Leila Seth

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A profile

Leila Seth

India Today

Leila Seth makes a passionate argument for human rights. But her advocacy for a Uniform Civil Code does not dwell on the unintended consequences it may have.

Nick Robinson

November 27, 2014

Leila Seth is one of India's great liberals. She is the first woman to be a judge in the Delhi High Court and the first female chief justice of a high court. An unflagging advocate of the rights of women, she has served as a member of the Law Commission of India and more recently of the Justice J.S. Verma Committee, which spearheaded legal reform in the wake of a highly publicised rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in 2012.

Seth's recent book, Talking of Justice, is an edited collection of her speeches. It also includes a separate chapter that gives a vivid account of the whirlwind 29 days in which the Verma committee and a dedicated team of volunteers worked non-stop to prepare recommendations for the government as thousands of young people took to the street calling for an end to sexual violence. The book's final chapter, 'You're Criminal if Gay', is a poignant article Seth penned at the beginning of this year criticising Justice G.S. Singhvi's Supreme Court judgment in December 2013 that upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which outlaws sodomy. Leila Seth's son, the noted writer Vikram Seth, is openly gay and has also been a vocal opponent of Section 377.

Seth writes in a humane and accessible style that makes clear that the principles of furthering human dignity and human rights that permeate the book are both long-held and intimately lived. According to her, India has made much progress in implementing the rights-based vision laid out in the Constitution, but much work is left to be done. For example, with the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 2013, the government adopted the Verma committee's recommendations to add new offences like stalking and acid attacks to the IPC, but other recommendations were passed over. Strikingly, marital rape, the most common type of rape in India, was not made a crime, essentially depriving women of their personal autonomy once they enter marriage. Nor did the government adopt recommendations to make rape gender neutral, leaving both men and transgender persons more vulnerable to sexual attacks.

Elsewhere in the book, Seth unabashedly advocates a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which would include Muslims, so as to better secure the rights of Muslim women. This stance is controversial, as many, particularly on the Left, view the country's Hindu majority as attempting to push the UCC on an unwilling Muslim minority. But for Seth, principles of gender equality trump other concerns. She writes, "Law and religion are separate. There can be one law for all Indians even if many religions are practised and diverse customs followed." For her, education and incremental victories are the best way to combat the twin evils of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism.

The strongest chapters of the book are when she speaks from her own experience: recounting frantic days during which the Verma committee put together its recommendations or the personal disappointment she felt at the Supreme Court's 377 judgment that, in her words, criminalised the "right to love". Perhaps not surprisingly for a former judge, much of the rest of the book makes a case for more abstract principles, such as the rights of children, prisoners and women. It rarely delves into how laws passed to further these rights might create unintended consequences in a country where lived experiences on the ground often differ considerably from liberal ideals. For example, some feminists claim that Hindu wives in polygamous marriages are worse off under the UCC because their marriage would not be recognised, and Muslim women in polygamous marriages would face a similar fate if the UCC was applied to them. Nor does the book seem to doubt that the liberal principles in the Constitution will win out in the end or that there is much need to worry if they are compatible with Indian identity

A dedicated constitutionalist, Seth still has plenty of criticism for the judiciary. She argues that Indian judges need to be more sensitive about gender and advocates for more female judges on the bench. Seth also rightfully notes the absurdity of having only two Supreme Court judges decide the constitutionality of Section 377, instead of a larger bench that might have produced a more robustly reasoned judgment.

Though a harsh critic of the judiciary, Seth is an ardent supporter of judicial independence. Notably, she argues that the recent constitutional amendment to create a judicial appointments commission likely violates the judiciary's independence since judges do not comprise more than half of the commission. Consequently, she thinks we may see the Supreme Court intervening in the future to restore judicial supremacy in the appointments process.

Leila Seth has become one of the most prominent retired judges in the country. Unlike many others, she routinely takes a stance on issues of gender and the rights of the marginalised, including prisoners, children and the LGBT community. India has gained much from her voice, which speaks with both conviction and insight.


A judge who broke many glass ceilings, May 07 2017: The Times of India

Justice Leila Seth Argued For Better World

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, having 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 inde pendence. 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 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.

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