She had many firsts to her credit, many of them linked to her gender. She was the first woman to top the London bar exam, first woman judge of the Delhi High Court, and also the first woman judge to be appointed as the Chief Justice of a State High Court.
Her elevation to the Supreme Court was both expected and deserved but for reasons best known to the powers that be, it did not happen —a great loss for the Supreme Court.
Important as these milestones were and are, they only marginally capture the contribution of Justice Leila Seth.
Judges should be humans who listen, can examine all sides of a question and have the will to decide. Furthermore, they should be someone who continuously put themselves under the scanner as they dwell on issues before them.
It was this clarity of vision that led Justice Seth to acknowledge how in a patriarchal society and its accompanying socialisation, it was only when she became the Chief Justice of Himachal High Court that she lived in a household, which revolved around her convenience.
And did she enjoy it? She sure did. She challenged stereotypes and often defeated them but did not believe that discrimination did not exist or that gender neutrality was an option.
It was this commitment to gender justice that led her to strongly advocate gender parity in property rights for women. An agenda she advanced as member of the law commission.
She was one of those who believed that the continuance of injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere. This perspective informed the recommendations of the Justice Verma Commission in which she was the only woman member. The Commission, it may be noted, recommended that the crime of rape should be gender neutral, that death penalty was not an appropriate response and prevention was as important a social response as punishment.
It was this need for prevention which caused the Committee to recommend State investments into street lighting and public toilets and a normalisation of gender mixed public places. As only if women and men use public places at all times of day and night, can rape-averse behaviour become the norm.
Unfortunately these forward looking recommendations have been drowned in the din of deterrence and retribution raised in the legislature, courts and the media.
However, Justice Seth and her colleagues made these recommendations, which are fortunately in the public domain and one hopes that at some point we will return to the more complex analysis of rape culture offered by the Verma Commission and take up their insights on everyday misogyny.
To do so would be a fitting tribute to Justice Seth who at all times showed a special ability to see the venal impact of everyday discrimination and exclusion.
Discrimination she believed becomes endemic when it is routinised, so rule-following, law-observance can also be institutionalised when it becomes unremarkable — a cause around which she moulded her personal conduct.
In a country where holding office is about carrying airs, about breaking queues and being treated special, Justice Leila Seth was a breath of fresh air. The exception who proved the rule!
A judge who did not just uphold the rule of law but who also lived by and under it.
Be it standing in the queue and borrowing a book at the Indian Law Institute or joining a course on Environment Law and attending classes like any other student, she did it all. She did it because democracy, equality, and respectful conduct were not fulminations from the pulpit for her. They were values by which she lived her full and meaningful life. A judge who both in the professional and the personal strove to keep her scales on balance.
The author is a Professor at NALSAR, Hyderabad Email: firstname.lastname@example.org