following her termination as a Supreme Court staff member, had been revoked by the Delhi Police.

The 7th Annual Convocation of NLU Delhi was held on August 17. 83 students of the BA LL.B programme, 78 students from the LL.M. programme, and six Ph.D students graduated. During his address as Chief Guest, CJI Ranjan Gogoi said that it was time for introspection of the five-year model of legal education.