India’s first woman Chief Justice of a high court passes away

The best tribute to the late Justice Leila Seth would be to include her life and work in the school curriculum and prescribe her books in colleges

NH picture by Pramod Pushkarna
NH picture by Pramod Pushkarna

NH Web Desk

She was a sublime combination of ‘intelligence, grace and courage’, tweeted historian Ramchandra Guha at the passing away of Justice Leila Seth (86) at her Noida residence. Author Amitav Ghosh, saddened by the news, tweeted what a kind and warm person she was. Eminent lawyer Indira Jaisingh recalled Justice Seth’s position against the death sentence.

“Who am I to take a life ? Am I God?" Justice Seth had once remarked. She had clearly touched several lives, and not just of judges, lawyers and litigants.

She had followed her husband to London, where she decided to study Law because she did not have to attend lectures and could take care of her child at home. In 1958, she became the first Indian woman to top the London Bar examination and there was no looking back after that.

Back in Calcutta, she is said to have met the redoubtable lawyer Sachin Chowdhury, seeking to become his junior. Chowdhury told her that the legal profession was not meant for women and she should get married. She informed him that she was already married. Chowdhury then said that, in that case, she should have a child, to which she replied that she already had one. Undeterred, Chowdhury told her not to be selfish and have another child, to which she said that, as a matter of fact, she already had two children! Chowdhury relented.

Appointed the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court in 1978, she is also the first woman to be appointed the Chief Justice of a High Court (Himachal Pradesh) in 1991, where she served as the helm for a little more than a year. She served in the Law Commission as a member and wrote as many as three books after her retirement, including her autobiography, ‘On Balance’, in 2003 and another one, ‘Talking of Justice’, in 2014. In between, she wrote a children’s book, 'We the Children of India', and was in the process of writing another book for children.

Endowed with a remarkably fine legal mind, she went, on record, to suggest that the Supreme Court would do well to refer all cases with a bearing on the Constitution to a larger bench of five judges. That, she felt, would reduce the chances of judgments being coloured by the convictions of individual judges.

A member of the JS Verma Committee, set up after the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh alias ‘Nirbhaya’ in December, 2012, she was in favour of criminalising marital rape. “Just because you have got married and given your consent to sexual intercourse does not mean that the consent cannot be withdrawn,” she famously told an interviewer.

A woman’s bodily integrity was important, she felt, and maintained that even a married woman should have the right to refuse to have sexual intercourse if she did not feel like it. The suggestion, in addition to making the crime of rape gender-neutral, was, however, thrown out by Parliament.

With her having donated all her organs for medical research, her body has been handed over to the Army Hospital in Delhi. She is survived by her husband, two sons, including writer Vikram Seth of the Suitable Boy fame, a daughter and two granddaughters.

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Published: 07 May 2017, 1:45 PM