We live in a world where women are expected to take a back seat, where they are expected to put others before themselves, where they are considered valid only when they fulfil the roles of wives and mothers. It was Justice Leila Seth’s passion, courage and resoluteness that forced society to give up its inhibitions and make way for a woman so strong that she changed the legal landscape in India.
Leila Seth could be called a pioneer in carving out a path for feminism in India, for she believed in herself when all odds were against her, and defied all that people told her to. In 2017, women in law are still viewed with more scrutiny than their male counterparts, but Leila Seth’s conviction in women’s abilities and her active presence in women’s issues has drastically changed regressive outlooks towards female lawyers.
Leila was the first woman to be made a Chief Justice of a State High Court.
Leila Seth was known to be a successful member of the Indian Judiciary, the first of her kind, she was also a loving wife and caring mother. Leila Seth never shied away from speaking for the rights of minorities, and is known for her many contributions to changing regressive laws sexual offences, and property.
She was versatile in handling her field and was a voice of reason to lawmakers and the people. Leila was the first woman to be made judge of the Delhi High Court and was the first woman to be made a Chief Justice of a State High Court. A student, lawyer, judge, and a writer, Leila Seth took on many roles in life and exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“Mother-in-Law”: Early Years
Leila Seth was born in October 1930 to a family that was delighted to have a girl after having two boys. Her father worked in the Imperial Railway Service. Leila always stated that the bond between her father and her was a special one, and so her family was devastated when she lost him at the mere age of 11. Her father and mother held progressive ideals, and made sure that Leila was treated the same way that her brothers were and they were encouraged to imbibe the values of equality as they grew up.
After her father died, her mother struggled with very little money but managed to educate Leila in Loreto Convent, Darjeeling. After finishing her schooling there, Leila began working as a stenographer in Kolkata. She was introduced to her husband Prem Seth and soon they were engaged and had what she likes to call a “semi-arranged” marriage.
A few years later, Leila and Prem moved to London where Prem was working at Bata. She realized that London meant a great opportunity to study further but since she had a baby by that time, she shortlisted careers that would not require her to attend classes. And that’s how she narrowed down on law, simply because it was something one could do from home!
She managed to attend classes whenever she could, and at the mere age of 27, Leila had became the first woman to top the London Bar exam. This was the very beginning of her illustrious and influential career as a legal practitioner and jurist. The papers had published a photo of her with her first child and titled it “Mother In Law” as a play on words. Some newspapers had even expressed that it was regretful that a married woman had topped the London Bar, for they feared this would be futile.
A Law of Men: Her Career and Struggles
Leila and Prem Seth moved back to India soon after Leila had passed her bar exam. Many would not know this, but she was also selected for civil services as an IAS officer. However, in pursuit of a career in law, she began practicing in Patna. She initially worked under a senior lawyer, named Mr. Sachin Chaudhary, and she recounts her experience like this “Looking at me, he asked, “Why are you here, go and get married”. I said I am married. He said, “It is important to have children”. I said “I have a child”. Then he said, “Look it is unfair on the child not to have siblings, you should have two…”, I said, “I have three children “… then he couldn’t say anything.” Immediately after this she began working with him because he recognised her drive and spunk.
Some newspapers expressed regret that a married woman had topped the London Bar, for they feared this would be futile.
For 10 years, she worked at the Patna High Court. Initially, she would not get much work in the High Court, and most men would be surprised to see her there. The lawyer who would brief her on some work would often have difficulty in explaining to clients that their case would be handled well even if it was handed over to a woman. She faced many problems because of these notions, and she recalls a time where she a client kept insisting on a male lawyer’s opinion on the case that she had worked hard on, and she wasn’t getting paid due to these demands. And once a senior male counsel had looked at the work, all that he said was that he endorsed the opinion that Leila had. Facing dejection in this form was tough, but that didn’t break her spirit.
There was only one other woman who worked at the High Court, Dharamshila Lal, and only on criminal cases. A turning point in her life came when Leila had to go up against the only other female lawyer in the court on a rape case. While initially she was nervous, she simply told herself that she could do it if anyone else could. She went on to win the case for the survivor.
Practicing law, Leila was aware that female lawyers were regarded by their gender first and their merit second, and so she knew that people expected her to take up “women’s cases” such as divorce matters or other family law related matters. But she wanted to challenge this norm and prove that she was good enough to fight mainstream cases, and just as good as any other male lawyer.
She took up matters in the field of Company Law, Constitutional Law, Income Tax, Civil, and other Criminal cases. She was once fighting for a train engine driver who was criminally charged for not knowing that people were sitting on top of a train that he was driving and carelessly killing them when a tunnel came. She worked hard, dove into technicalities such as whether or not the train driver could hear people on the roof, and she eventually went on to win the case. She even recalls how touched she was when the train driver came personally to meet and thank her with a tin of ghee – such is the impact that Leila made on people’s lives. She gave them hope and resilience when they saw none, and did not let anyone think less of her by the virtue of her being a woman.
a client kept insisting on a male lawyer’s opinion on the case that she had worked hard on.
After practicing for 10 years in Patna, she decided to move her practice to the Delhi High Court in 1972 and dealt with original civil petitions, criminal matters, company petitions, revisions and appeals. This was also the time where she started practicing in the Supreme Court as well, handling taxation matters, writ petitions, Constitutional civil and criminal appeals. She was also on the panel of lawyers for the West Bengal Government, in the Supreme Court. She made significant progress in just a few years, she continued breaking barriers for women in mainstream legal areas, setting an example, and on 10th January, 1977 she received the designation of a senior advocate by the apex Court.
Eventually, in 1978, she was appointed as the first female Judge of the Delhi High Court. This came with its own infirmities. She recounts the other’ male judges viewing her from a stereotypical lens and she was once asked to handle a tea-party coming up for all the judges. She dealt with sexism and was rejected a membership in the Delhi Gymkhana Club as that was only meant for “male judges”, and was also refused medical reimbursement for her mother on the same grounds.
Her colleagues would refer to her as a “lady judge” while introducing her, and she often called them out on this by questioning them on how ridiculous it would sound if they introduced male colleagues as “male judges”, and why the same equal treatment must be meted out to her. This, she says, led to quite a few differences.
She also recollects an incident where one day in court, her courtroom was full and when she asked her clerk why so many people were gathered, it turned out that they were all there to see her because they had heard that there was a lady judge in the High Court and that was an interesting “sight” to see.
In 1991, Justice Leila Seth became the first female judge to be appointed as a Chief Justice of a state high court, and she was appointed as the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh. Her experiences in working in the High Court of Himachal Pradesh were not as glorious either. “In most cases, male lawyers or judges especially in upper Himachal had a feudal mentality. They were not used to a woman sitting on their head. But as I was a mother of two boys, I knew how to handle men sensitively. I would gently ask their opinions first before ‘imposing’ mine on them.”
Justice Leila Seth is also known for being on an enquiry commission which studied into the effects of the children’s popular TV series Shaktiman on children, since tragic incidents were cropping up where children would jump off buildings or even set themselves on fire, thinking that Shaktiman would come save them. She was also the single-member of the Justice Leila Seth Commission which enquired into the custodial death of businessman Rajan Pillai, or popularly known as “Biscuit Baron”.
She was also a part of the 15th Law Commission of India from 1997 to 2000 and is known for spearheading the change in inheritance laws for women regarding the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, which finally gave daughters rights in their ancestral property. Known for her commitment to human rights issues and choosing to speak up against human rights violations, she was the Chair of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) for many years.
Leila was aware that female lawyers were regarded by their gender first and their merit second.
She was also one of the three panel members of the Justice Verma Committee set up to look into the intricacies of the rape law in India, following the aftermath of the Nirbhaya gang-rape case. The Justice Verma Committee produced a 631 page recommendation just after 30 days of the set up of the committee. The report was fairly holistic and progressive in its recommendations. It dealt with the questions of gender, crime, and law with a lot of depth. Justice Leila Seth had also recommended that the rape law be made gender neutral, with special emphasis that the survivors of any gender (males, females, transgenders) be allowed to seek remedy.
The report also engaged with the question of marital rape, and it found that patriarchal notions in the British law making had crept into Indian laws as well, for according to English law of coverture, a woman’s consent to intercourse was inbuilt in her marriage to a man. The committee however, digressed and found that a woman’s bodily consent and autonomy are concepts built over time and that even as per the European Commission of Human Rights, a rapist is a rapist regardless of the relationship with the survivor. Thus, the committee strongly recommended that marital rape be criminalised, but unfortunately, this suggestion was not agreed to by the government.
Leila Seth in her book Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India, lamented how the government’s refusal to change the law in that regard was unfair to women and violated their dignity and fostered abusive marriages. In her book she also talks about how keeping the age of consent to 16 years should not have been criminalised in a positive move to encourage dialogue and accept teenage sex so long as both partners were consenting, but the government did not pay heed to that recommendation either.
The committee also encouraged “outrage of the modesty of a woman” to include voyeurism and stalking as crimes with different punishments in order to make the law against harassment of women stricter. Thankfully, the government acted upon these recommendations and that’s how we have an elaborate Section 354 in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which has strict laws and punishments laid out with respect to harassment.
Justice Leila Seth recommended that the rape law be made gender neutral and survivors of any gender (male, female, trans) be allowed to seek remedy.
Justice Leila Seth has authored four books including her famous autobiography On Balance which is known for its honest language and gripping information regarding all the struggles she had to face to get where she reached. She has also written We, The Children of India, a text which has been written to tell the children of all the values of equality, liberty and fraternity enshrined in our Constitution, the foundation of our country. “If you cannot be taught moral science at least teach constitutional morality in school. If every child in India knows the essence of the Preamble and follows it to some extent, we will have a better country. They need to inculcate these ideas for us to finally do something about some of our ills like corruption and communalism.” she says. Years of experience have led Leila Seth to know that children deserve more credit that is given to them, especially in India, a place where the attitude towards children largely follows the “You are to be seen, not heard” principle.
The latest book by Seth, published 2014, is titled Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India, a book that has been written with profound wisdom and decades of unimaginable experiences. In it, she talks about her role in changing laws, and also discusses the importance of changing the laws for a better country for gendered minorities. You can read an excerpt here.
A Benchmark for Balance: Personal Life
Leila Seth was married to Prem Seth when she was around 24 years old, and had three children – Vikram Seth, Shantum Seth and Aradhna Seth. People who know the family personally all agree that there was immense love, support, and understanding between the members of her family, and all of them underwent great struggles.
Many times in the course of her life, Justice Seth was questioned about her upbringing of her children. Her driver used to tell her colleagues “Koi kuchh nahin karta. Khaali saab aur memsaab kaam kartey hain (None of them do anything. Only the parents work).” At the time, it seemed to outsiders as if none of her children took life seriously, as Vikram had just quit his PhD to write, Shatum was learning to be a Buddhist teacher, and Aradhna’s career in films did not seem lucrative. However, she had faith in her children. “And I thought what had I done. Had I brought them up the wrong way? And I thought, no if I had to bring them up again, I’d do exactly the same.”
Today, Vikram Seth’s books are well-known all over India, Aradhna is a successful photographer and filmmaker, and Shantum is following his passion for Buddhism.
Leila has also been extremely vocal in supporting her son when he came out to her as gay. Her approach to the situation was not to judge her son, but only to be worried for his safety because of the rigorous section 377 that criminalises intercourse between two consenting same-sex adults. “I remember reading a book called The Well of Loneliness about two lesbians and I remember it moved me. Love is such a beautiful thing and they could not share it with anybody. I think that came back to me. I read it at 17 and I thought how lonely a person must be if you can’t share his love with other people,” she said. “People have told me they were not able to accept this about their children. And almost gave up on their child. Reading (the book) has made them realise to care for the child more. The child is not in the normal routine life. He is the lonely child. He needs more love, more affection.” She chose to take a positive stance, to care for minorities, and speak for the voiceless because she believed they were humans from whom their dignity was being snatched away.
Hope and Faith: Legacy and Inspiration
Justice Leila Seth has undoubtedly been the feminist heroine who paved the way and encouraged many other women and girls all over India to enter the field of law. She was unfettered by the plentiful gender-discrimination she faced, and she is the perfect example of how to deal with demotivating situations. Being a female lawyer and a judge especially in India is still ridden with difficulties, but Leila Seth’s remarkable presence in the mainstream helped society know that women in law are here to stay.
Leila has also been extremely vocal in supporting her son when he came out to her as gay.
She is not only a revered icon by the virtue of being able to resiliently fight the discrimination she had faced, but she was also a staunch supporter of the LGBTQIA+ community and spoke out against the evils of marital rape and dowry. “You talk to poor people or you go to the villages, I have many people telling me that their men come home drunk and abuse them in a way. They tell me that once you get married, you have given up all your bodily integrity, and, all your women’s right, in one way. If you don’t feel like having sex one day, or you feel unwell, your husband can have sex with you or force you to have sex. It’s like saying, once you’re married, you have given consent and that consent you cannot retract.”
In her TED Talk she chose to be open and honest about why dowry is still prevalent and how even the most educated and progressive people end up giving dowry for their daughters, simply because they don’t want their daughters to lead a miserable life in their matrimonial home. She also chose to encourage women to speak out when they know what the law is, especially when it comes to property rights since she recognised that many women often give up their rights so that they won’t have differences with their brothers. But she is hopeful and she feels that the scenario is changing as women empowerment is entering the mainstream media and discussions.
But she has observed that from a time when she was the only other female lawyer working at the Patna High Court, the situation has changed. More and more women are taking up positions and jobs that would traditionally go to a man. She had not imagined that provisions such as under the Right to Information Act, or the Panchayati Raj rules that allow women to be heads, would come, and so remains hopeful that change will come, even is it’s not as fast as we would like it to be.
Significantly, it was Leila Seth’s letter published in The Times Of India in which she expressed her dissent and sadness regarding the Suresh Kumar Koushal judgment by the Supreme Court that reinstated Section 377. “What makes life meaningful is love. The right that makes us human is the right to love. To criminalize the expression of that right is profoundly cruel and inhumane. To acquiesce in such criminalization or, worse, to recriminalize it, is to display the very opposite of compassion.” Leila Seth was straightforward and unfazed in challenging the Supreme Court’s logic in passing such a judgment even though they had enough scientific evidence and jurisprudence not to.
Leila Seth passed away on May 5, 2017, at the age of 86. Her optimistic spirit lives on in all of us. She lived a full, happy and meaningful life, and her outlook towards challenges posed by societal evils is one that we can all try and inculcate in ourselves. Her achievements are a result of her perseverance and dedication. Her life is a reminder for us to never give up, never stop loving, and never stop questioning the norm.
Featured Image Credit: DNA India