Leila Seth: A great legal professional with a never-ending legacy

 Leila Seth: A great legal professional with a never-ending legacy

Since the foundation of the human civilisation, most of the societies have been found to be male-dominated, where women are regarded as an inferior chattel of men. However, there are few exceptions like Leila Seth, who has broken the social barricades with her great determination and audacity.[i] She had brought numerous alterations in the legal scenery of India. She was the first women judge of the Delhi High Court and also the first woman Chief Justice of any High Court of India. Moreover, she is acknowledged as one of the initial pioneers of feminism, in India, who had challenged the regressive point of view towards the woman.


I.  Leila Seth's early life

Leila Seth was the first daughter in her household, after two sons. Since childhood, she underwent a sense of vanity about her parents’ progressive outlook, which was quite rare in the early 1900s. Her parents treated her and her brothers equally, and always tried to imbibe prodigious social values in them. However, in the initial phase of her life, she did not have a clear vision of her self-identity. Nonetheless, she found inclination towards learning, and she was also fond of literature.

In her autobiography, she herself claimed that her childhood was full of contentment and bliss. However, the situation changed after the death of her father when she was 11 years old. It is imperative to note that even at that miserable condition, her mother did not cease her and her brothers from accomplishing their passion. So, it can be said that it was the courage and perseverance of her mother which worked as a driving force for Leila in her entire life.


II. 'Mother in Law'- Motherhood, career, the highs and the lows.

After finishing her earlier studies, she started working as a stenographer, which did not last after her marriage with  Prem and they had to move to London. Since Prem had a very progressive idea; so, he had never prohibited her from carrying on her study after the marriage. Thus, she took such mobility as an opportunity for embellishing her career. However, at that time, she had come to be a mother; and so, she had decided to undertake only those courses which did not require to attend classes. This decision of her exhibits her admirable attribute as a mother; and, also, it is due to such decision that she ended up choosing law which could be studied without attending many classes.[ii]

Nonetheless, she exhibited her prodigious perseverance and managed to be the first women who topped in the Bar Examination of London. Following this, the British press had done an ingenious punning and designated her as ‘Mother in Law’ for recognising her triumph as a mother in the field of law, which had just started.[iii] However, some newspapers seemed it as a remorseful and futile instance. Thus, this incidence, on the one hand, was seemed like a driving force for other women, but on the other hand, it threw down the gauntlet to the self-claimed superiority of the male.


III. The challenges faced by Leila Seth in her professional life

After returning to India, she cleared the civil services examination; however, she had attached with the legal field so much that she left the chance to be an IAS officer. Initially, she started working under a senior lawyer of Patna High Court but failed to get much work. In those days, her presence in the courtroom was usually seemed like an astonishing event; it is due to the persistence of a general notion which seemed the capabilities of women circumscribed to the household works. So, it was usual humiliation for her that even her own clients insisted on having a second opinion from a male lawyer.

“[…] Leila was also aware that female lawyers were regarded by their gender first and their merit second [...]” [iv]

Regardless of so many dejections, she never lost her spirit and zeal. Moreover, there was a social expectation that women lawyers should have dealt in only the cases which were related to women’s issues. However, she was passionate about proving her capabilities in dealing with mainstream cases also and finally, after winning a significant case on manslaughter, she established a remarkable example of women’s capabilities. Later as she moved forward in her career, she did not let anyone undermined her capabilities on the virtue of being a woman.

Thus, there is no doubt that Leila Seth had a remarkable dedication to her professional life. However, she had also put an unrivalled effort for bringing equilibrium between her professional life and domestic life, which brought him up as a successful mother as well as a successful wife. 


Leila Seth: A great legal professional with a never-ending legacy

IV. Leila Seth's take on her son's homosexuality and her consequent progressive standpoint on this issue.

Apart from showing audacity and grit to fight against the discrimination of the patriarchal society, she also came up as an inordinate devotee for the rights of the LGBTQ community. It is imperative to note that her eldest child, named Vikram Seth, was gay. Nonetheless, she unequivocally exhibited her support towards her son Vikram Seth, and she had also written numerous works in favour of quashing section 377 of the IPC, which forbids the sexual intercourse among the LGBTQ communities.[v] Through some of her works, it can be inferred that she felt thwarted not only as a mother but also as a legal veteran regarding the social and the legal status of the LGBTQ in society. Furthermore, her misery can be understood by the following phrases which were used by her in confrontation to the criminalisation of the rights of LGBTQ to express their love through bodily relation:

“What makes life meaningful is love. The right that makes us human is the right to love. To criminalise the expression of that right is profoundly cruel and inhumane. To acquiesce in such criminalisation or, worse, to recriminalize it, is to display the very opposite of compassion.” [vi]

According to her, there is nothing unnatural about homosexuality. She also spotlighted the psychological as well as the scientific pieces of evidence which proved that such conditions are totally natural.

Her progressive notions about the rights of the LGBTQ community caught much popularity after the publication of her letter in The Times of India, in which she severely criticised the judgement of Suresh Kumar Kousal which led to reinstate section 377.[vii] Although she herself belonged from the judicial field, she had never hesitated in talking about the demerits of the judiciary system. She candidly challenged the lucidity behind the position of the Supreme Court, which has quashed the 2012 decision of the Delhi High Court, and such a viewpoint again justifies her legacy of compassion and indomitable courage.


V.  Seth’s contribution to changing the legal position of women in India

Even after holding some of the prominent legal posts, she continued her progressive ideology, which was also reflected through her significant contribution. Being a part of the 15th Law Commission, she provided the ancestral property rights to women which were earlier seemed like an impossible task. Moreover, she had also brought up the idea of considering rape as gender-neutral under the recommendation laid down by the Verma Committee.[viii] While working in this committee, she had also raised her voice in favour of criminalisation of marital rape and argued that a rapist always remains as a rapist, irrespective of his relationship with the victim.

Furthermore, in one of her book, named Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India,[ix] she had openly written about how government refused to change laws which are discriminatory to women and, also, very candidly criticised the government policies regarding women’s issues.

Such instances further prove her as an exceptional human being with “a sublime combination of intelligence, grace and courage.” [x]


VI. Conclusion:

In the way of achieving her passion, Leila Seth had broken many glass ceilings and had created her legacy inside as well as outside the courtroom. Her progressive and valiant attitude, which assisted her in achieving remarkable success in a patriarchal society, has become an inspiration for the whole society. Moreover, as per her will, she had decided to donate her organs after her death. So, it would not be wrong to say that even the death of Leila Seth could not diminish her legacy; indeed, it amplified her position as an inspirational model in the contemporary society and also will work in the same way for the future generations.

[i]Business-standard, Vice President, PM condole Leila Seth's demise, available at https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/vice-president-pm-condole-leila-seth-s-demise-117050600606_1.html/(Last visited on 1st Feb, 2020).

[ii] Anupriya Roy, Balancing Life: A Study of Leila Seth’s On Balance, 2 The Journal for Language and Literary Studies 65-78 (2012).

[iii] Leila Seth, On Balalnce: An Autobiography by Leila Seth (1st ed., 2003).

[iv] Taya Manglik, The Lady of Law and Love: A Tribute to Justice Leila Seth, available at https://feminisminindia.com/2017/07/18/justice-leila-seth-tribute/ (Last  visited on 1st Feb, 2020).

[v] Leila Seth, India: You’re Criminal If Gay, The New York Review (2014).

[vi] Indira Jaising, Judicious and compassionate, Leila Seth struck an admirable balance in life, available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/judicious-and-compassionate-leila-seth-struck-an-admirable-balance-in-life/story-O7UIjQjfKdwSYH5Bg5LSGI.html/(Last visited on 1st Feb, 2020).

[vii] Suresh Kumar Kousal v. NAZ Foundation (2014) 1 SCC 1.

[viii] Law Commission of India, Justice Verma Committee Report, The Report No. 15, (January 2013).

[ix]  Leila Seth, Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India (1st ed., 2014).

[x] Indiatoday, Leila Seth: Judge, author, mother who broke glass ceiling, available at https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/leila-seth-judge-author-mother-who-broke-glass-ceiling-975633-2017-05-06/ (Last visite on 1st Feb, 2020) (Noted historian and author Ram Guha extolling her as a "remarkable human being, an exceptional Indian, a sublime combination of intelligence, grace, and courage").

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