The title of her book, “In the balance”, sums Leila Seth very well. It was her balanced yet sensitive approach of life around her that led to her becoming the first woman judge of the Delhi high court. Today there are eight women judges in the Delhi high court. She had a habit of being first, and went on to become the first woman chief justice of a high court, paving the way for other women chief justices. She was judicious on the bench and never forgot that she was also a human being. Her commitment to gender justice was evident in her book where she dealt with every law governing women, regardless of religion.
We do a lot in our lifetime but are remembered for something special. In the case of Justice Leila Seth, it was her defence of the rights of the LGBT community. With great courage, after the Supreme Court judgment in the Kaushik case, which overturned the Nazz Foundation case of the Delhi high court sticking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, she very movingly wrote in an article:
“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. To show exaggerated deference to a majoritarian Parliament when the matter is one of fundamental rights is to display judicial pusillanimity, for there is no doubt, that in the constitutional scheme, it is the judiciary that is the ultimate interpreter.”
Her own illustrious son Vikram Seth is gay and she knew of the love and living as much as she did. As a mother, as a person committed to human rights, she believed Section 377 should be repealed. We do not know whether it was her illustrious son who sensitised her to the right of the LGBT community or whether the liberal welcoming atmosphere in the family home enabled him to live the life he wanted to live.I suspect it was both, where the son assumes the role of a guru to his mother and the mother transferring her liberal values to her children. It was a happy home, what more can a mother do for her children?
Her contribution to the Verma committee set up after the December 16, 2012, gang rape in Delhi is written in stone . A report delivered within 30 days of the presentations, it led to history, making amendments to the rape law. Two of the members of that committee are no more but their footprints are written all over the law relating to sexual violence against women.It is ironic that she died one day after the historic judgment of the Supreme Court in the case. I can only hope she was told about it before she departed this world the conviction would have gladdened her heart, except that she did not believe in the death penalty.
She was a member of the Law Commission that gave the report that women must be copartners in Hindu Joint Families. The Hindu Success Act was amended after that report.Few have had the satisfaction of seeming their recommendation become law as she did .
With her husband Prem Seth, she went to the UK and enrolled for law. Starting her career in Patna, she later joined the Calcutta Bar, where she made her name as a lawyer. She was the first woman judge of the Delhi high court, the first woman Chief Justice of the high court at Himachal Pradesh. It was a life well lived. She will be missed.
(The author is a Supreme Court lawyer)