NEW DELHI — The chief justice of India’s Supreme Court has been accused of sexually harassing a female assistant, and a special panel of judges called an emergency meeting on Saturday to address the allegations.
In an affidavit cited by several Indian news outlets, the assistant accused Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of unwanted touching and said her family was singled out for harsh retribution after she rebuffed him.
A statement from the court given to Indian news media said that the allegations were “completely and absolutely false and scurrilous and are totally denied.”
On Friday, the woman, who is in her 30s and worked as a junior court assistant, sent her detailed affidavit to more than 20 other Supreme Court judges. In the document, she claimed that in October, Chief Justice Gogoi “hugged me around the waist, and touched me all over my body with his arms and by pressing his body against mine, and did not let go.”
She said that “he did not let go of me despite the fact that I froze and tried to get out of his embrace by stiffening and moving my body away.”
Soon afterward, she was fired, and her husband and brother-in-law, both police officers, were suspended from their jobs, the woman said.
The woman also said she was forced to apologize to the chief justice’s wife (even though she felt there was nothing to apologize for), and that she had to prostrate herself on the floor and rub her nose at the wife’s feet.
The Supreme Court, a progressive counterweight to the recent rightward shift in Indian politics, is considered one of India’s most vital public institutions and is among its busiest, hearing up to 700 legal matters every day.
The court, which has around 25 judges, often steps in on behalf of minorities and women, issuing directives in lofty, sometimes even poetic language, pushing for greater equality and mutual respect.
Mr. Gogoi, 64, was appointed chief justice in October and came into office with high expectations. He was known as witty, intelligent and fiercely independent; before he became chief justice, he had spoken out publicly about problems at the court.
But he has since disappointed many observers of the court, who feel that several of his decisions were intended to please Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. In December, for example, he ruled there were no grounds to doubt the legality of a contentious jet fighter contract that the government awarded to a French company and an Indian counterpart with little experience in defense manufacturing.
At the emergency hearing on Saturday, Chief Justice Gogoi denied the allegations against him. According to a lawyer who provided notes from the hearing, the chief justice implied that the allegations were part of a broader conspiracy and said “the judiciary of this country is under very, very serious threat.”
Chief Justice Gogoi said he would not interfere with the investigation and that Arun Mishra, a senior Supreme Court judge, would handle the case. Mr. Mishra was expected to set up a committee to look into the allegations in the coming days.
India has had its own #MeToo movement, but many sexual harassment allegations against powerful men have been dismissed. One junior minister, M.J. Akbar, was forced to resign last year after numerous women complained that he had sexually harassed them.
Chief Justice Gogoi seems to be the highest-ranking Indian official in recent years to have been seriously accused of inappropriate sexual behavior.
Among the assistant’s more troubling allegations is the way she says she was dismissed. In her affidavit, the assistant, whose name has been withheld by the Indian news media, said she fainted right before she was to appear in front of an employment committee for a hearing on her possible dismissal. Indian news outlets published what was said to be a doctor’s note confirming that the woman had had a panic attack.
But instead of adjourning the hearing until the assistant could be present, the committee apparently went ahead and fired her.
A few months later, according to the affidavit, the assistant was arrested on bribery charges, which she says were fabricated to discredit her.