Leila Seth

A class apart

Print edition : June 09, 2017

Justice Leila Seth, a 2009 picture. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Leila Seth (1930-2017), who had many firsts to her credit as a woman, will be remembered as a sensitive person who defied stereotypes all her life.

LEILA SETH made it to the upper echelons of the judiciary at a time when breaking through the glass ceiling was virtually impossible in any sphere. An anecdote from the early days of her career depicts how she defied stereotypes all her life. When she approached a senior lawyer to work with him, he advised her to go and get married. On being told that she was already married, he is said to have advised her to start a family. “I have a child too,” Leila Seth replied softly. It failed to dissuade the senior lawyer from giving further guidance. “It is not fair on the child not to have siblings....,” he went on. Leila Seth, then the mother of Shantum and Aradhana and Vikram Seth (the celebrated author), calmly replied: “I have three children.”

With her uncanny knack for repartee, she had won a small battle without raising a din. It was to be her signature for the rest of her career, which saw her become the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and the first woman Chief Justice of a High Court (Himachal Pradesh).

Back in the 1980s, when some of her male colleagues at the Delhi High Court sought to introduce her by saying “Meet our lady judge”, she took exception. No judge is ever introduced with “Meet our male or gentleman judge”, she retorted. But she was not the domineering, bra-burning feminist; she was rooted in her moorings.

Her autobiography, On Balance, is brutally honest about the good, the bad, the triumphs and the tumbles in her life. “Sometimes it’s quite hard to be honest. I wanted to be honest and I felt that unless I am, there is no point in writing it,” she said.

She showed great sensitivity when she gave the manuscript of the autobiography to all her children before sending it to the publishers. She wanted no angry souls at home, the home she set up in Noida with much love and thought after a lifetime spent shifting residences in Lutyens’ Delhi. Through her book, her children discovered the Nana (maternal grandfather) they had never met, and the world, which hitherto knew her for her work in the legal domain, discovered a fine author. On Balance was on the bestseller list when it was first released in 2003.

She held her own whenever the odds got steep. Single-minded and focussed, she did not deign to “seek help” from anyone. Some five years ago, when she was well over 80, this writer spotted her waiting in the porch of a five-star hotel in Chennai where she had arrived for The Hindu Literature Festival, and asked her if she always travelled without an aide. She replied: “No. My husband is a bit old now. He cannot undertake all the exertion.” Two days later, she flew down to Kolkata for another lit fest. “My husband used to travel with me until recently. He is at home. But I had a commitment here, then have to honour another in Kolkata. Some organisers in Bangalore wanted me to come too. I said, not now, maybe in future. After the Kolkata meet, I want to be home. Premo [what she called her husband endearingly] will be waiting.”

It reminded one of a decision she took in her career when she turned down the offer of being a judge at the Patna High Court because the city held no professional opportunities for her husband, then working with Bata.

The decision to say no was not difficult for Leila Seth. After all, very early in her marriage, she refused to study divorce as a subject in England. “I promptly decided to drop the intention of studying divorce as a subject out of fear of its occurrence at home,” she quipped to a journalist. She went on to top the London Bar examination, becoming the first woman to do so.

But Leila Seth would scoff at such gender stereotypes. She was a member of the 15th Law Commission of India and the Chair of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative for a long time. In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, in which a 23-year-old girl died after she was gang-raped on a moving bus in Delhi in 2012, Leila Seth was one of the three persons the United Progressive Alliance government chose to review the anti-rape law and give it more teeth. Justice J.S. Verma and Senior Advocate Gopal Subramanium were the others in the committee, which did its job in a month.

As a member of the Law Commission, Leila Seth was responsible for the amendments to the Hindu Succession Act that gave equal rights to girls in a joint family’s property.

Nevertheless, she was not so acquiescing of legal eagles, and when she felt strongly against a judgment she was not afraid of criticising it. For instance, when the Supreme Court refused to strike down Section 377 that makes consensual sex between two adult homosexuals an offence, she wrote in The New York Times: “My name is Leila Seth. I am eighty-three years old. I have been in a long and happy marriage of more than sixty years with my husband Premo, and am the mother of three children. The eldest, Vikram, is a writer. The second, Shantum, is a Buddhist teacher. The third, Aradhana, is an artist and film-maker. But our eldest, Vikram, is now a criminal, an unapprehended felon….”

Many years earlier, she needed time to understand the sexual predilection of her son. In her own quiet, understated ways she became a beacon of hope for the LGBT community. Many parents sought advice from her on coming to terms with the situation relating to their children. Yet, she was not one to take down the level of a debate by resorting to din. She said it as it was meant to be said—her son became a criminal in the eyes of the law by doing what he did in the privacy of his bedroom. What she did not say, though, was that the state had to stay out of people’s bedrooms. Indeed, in discussions and interviews, what she said was crucial and what she left unsaid was vital.

Leila Seth was also a rare judge who kept herself abreast of the happenings in the world of children. For instance, she studied the effects of the popular television serial Shaktiman on youngsters. With We, the Children of India, she made the Preamble of the Constitution comprehensible to very young readers too.

Leila Seth left her mark on everything she did, including in her well-thought-out decision to donate her organs after her death.