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Law student sexually harassed by ex-Supreme Court judge: case is not unique, but speaking out is nearly impossible

Gang rape protests: Asking for Justice?
Gang rape protests: Asking for Justice?

A law graduate who recently blogged about how a retired Supreme Court judge sexually assaulted her while she was his intern, says that the problem is real and not uncommon amongst the judiciary and senior bar but that she sees few if any ways of tackling it.

Stella James, who graduated from NUJS Kolkata this year and now works at the NGO Natural Justice, Lawyers for Communities and the Environment, wrote about an alleged incident of physical, sexual assault by an unnamed, retired Supreme Court judge in late 2012.

In a post that was published on the blog of the NUJS Journal of Indian Law and Society on 6 November, she wrote about trying to come to terms with her experience of 24 December 2012, Christmas Eve, ironically against the backdrop of the then-ongoing Delhi gang rape protests:

“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. 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.”

“Frankly I was really shocked,” James tells Legally India in an interview today. “There’s this thing: a person who is a Supreme Court judge - you don’t expect a Supreme Court judge to harass somebody.”

However, she says that her experience was neither uncommon, nor merely restricted to the judiciary: “I’ve heard of three other cases [of sexual harassment] by the same judge and I know of at least four other girls who’ve faced harassment from other judges - not perhaps as [bad as mine]: most of them were in the chambers of the judge and other people around, so it never gets too bad.

“A girl I know faced continuous sexual harassment throughout and sexual advances, and actually faced troubles through her work because of it.” And she says she’s heard of Supreme Court senior counsel who have made passes at or have continuously harassed interns for longer periods.

And though it is barely, if at all, known outside legal circles, it is a bit of an open secret or a “big joke” within the profession, particularly among clerks and women working in the Supreme Court, according to James.

“People in the Supreme Court kind of know,” she says. “I did my internship through the college [recruitment process].” After beginning to share her experience with others in college, however, James found that others had also faced similar problems with the same judge.

James’ reasons for not going public with the name of the judge or not lodging a formal complaint are complex, both morally and practically. On the one hand, she wrote in the blog post:

“I bore, and still bear, no real ill-will towards the man, and had no desire to put his life’s work and reputation in question. On the other hand, I felt I had a responsibility to ensure that other young girls were not put in a similar situation. But I have been unable to find a solution that allows that. Despite the heated public debates, despite a vast army of feminist vigilantes, despite new criminal laws and sexual harassment laws, I have not found closure. The lack of such an alternative led to my facing a crippling sense of intellectual and moral helplessness.”

“I’d worked for him for six months and he treated me really well for six months and has been really kind to me,” James explains. “It was rather strange to me but I haven’t really forgiven him for it… [But] I don’t know if I want to let myself - my impression of him as a person - be entirely dictated by that act… My leeway to him isn’t because he’s had a shining career and all that - part of it is that – [but] I’m not really sure I want to ruin somebody’s entire life because of that.”

“Once it gets out in the open that he’s harassed other girls,” James says, “people will only look at him in that light.”

However, James admits that one other strong reason, which was not really touched upon in her blog post, was concern about whether legal action would even have any effect. James had managed to reach two of the other young women who were harassed by the same judge but neither were willing to come forward in public, mostly out of fear. “They don’t really want to jeopordise their careers,” James relates. “He’s a Supreme Court judge. If it’s going to be his word against our word, he’s got more credibility, so to speak, of his words.”

And she adds that if she by herself had wanted to take legal action, it would probably not have been possible. “There were no other witnesses, it was just me. It was a hotel room, [people] saw me walking in voluntarily, saw me walking out very calmly. I didn’t even walk out [with] fear. At that moment I felt I needed to walk out very calmly. I never mentioned anything the same day to anybody.”

Apart from the evidentiary difficulty in proving the crime, the more serious problem for lawyers is perhaps inherent in the profession itself. James said she had never heard of any official harassment complaints within the legal profession or against any judges. And while Legally India understands that sexual harassment complaints are at times made in law firms, most are handled very delicately and quietly, with the firm encouraging informal resolution.

In courts, it is even worse, speculates James, in that there is usually no one you can realistically complain to, unlike in a company or college structure where harassed by a boss or lecturer, for example, and where she would have taken formal action in a similar incident. “Of course you can file a criminal complaint [against a judge or lawyer] but that’s a whole different level.” And it is also likely to impact your career.

“I know a friend of mine who was sexually harassed at the Karnataka high court,” says James. That friend “wasn’t keeping it a secret” and telling lawyer friends about why she left the job with that senior, and for two months afterwards she wasn’t able to find a job at the same court, being asked about the incident in interviews after it dripped through the court’s grapevine (she eventually found a job after deciding to evade the issue at interviews).

The mindset in such cases often is, “she created trouble for him, she’ll create trouble for us”, speculates James.

She says she was also skeptical about the Supreme Court’s recently started sexual harassment cell and guidelines improving matters considerably. “It is often one person’s word against another person’s word, and a lot of people tend not to take the word” of a young lawyer against a senior advocate who’s made his reputation for 10 to 15 years. “There is a balance of power thing going on here.”

The only thing that James has been able to do, other than write the blog, is discuss the incident with members of her alma mater, possibly de-listing the judge from the recruitment process so that others are not exposed to similar experiences.

While James does feel that colleges have a responsibility to protect their students, she acknowledges that it could be difficult. The judge in question has been closely associated with her former college for a while by giving lectures and regularly taking on research assistants, so whether faculty can take unequivocal action is not certain.

Nevertheless, James says that potentially recruitment committees of colleges could make a difference. “I think at least – there should be some way, if not publicly then at least privately, kids who go intern with a judge should know that this has happened before.”

James says that she was able to come forward, albeit without disclosing names, because of her choice to work with an NGO with a possible view to entering academia at some point in her career.

“I was a little afraid,” she admits. “The other friends I’ve spoken about, they are in positions where these judges play an important role [at the Supreme Court or teaching in a college and they] are afraid of jeopardising their careers. I don’t have such concerns here at Natural Justice - I have a team that’s incredibly supportive, and three colleagues were first to read the blog post [before publication].

“For me, the great thing is that I’m in an organisation where I know that if I come out in public about it, we are 25 people, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have the entire team behind me.”

That lawyers elsewhere are unlikely or unable to protect their own from sexual harassment, is a problem the profession will have to deal with sooner rather than later.

Update 12 November: The Chief Justice of India has decided to institute a three-member judicial committee to probe the allegation.

Photo by Soumyaroop Chatterjee

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