Supreme Imbalance : Gender Disparity In Apex Court Of India

Supreme Imbalance : Gender Disparity In Apex Court Of India

Even at seven decades of existence, the Supreme Court has had only a handful of women judges in its history

In its 68th year, the Supreme Court of India has its eight woman judge, with the elevation of Justice Indira Banerjee from Madras High Court.  Almost for the first four decades, the Court functioned without any female presence in the bench, until Justice Fathima Beevi was appointed in October 1989.

Elevated from the High Court of Kerala, Justice Fathima Beevi had her term in the SC till 1992.  She had started her judicial career as a Munsiff in the Kerala Judicial Service, and had served as a judicial member in the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, before promotion to High Court of Kerala. Justice Beevi had broken several social barriers by reaching the pinnacle of the profession, which was a strong male bastion those days. In a conversation with Live Law last year, she had expressed disappointment at the still continuing skewed gender ratio within the system.

The next woman judge to be appointed was Justice Sujata V. Manohar, who had earlier created history as the first woman judge to be appointed in the Bombay High Court in 1978. She had read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margeret Hall, Oxford. After Oxford, she was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn. On her return to India, she started practice at the original side of Bombay High Court. She was active in pro bono work and legal aid clinic as well. In 1994, she became Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, the first woman to hold that post. Later she was transferred as Chief Justice of High Court of Kerala, from where she was elevated to the Supreme Court.  At the Supreme Court, she was part of the bench which laid down the "Vishaka" guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment of women at work places. She retired from service in August 1999.

The birth of the new millennium saw the rise of another female judge, when Justice Ruma Pal was appointed as SC judge in January 2000. Known for her strong views on several issues, Justice Ruma Pal has had the longest term as a woman judge till date - six years.  The illustrious list of almost thousand reported judgments covering several fields like constitutional law, mercantile law, family law, taxation etc. stands testimony to the fact that she was a prolific author with an academic bend of mind.  She has openly criticised lack of transparency in judicial appointments, describing collegium system as the "best kept secrets of the country".  Her article "The Seven Deadly Sins of Judges" remains a profound statement on judicial values.

After the retirement of Justice Ruma Pal in 2006, it was a wait for four years for the appointment of next woman judge - Justice Gyan Sudra Mishra in 2010. Justice Mishra had started her profession as a lawyer at the Patna High Court, and later appointed as judge of Rajasthan High Court. She was the Chief Justice of Jharkhand High Court at the time of her elevation to SC. She was part of the bench which rendered landmark decisions regarding control of the powers of BCCI and the legality of passive euthanasia.

Justice Ranjana Prasad Desai was appointed as SC judge during October 2011. As a lawyer, she primarily practised criminal law, breaking the stereotype of women lawyers handling only family and matrimonial cases. At the Supreme Court also, she has authored several judgments in criminal law.

At present, there are two woman judges in the Supreme Court - Justice R Banumathi and Justice Indu Malhotra. Justice Banumathi, who was appointed in August 2014, has made her presence felt in several landmark constitutional and legal issues. She was part of the Constitution Bench decisions on the power of state governments to regulate admission in deemed universities (Modern Dental College Case, 2016, where she wrote a separate concurring opinion), and on the constitutional validity of entry tax. Justice Banumathi was also part of the bench which upheld death penalty awarded to convicts in Nirbhaya rape-murder case, where she raised alarm over the rising rate of crimes against women. "Children should be taught to respect women. Gender equality should be part of school curriculum. Awareness should be created", she observed in the judgment.

Justice Indu Malhotra is the first woman advocate to get direct elevation to the Supreme Court from the bar. Appointed in April 2018, Justice Malhotra was part of Constitution Bench which heard matters pertaining to de-criminalising homosexuality and permitting entry of women of all age groups to Sabarimala temple. She is also part of the Constitution Bench which considers the legality of criminalisation of adultery as per Section 497 of IPC.

With the appointment of Justice Indira Banerjee, the Supreme Court will be having three sitting women judges simultaneously for the first time.

Having said that, it is also necessary to mention that the attempt here is not to reduce these remarkable personalities to their gender. They have made worthy contributions to the field of law, transcending their gender identity. Therefore, it will be a great disservice to define them only on the basis of their gender.

Justice Leila Seth has stated that she used of find it offensive when she was addressed as a "lady judge". "Do you ever introduce your male colleague as 'male judge'? So, please avoid prefixing lady before me, a judge is a judge", she used to comment.

Their gender identity is highlighted, not to circumscribe their personality, but to address the elephant in the room - the startling gender imbalance in judiciary. Even at seven decades of existence, the Supreme Court has had only a handful of women judges in its history. Is it symptomatic of the fact that the bar and bench are steeped in sexism and gender stereotypes? A moment to introspect!

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a woman judge of US Supreme Court, commented in an interview "When I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough women on Supreme Court and I say, 'when there are nine', people are shocked. But there has been nine men and nobody has ever raised a question about that".

Let's hope for a day, where a woman being a judge will no longer be a news!