A new book by the first woman high court chief justice offers insights into the causes affecting women today
At the sprightly age of 84, Leila Seth is busy planning her schedule. There are literary seminars to attend, talks to be given to schoolchildren, a book that has just been launched and, yes, already, another book to be written.
The latest is barely out. Launched on her 84th birthday on 20 October, Talking Of Justice: People’s Rights In Modern India is a collection of essays on subjects the former chief justice of the Himachal Pradesh high court holds dear: children’s rights, the status of widows, the need for gender sensitization within the judiciary, prisoner rights, the girl child.
Most of these essays began as talks and lectures delivered 1992 onwards, although the material itself has been updated, edited and rewritten for the book. An essay, You’re Criminal If Gay, appeared first in The Times Of India soon after a two-judge Supreme Court bench reversed an earlier court decision to decriminalize homosexuality. And one, Rape: Inside The Justice Verma Committee, is a first-person account of the tumultuous days of December 2012.
Without waiting for the government to provide it with the necessary facilities, the commission got down to work. Subramanium roped in his entire office and all his juniors. Even Justice Verma’s granddaughter, a student at the University of Oxford, UK, home for the holidays, chipped in. The task was mammoth: Sift through 80,000 suggestions from the public, expert advice from around the world, representations from women’s groups and the lesbian, gay and transgender community, and inputs from the police and administration. It was an intense, hectic time; 15 minutes before the deadline to receive submissions ended, representatives from a political party woke up Justice Verma. It was 11.45pm. They too had an urgent submission, they said, leaving only after a signed receipt from him.
When the 631-page report was presented in just 29 days, there was a sense of disbelief in the packed room at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. Not only had the commission delivered in such a short time, its recommendations went far beyond the law. It wanted police reforms. It spoke about the need for changes in education, particularly the need for sex education. It wanted changes in The Representation of the People Act that would make candidates charged with rape ineligible to contest elections. It was, in short, a 21st century charter for women. “Our brief was limited to the law," says Seth. “But we went for the wider scope because we knew that unless our approach was holistic, it would not be enough."
The then prime minister Manmohan Singh sent “a nice letter of thanks", recalls Seth. But when the law was finally passed, Parliament baulked. Many of the commission’s significant recommendations—on marital rape and rape by men in the Armed Forces, and on making rape gender neutral, for instance—were left out. The death sentence, not recommended, was added. And the age of juveniles, at least for heinous crimes, is being sought to be lowered to 16 through a Bill introduced this year in Parliament.
Over 18 months have passed since the Justice Verma Commission. Justice Verma died barely three months after the report. There is a new law but the number of reported rape and sexual assault cases is up. Misogyny remains on blatant public display, often from elected representatives themselves.
Yet, seated in her book-embellished home, a grand piano inside and a red champa tree outside, Seth says she remains an “optimist" because “You cannot live without hope." The government may not have accepted all the commission’s recommendations, but it is, she says, a “beginning".
The real challenge lies in changing mindsets. “The changed law provides an immediate remedy. But changing mindsets is a slower process. And that change doesn’t come fast," she says.
“Nothing can change unless we first start talking. The problem is when you sweep things under the carpet," says Seth.
The commission’s work is done. But the new conversation around sexual violence, patriarchy and the status of women has not abated.
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Leila Seth began her law practice in 1959 in Patna as one of only two women lawyers practising in the high court there. By the time she wrote her first book, an autobiography elegantly titled ‘On Balance’, she was 74. The book was an 80th birthday gift to her husband Premo, now 91.
In 1992, David Davidar, then with Penguin, visited Shimla, where Seth was the chief justice. He was there to read her son Vikram Seth’s manuscript of ‘A Suitable Boy’. It was Davidar who suggested that Seth write her own book. And it was Davidar again, now head of Aleph Book Co., who suggested she write a personal account of her time at the Justice Verma Commission.
Along the way, Seth wrote We, The Children Of India, which explains the Constitution and preamble—which Seth calls the "soul of our Constitution"—to children. “Children understand things very quickly, they understand concepts of fairness and justice," says Seth. It is her conversation with children that gives Seth, a grandmother to two girls, Nandini, 13, and Anamika, 10, her energy. “The young today are so confident," she says. Her next book is a compilation of stories for children, some of them fictional, imparting values without being preachy.
Taking an interest in the world around her and looking to the future drives Seth’s optimism. She travels throughout the country and beyond, attending literary festivals from Bhutan to Bangalore, asking for no special concessions to her age as she bustles about attending sessions in her trademark handloom saris, feet comfortably encased in Crocs.
The changes she has seen, from the Quit India movement and Partition to the protests of December 2012, are astonishing. Significant laws have been passed, and Seth considers reservation for women in panchayats, the right to information and education among the three most significant in the country.
On this journey, Seth has been open to change too. For instance, she says, when she started out in the profession, completing her law degree after the birth of her children, she says she was against the concept of reservation for women. “As I’ve got older, I have begun to realize that women have been put down for so long that reservation is absolutely essential."
For Seth, a just society is an equally balanced one. “I am one of those who wishes to walk hand in hand, not a step in front or a step behind," she says.
Namita Bhandare is consulting editor, gender, Mint.