Lone Woman Standing in India’s Supreme Court
Newspaper: Avenue Mail
Date: 31st March 2021
On 13th March 2021, Hon’ble Justice Indu Malhotra retired from the Indian Supreme Court leaving the only other woman judge on the bench, Hon’ble Justice Indira Banerjee to hold the unique distinction of being the only female judge in the highest court of the country of 1.4 billion people. As per the Population census of 2011, 48% of the Indian population are women. Justice Indira Banerjee is figuratively the sole representative of approximately 70 million Indian women citizens in the Supreme Court of India.
In a country where crime against women has always been high, be it female infanticide, harassment at the workplace, rape, or dowry, the Supreme Court has been a beacon of hope to provide justice to thousands of women. No one can deny that the Supreme Court is one of the most respected institutions in India since Independence. India has come a long way since the day the first woman Justice Fatima Beevi, a high court justice was appointed to the Supreme Court as a judge in 1989. Fatima Beevi had enrolled as an advocate on 14 November 1950. Working her way up from the lower judiciary in Kerala, it took her forty-two years after Indian Independence to break the glass ceiling of the Supreme Court.
Since 1947, only 8 women judges have graced the benches of the highest country of the land namely, Hon’ble Justices- Fatima Beevi, Sujata Manohar, Ruma Pal, Gyan Sudha Misra, Ranjana Desai, Ruth Bhanumathi, Indu Malhotra & Indira Banerjee. Joining the legal profession in 1983, Justice Indu Malhotra was a legal counsel in the Supreme Court for 30 years before she was appointed as judge of the highest court in 2018. Before Justice Indu Malhotra, Justice Ruth Banumathi who had been appointed by the collegium in 2014, had retired in 2020. She was the Chief Justice of the Jharkhand High Court when she was called upon to serve in the Supreme Court. The sole judge Justice Indira Banerjee started her career in 1985 at the prestigious Calcutta High Court and was appointed the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court in 2017. She assumed office in August 2018 as a judge in the Supreme Court.
Out of the total approved strength of 34 seats at the bench, there are currently a total of 29 judges in the Supreme Court. The present composition makes way for only one female judge Indira Banerjee in a gender imbalanced apex court. The Supreme Court collegium which was introduced as a system under which judicial appointments and transfers are decided by a forum of the Chief Justice of India and the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court also has no accommodation for women judges. The current collegium consists of all men namely Hon’ble Justices Sharad Bobde, N.V.Ramana, Rohinton Fari Nariman, Uday Umesh Lalit, and Ajay Manikrao Khanwilkar, who decide with the necessary appointments and transfers within the judiciary.
In comparison to the Indian Supreme Court to the other apex courts in democracies in the world, the Supreme Court in the United States of America has a total strength of 9 judges out of which 3 are women judges presently. In percentage terms, the women judges to the total number of judges are at 33% representation in the US compared to 3.4% to India’s 1 on 29 judges. The Supreme Federal Court of the Federative Republic of Brazil is composed of 11 judges with 2 women justices and the Supreme Court of the Republic of the Philippines has 15 judges of which 3 are women, all of them higher in the ratio in seating women at the highest table of the judiciary than India.
The situation in the lower courts of the judiciary is no different. As in December 2020, across the 26 high courts in India, there were only 82 woman judges out of the total number of 1,079 judges. Of the 27 High Court Chief Justices serving today, Justice Hima Kohli is the sole lady Chief Justice of any high court in India, presiding as the Hon’ble Chief Justice of the Telangana High Court. The high courts of Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Uttarakhand have no sitting woman judge as of today. Out of the 17 sitting judges in the Hon’ble Jharkhand High Court, there is only one-woman judge Hon’ble Justice Anubha Rawat Chowdhary.
On the brighter side, the second oldest court in the country, the Madras High Court leads the way in the number of woman judges in its current composition in India. It has 13 women judges out of the total strength of 62 judges including the Chief Justice while the Punjab High Court can boast of 7 women judges out of 47 total judges.
The Supreme Court and the collegium must reflect upon the gender gap across the High Courts and the Supreme Court of the country to make the judiciary an institution with more representation from women. There could be a definitive number of vacancies that could be filled up by appointments to deserving and meritorious women judges to maintain the balance of the gender gap. With the burgeoning population in the age of social media, women's rights and issues will get more vocal and that voice will demand justice from the highest court of the land. The enormous task of providing justice to complex gender issues will ask for sensitive hands.
The number of women justices in the apex court is abysmally low considering the exploding population and the issues to be addressed. As per estimates, India will become the most populous country overtaking China by 2024, will India still be having an only one-woman judge in the apical court to serve the vast female population of the country even then?
The presence of serving women judges in the judiciary adds value to the respect and dignity of the courts of the land. The President of the International Association for Women Judges (IAWJ) Judge Vanessa Ruiz speaking at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2019 says “The entry of women judges into spaces from which they had historically been excluded has been a positive step in the direction of judiciaries being perceived as being more transparent, inclusive, and representative of the people whose lives they affect. By their mere presence, women judges enhance the legitimacy of courts, sending a powerful signal that they are open and accessible to those who seek recourse to justice”.
India has always been graced by women in high positions, be it Pratibha Patil as President of India, Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister, Meira Kumar as first woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha, or Sucheta Kriplani as the first woman Chief Minister of an Indian state but the gender equality must seep deeper into the system at every level with the appointment of more women in the high-ranking positions in the judiciary and other spheres of the legislature and the executive. The legislature has been debating the Women’s Reservation Bill for decades with no consensus with the hope that it will see the light of day.
While Justice Fatima Beevi holds the record as the first woman judge and Justice Ruma Pal as the longest-serving female judge of the Supreme Court of India, a day will come when India will hold a record of the largest number of women judges in the world in its Supreme Court. Until then, the apex court will largely remain a male bastion.