Leila Seth needs no introduction. The first woman to top the Bar examination in London in 1957, she was the first woman judge, as well as the first woman Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court. She was also one of the three members of the 2012 Justice J.S. Verma Committee that was formed in the aftermath of the horrendous Nirbhaya gang rape to improve the justice delivery system in cases of sexual violence against women. One of India’s leading advocator of human rights, Seth has penned down her personal involvement with cases related to the rights of women, children, prisoners and homosexuals in her new book Talking of Justice. At 85, with remarkable ease and eloquence, the autobiographer shares with Guardian 20 tales of her early years of work-life balance and a critique of some of the regressive steps taken in governance and jurisdiction in recent years at the NDTV and L’Oréal Paris hosted ‘Women of Worth’ Conclave.
Q. As the first female Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, how was it like working in an atmosphere predominantly full of men?
A. I can say as far as judicial work is concerned, it is equal for everybody. My judgment is at par with the judgment that my male colleague may give. In the court, I tried to never make anybody feel small. Many judges do that to each other, they try to sit on the other's head or try to make the other feel small. But I never did it. So, you know, you have to ask for the other's opinion. Be nice to them. Take everybody's opinion and try to persuade them if they don't agree with you. A woman must not be aggressive and try to bring the best out of people. That is the change that she can bring because that is her nature, her quality. She does that with her children, at home. If you're not aggressive you can get much more out of people.
Q. Did you not face any kind of discrimination at your workplace?
A. Yes I did face a lot of discrimination but I used to always consider the fact that it is a difficult situation for them as well. They are not used to having a woman colleague around. If you put yourself in somebody else's shoes, it is very easy to work things out.
Q. In your autobiography, On Balance, you do talk about all of these...
A. Yes, my autobiographical piece published by Penguin mentions all these things. There I talk about how I am at home too. At home I am no Chief Justice. At home, the sight of a mouse scares me. So there are so many sides to us, you know. We are all full of contradictions.
Q. Well, you also mention in brief in the autobiography about how you had to deal with homosexuality as a mother. As a judge, what is your take on the recent ruling of the Supreme Court on Section 377?
A. I think the judgment of the Delhi High Court was really an eye-opener. It made so many people come out. So many people afraid to talk about the issue finally got some hope. People were lonely, felt targeted. They needed their families to support them, the system to support them. So it is really unfortunate that the Supreme Court in its recent ruling overturned this judgment.
Q. The recent winter session of Parliament witnessed the lowering of the age of juvenile delinquents from 18 to 16. As part of the Verma Committee, you along with many others had opposed juveniles in conflict with law to be treated as adults. Your reaction to this amendment?
A. I am sad about that. Because I think we had thought about it very carefully when we kept the age limit to 18 in our report. That time too there were many such suggestions. But we did not lower down the age citing several scientific and socio-legal evidences. The brain undergoes certain formations and the mature brain takes time to form. Today if there is a case which involves a 14-year-old, will you then lower down the age to 14? Are you going to go on and reduce it later to 12? There has to be a thought process. And the idea is to rehabilitate and reform and not to put people into jail all the time.
“I did face a lot of discrimination but I used to always consider the fact that it is a difficult situation for them as well. They are not used to having a woman colleague around. If you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, it is very easy to work things out.”
Q. There is a global campaign call for parity this International Women’s Day. Sadly, in India, marital rape continues to remain outside the purview of law.
A. I am extremely unhappy with it. No woman wants to face discrimination in their own homes. I think an enabling clause in the Anti-Domestic Violence bill would have done no harm to anybody. In case, the woman is in such a circumstance where her husband is getting drunk and raping her, it should be considered rape. She should have that option to walk out of the marriage.
Q. What do you think is the biggest challenge that the women of today are facing?
A. Society and herself. She has to fight society and she has to fight herself too. She must become independent, she has to work. If she is not self-earning, she is dependent on somebody else economically. Economic independence is most important. If you have that, you can fight. Of course, even when you do have economic independence, often you don't have emotional independence. But take for instance a horrible case where a father is raping his own daughter and the mother knows but can't do anything about it because of lack of economic independence.