NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A retired Supreme Court judge denied on Friday that he sexually harassed a law intern in a case that has shaken the country’s legal fraternity and sparked media debate about harassment within the judiciary.
Former Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, 66, said he was “shocked and shattered” by the allegations made against him by a 22-year-old lawyer who had interned with him.
“I have denied in a statement all allegations of sexual harassment. I am totally innocent and I am victim of the situation,” Ganguly told the NDTV news channel.
“I have worked with several interns in my life. I treat them like my children ... nobody has ever made such an allegation. I am shocked and shattered,” he added.
Ganguly is chairman of the Human Rights Commission in the eastern state of West Bengal and has presided over numerous cases involving crimes against women in his career as a judge.
Lawyer Stella James, 22, wrote in a blog post on November 6 that a top judge assaulted her in a hotel room last December - just when huge protests were taking place over the fatal gang rape and murder of a physiotherapist in the Indian capital.
“In Delhi at that time, interning during the winter vacations of my final year in university, I dodged police barricades and fatigue to go to the assistance of a highly reputed, recently retired Supreme Court judge whom I was working under during my penultimate semester,” wrote James in a blog for the Journal of Indian Law and Society.
“For my supposed diligence, I was rewarded with sexual assault (not physically injurious, but nevertheless violating) from a man old enough to be my grandfather. I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say that long after I’d left the room, the memory remained, in fact, still remains, with me.”
James, who did not name the judge, said she had not come forward earlier because she did not want to tarnish his reputation, but she now felt “a responsibility to ensure that other young girls were not put in a similar situation.”
Her allegations created a media furore - with female lawyers and activists calling for the country’s top court to investigate the incident and for the accused judge to be named publicly.
The Supreme Court set up a three-judge panel, which heard testimonies from both James and Ganguly and submitted its report to the Chief Justice of India, P. Sathasivam, on Friday, naming Ganguly as the accused.
It is the first time India’s Supreme Court has set up an internal inquiry into sexual harassment allegations against a presiding or former judge.
The report has not been made public and it is not clear what action the chief justice will take, but lawyers and feminists are calling for a police complaint to be registered and for an inquiry.
“I am very concerned about this case,” Indira Jaising, India’s Additional Solicitor General, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “To remain silent is to be complicit, which is the reason why the legal process has to be gone through without making any excuses. An excuse that he was a former judge and that he can only be impeached - well, no, that’s not the answer.”
“There is a justice system which can deal with people like that so I think it’s very important,” she added.
The case is one of a small but growing number in which victims of alleged sexual harassment have come forward to complain about powerful male superiors.
Police are probing the editor-in-chief of India’s leading investigative magazine over claims he sexually assaulted a female colleague twice in a hotel elevator during a conference in the resort state of Goa this month.
Activists say sexual harassment and abuse by powerful and privileged men is widespread in India, but few women have been willing to talk about it.