IT IS nearing 9 am, and there is an air of excitement outside Indu Malhotra’s house in Lajpat Nagar. Ashok Singh, the guard, has instructions not to allow any unauthorised person inside. He knows that Malhotra is being sworn in as a Supreme Court judge today, but he can’t remember how he got to know. Dinesh, the cook, saw the news on television, and Asritha Lakra, a helper at the residence, was told by Malhotra’s sister.
A little later, Malhotra leaves for the Supreme Court. At 10.25 am, inside Court No. 1, a man announces that the swearing-in ceremony will begin shortly. “There should be no clapping or slogan shouting,” he says.
The courtroom is packed. “Today, women should be allowed, men can get out,” says a woman lawyer, who is trying to make her way into the crowd. “Madam, how much percentage of women should be there,” asks a male lawyer.
But everyone becomes quiet as Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra leads a procession of judges into the courtroom. Malhotra is in the back row, next to Justice Navin Sinha, and just behind Justices Sharad Bobde and Arun Mishra.
In the next 10 minutes, Malhotra is sworn in, becoming the first woman lawyer to be elevated to the post of a Supreme Court judge. In the audience are her two sisters, niece, extended family members and several of her juniors.
Senior advocate V Mohana is in the audience too. “I was very emotional and inspired,” she says. “This is not just fantastic for women, but for the entire nation.”
Born in Bengaluru in 1956, Malhotra moved to Delhi at a young age. Her father was noted advocate Om Prakash Malhotra. In a 2012 interview to myLaw.net, an online legal portal, she recollected that he never allowed her and her siblings to slack off. “We had no television in the house till we passed out of school,” she said in the interview. “He didn’t like us reading comics or Mills & Boon”.
Malhotra joined the legal profession in 1983 and later became an advocate-on-record for the Supreme Court. She was standing counsel for Haryana in the early ‘90s, and has also represented statutory bodies like SEBI, Delhi Development Authority, and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) before the Supreme Court.
“I worked with her from 2008 to 2013, after she was designated as senior advocate of the Supreme Court,” says Kush Chaturvedi, advocate-on-record, adding that Malhotra topped her advocate-on-record exam. “She is a very approachable person, listens to everyone regardless of how senior or junior you are, and was an easy senior to brief for junior counsels,” he says. “We weren’t afraid of her, and we learnt a lot from her.”
Almost all her juniors describe her as a “workaholic”, bringing to mind Malhotra’s interview where she said that “law is like a jealous mistress” and how it “it was very tough” when she started out as a lawyer in the Supreme Court.
By 11.15 am, Malhotra has assumed her new role as a Supreme Court judge, sitting in Court No. 1 with CJI Dipak Misra and Justice D Y Chandrachud. By lunch time, the bench has heard the Centre’s plea for an extension on drafting a scheme on Cauvery, and senior counsel Indira Jaising’s plea seeking transfer of the Kathua gangrape and murder case to Chandigarh.
Some of her juniors from years ago are “loitering” in the court’s corridors, a habit she often asked them to avoid. Her advice to them, according to her interview to myLaw.net, was: “When you are free, don’t just stand around the corridors, go and watch senior counsels argue. Learn by watching… Watch the pulse of each court, the perceptions of each court and how to modulate arguments accordingly.”
But her juniors have a purpose: they are attempting to draft an invitation, which is proving to be more difficult than a legal brief. “Should we say ‘we request your presence’ or ‘we request you to grace our presence’,” one of them asks. “I have an old Diwali party invite that I will forward, you can copy the format from that,” another suggests.
Some of the women are members of a recently put together ‘IM Party’ WhatsApp group — with the sole aim to plan a felicitation for their ‘Indu Ma’am’, who, they say, taught them valuable lessons on being meticulous and hard-working.
“Sometimes, she would take us to Andhra Bhavan for lunch on Fridays, especially before courts went on vacation,” says one.
Then, as if in a practised chorus, they all say: “Even today, when we sit down to read a brief, we feel like there is a part of Indu Malhotra in all of us.”