One morning, in January 1979, a report in The Indian Express “sickened and revolted” Pushpa Kapila Hingorani, a practising lawyer in the Supreme Court in Delhi. The report, authored by KF Rustamji, then member of the National Police Commission, revealed the inhuman conditions in which 18 prisoners, including six women, were languishing in Patna and Muzaffarpur jails, as they awaited trial, at times for periods longer than they would have been sentenced to, had they been convicted.
Kapila and her husband Nirmal Hingorani, now a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, wanted to represent the undertrial prisoners, but back then, according to Indian law, you could only file a petition if you were a victim or a relative. The couple then hit upon the novel idea of filing a habeas corpus petition on the prisoners’ behalf. Two weeks after Kapila argued the case in court, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Bihar government, which led to the release of all the victims in the case, and eventually about 40,000 undertrials across the country. The landmark case came to be known as the Hussainara Khatoon case — Hussainara was one of the six women prisoners — and became the first public interest litigation (PIL) in India, earning Kapila the title of the “Mother of PILs”.
Filing that petition was not easy. “The Supreme Court Registry raised objections since it was not in accordance with the rules, but somehow she convinced them to list it before the court along with the objections,” says Shweta, a corporate lawyer, and the youngest of three Hingorani children. The nature of the case and the socio-political milieu in the country led the judges to take a sensitive view. “This happened shortly after the Emergency and the judicial fraternity was perhaps looking to restore its credibility,” says Aman, Kapila’s son, who is also a lawyer. At the time, Kapila had fought the case on the principle that the poor could not afford access to courts and were often unaware of their rights.
That was the beginning of a life spent fighting for the rights of the disadvantaged. Almost 35 years later, following a condolence meet for Kapila, who died on December 30 last year, chamber 40 in the Supreme Court buzzed with activity. At the end of a snaking corridor strewn with papers, files and stamps, is where Kapila and her husband worked together, filing at least a hundred PILs pro bono. “It is in this office that I remember meeting victims of the Bhagalpur blindings case,” says Shweta, who joined the couple’s legal practice along with Aman.
Kapila had taken up the horrific case, in which the police had blinded 33 suspected criminals using needles and acid, after a lawyer from Bihar wrote to her about the atrocities. Eventually, the Supreme Court ordered medical aid, compensation and pension for life to all the victims.
“We fought for the undertrials so many years ago, but sadly, even today, thousands are in jail awaiting trial,” says Nirmal, 92, over a cup of tea. In the 1960s, Nirmal met Kapila through some friends. On their very first meeting, Nirmal took Kapila to a hospital after he saw her in “excruciating pain due to undetected appendicitis”. Kapila’s brother then took her back to Nairobi, Kenya, for treatment. “She came back after six months, and told me, ‘You saved my life’,” he says.
Born to an educationist and a social reformer in Nairobi, Kapila is thought to have been the first Indian woman from Nairobi to go to the UK to study in 1947. She attended the University College Cardiff, where, according to Aman, she wore white saris that made people exclaim and wonder if she was “a priestess or a princess”. “In Nairobi, she would steal time at night to study. She was very close to our grandfather, who encouraged her to go to the UK for studies,” says Priya, her eldest daughter. Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle, which began in South Africa, and India’s independence inspired Kapila to follow her heart home. She made many trips to India, even teaching at Jamia Millia Islamia University for some time in the 1950s. Eventually, she settled down in Delhi and started practising in the Supreme Court in 1961.
That she wanted to do things differently was evident right from the beginning. At Jamia, she was also the warden of the girls’ hostel and allowed girls to venture out in the evening, a freedom unheard of in those days. Later, Kapila would be a part of the Ministry of Health committee that helped draft the Bill to ban sex determination tests to check female foeticide.
Many of Kapila’s cases led to important policy changes. Her petition on behalf of 11 dowry victims led to the Supreme Court setting up special police cells to deal exclusively with crimes against women. She filed her most recent PIL in the mid-2000s, regarding non-payment of salaries to public sector employees of state corporations in Bihar for periods as long as a decade. The delay had caused starvation deaths and immolation bids. After the PIL, the Supreme Court directed the state to give crores of rupees towards unpaid salaries as interim relief.
A focussed and confident woman, Kapila proposed setting up family courts to the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. In a meeting between the two women in the 1980s, Nirmal recalls, Kapila had the courage to ask Gandhi for her full attention when the prime minister leafed through some papers while talking to her.
Kapila’s verve to help people wasn’t limited to her legal work. “During the riots of 1984, mom had organised a collection centre at our home, and we later went to Kingsway Camp in north Delhi to distribute the donated articles to riot victims,” recalls Shweta. “Our parents set very high standards in terms of honesty, integrity, ethics and kindness, and wanted us to take our own decisions,” says Priya.
When the family lived in Greater Kailash, city corporation inspectors gave Kapila a challan for a water leak that had resulted from blocked pipes, and said she could be let off if she paid a bribe. She not only refused to pay the bribe, she fought a case against the challan and won it. The entire process dragged on for four to five years, recalls Nirmal.
A committed lawyer — she was arguing a case the day before Priya was born, says Shweta — and a woman who loved children, Kapila’s zest for life was unparallelled. “When my son, her first grandchild, was born two years ago, when she was 84. She said, ‘I am too young to be a grandmother’,” says Aman, laughing. Manni, her daughter-in-law, recollects with pride how Kapila was glad to see her complete her master’s degree in surgery post-marriage, even at the cost of her staying away from home for three years. “She had a very progressive and liberal approach towards marriage,” says Manni.
Towards the end, Kapila was often confined to her bed but on December 4, she was out on her wheelchair to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi elections. She died days before the party of her choice formed a government in Delhi.