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Leila Seth, Delhi HC’s 1st Woman Judge, Argued For A Better World
Justice Leila Seth, who died at the age of 86 on Satur day , grew up with independent India. As a jurist, as a public voice and activist, a woman and mother, she embodied humane and liberal values. All her life, she argued for a better world. She did not have anything easy , as an Indian woman of her time, when the language of aspiration, feminist solidarity and glass ceilings was not available. She got married and moved to the UK with her husband, a shoe-company executive, and stumbled into the law. She topped the London Bar exam, only one of many firsts in a stellar career.As the first woman judge in the Delhi high court and first woman chief justice of a state high court (Himachal Pradesh), she blazed the way in a male-dominated field.She wore this huge achievement lightly , once describing how a group of people wandered into the high court, ha ving seen the zoo, they wanted to see the woman judge too. Seth refused to be boxed into traditionally female areas of work like family law, taking up criminal and constitutional cases. She often argued for a better workplace environment that would not force women to make stark choices between career and family responsibilities.

Through her career, she spoke up for human rights and due process, and against prejudice and intolerance.She both called out the judiciary and defended its independence. In an article for TOI a few years ago, she famously spoke up for “the right to love“, denouncing Section 377 that made a criminal of her son, Vikram Seth. She helped amend the Hindu Succession Act that gave daughters equal rights to joint family property . She strongly believed in a Uniform Civil Code, in a way that would truly ensure equal rights to female citizens. She was a member of the 15th Law Commission, and, at the age of 82, of the Justice Verma committee to reform laws on sexual violence, after the Nirbhaya gangrape. She expressed her unhappiness at how the law ultimately failed to make marital rape a crime, or to make rape a genderneutral offence. She wrote three books -We, the Children of India, making the Constitution’s preamble meaningful to young minds, an autobiography titled On Balance, and most recently , a selection of essays, Talking of Justice.

For all her accomplishments, Justice Leila Seth, for better or worse, was often referred to as the mother of novelist Vikram Seth. She was clearly proud of him, as of his siblings Aradhana and Shantum, all of whom have trod their own singular paths. “She is my author“, Vikram Seth jokingly said about his mother. Lata, the famous heroine of A Suitable Girl, was loosely modelled on her.

Age did not dim her light Age did not dim her light in the least. Seth was a frequent presence at lectures and book events, curious and engaged in current events. It is not something that can be said of most people, but Leila Seth was truly alive until she died.

Even after retirement, she played an important role in public life’
My interaction with Justice Leila Seth was mainly after her retirement and therefore it was a very open engagement. Since I came to Supreme Court and Delhi high court only after she had retired, I do recollect interacting with her after 1992.The outstanding judge shone even more after leaving office, when she spoke fearlessly but with great compassion on a range of issues.

She was one of those rare persons who even after retirement continued to play a very important role in public life.Her greatest contribution is the searing article she wrote after the Supreme Court overturned the Naaz judgment of Delhi high court which had decriminalised consensual homosexual relationship.She said SC has abdicated its duties by throwing the ball in Parliament, and staunchly defended the rights of the LGBT community . The article she wrote highlighted how her own son had become an “unapprehended felon“ in the eyes of law due to the SC ruling. It is indeed admirable for a retired chief justice of a high court to be critical of the SC and speak her mind.

I have fond memories of working with Justice Seth in the Sunanda Bhandare Foundation, set up in the memory of another famous HC judge who died while in office. I was close to late Sunanda and her husband and she was an integral part of the Foundation.In that capacity also I got to interact with her and saw her deep concern for women. Her son Vikram Seth is deeply committed to our organisation Lawyers Collective which argued the Naaz Foundation case. He was one of the first signatories to the petition. My third interaction with Justice Seth was when I made the opening statement before the Justice J S Verma Committee set up after the Nirbhaya case to strengthen India’s anti-rape laws. I found her Justice Seth very active and responsive. She kept asking questions on each section that was being taken up. In my view if there is any legacy she left it is the legacy that women can be great judges and chief justices. The fact remains that today in the Supreme Court there is only one woman judge and the senior most judge in the country in high courts is a chief justice who is a woman. Yet, we have no explanation why women are not being appointed to SC despite vacancies. We can celebrate the fact that we have four women judges leading four important high courts but why are they not being elevated?
(As told to Abhinav Garg)