The passing away of eminence (1930-2017)
PIt was by chance that the eminent jurist took up a career in law. On a trip to England, Leila Seth thought it was one of the few things one could do without attending classes. And thus history was made. In the world of legal affairs in India, Justice Leila Seth broke many glass ceilings. When she died of cardiac arrest at the age of 86, on 5 May 2017, obituaries poured in capturing her personality.
Born on 20 October 1930 in Lucknow, U.P, she was the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court in 1978; the first woman to become Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court in 1991; the first woman to top the London Bar exams back in 1958 ,when she also graduated as an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer.
Through her career, she held her own, refusing to do just women’s cases and competed with men, taking up tax matters, constitutional law and criminal cases. As a member of the Justice Verma Committee, set up after the brutal December 16 gang-rape in Delhi in 2012, she contributed extensively in the roadmap for overhaul of criminal laws and steps to keep women safe.
She was part of various enquiry commissions, studying the effects of the popular television serial, ‘Shaktiman’ (about a popular superhero) on children which was at the center of controversy because many children set themselves on fire or threw themselves off buildings hoping that Shaktiman would rescue them, and the death in police custody of businessman Rajan Pillai, known as the ‘Biscuit Baron’. As part of the Law Commission of India until 2000, she was responsible for many amendments to the Hindu Succession Act which gave equal rights to daughters in joint family property. She championed sharper legislation for women.
Mother of the celebrated author Vikram Seth, the literary bug bit her too. She penned down three books, On Balance, her autobiography in 2003, We, The Children of India in 2010, a book explaining Constitution to the country’s children, followed by Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India, in 2014, which looked at critical issues that she had engaged with in a legal career spanning over 50 years. She said with her first book she became known as a biographer. With her second book she was called a writer of children’s books. “I don’t know what I will become when I do my third,” she said. “You will become competition,” her son had said.
A strong supporter of the gay rights movement, she strongly disapproved of Section 377 and her belief was that the ‘gay child needs more love.’ She chose to put herself out there in ways most public figures avoid, in a world where social stigma often outweighs the law. The Supreme Court’s reinstating of Section 377, dismissing homosexuals as a minuscule minority, forced her to write an op-ed in the Times of India, saying that it “would be like saying the Parsi community could be legitimately imprisoned or deported at Parliament’s will because they number only a few tens of thousands.”
She didn’t shy away at mentioning why that ruling disturbed her, not just as a judge but as a mother. Speaking of her homosexual son Vikram she said, “He is now a criminal, an unapprehended felon. This is because like millions of other Indians, he is gay.” She could have restricted herself as a jurist and maintained a discreet silence on its personal impact on her. But she worried about something far more fundamental, something much more vulnerable – love and loneliness, in acceptance not just for her children, but for everyone else’s.
She lived with the courage of her convictions and set an example by her high standard of exemplary living. She is survived by her husband, two sons and a daughter. As per her wishes, no funeral was held since she donated her eyes and other organs for transplant or medical research purposes.