Supreme Court: Bridge the gender gap
2027 may well become the year that the country sees the first woman Chief Justice of India (CJI). On Wednesday, the Supreme Court (SC) collegium cleared nine names for appointments to the apex court. One name stands out. As this newsaper had reported, Justice BV Nagarathna, if elevated to the SC, could become India’s first woman CJI. To be sure, these collegium recommendations, now sent to the Union law ministry for approval, haven’t been formally appointments yet. Additionally, Justice Nagarathna will be CJI only for a month. Nonetheless, it is a symbolic and substantive achievement.
The Indian judiciary lags greatly in terms of gender parity. In 1980, Justice M Fathima Beevi became the first woman judge to be appointed to the SC. Today, of the 27 judges in the SC, there is only one woman, Justice Indira Banerjee (who is set to retire in 2022). In its 71-year history, of the total of 247 judges appointed to the SC, there have been only eight women (constituting a mere 3.2%). The average percentage of women judges in all high courts (HCs) is 11.8%, with Madras HC having the highest number of women judges, and five HCs not having a single woman judge. Further, of the 416 persons designated as senior advocates by the SC to date, only 18 are women (4.05%). There are more women judges in the lower judiciary, but their elevation remains few and far between due to institutional biases. Gender diversity in the SC has the potential to change this, make the judiciary more diverse, ensure sensitisation, and add to faith in the system.
The judiciary shapes society, and, therefore, should reflect social diversity. Justice Nagarathna, who is currently a judge of the Karnataka HC, is the daughter of former CJI ES Venkataramiah. Among her judicial interventions is a significant judgment in 2020, where, in the case of a divorce, she iterated that the patriarchal system has failed women. This system bleeds into the judiciary as well. Justice Nagarathna’s possible appointment will not just inspire women to have ambitions but also erode structural bottlenecks and have a domino effect on other related institutions. For instance, the Bar Council of India does not have a single woman member in its committee or as its chairperson. It can also serve as a clarion call for the collegium to promote gender representation when making recommendations. The judiciary must show the way.