Justice Leila Sheth must have died in peace, a day after the Supreme Court delivered the judgment in the December 16, 2012 case, knowing that the labour of her love in the Verma Committee had reached some consummation. Except in one respect, she did not believe in the death penalty. “Who am I to take a life? Am I God?” she would say.
Coming from a judge who had several occasions to deal with capital offence, this meant a lot to those of us who also feel that the death penalty is morally abhorrent.
But this from Justice Banumathi must have gladdened her heart: “Honesty, pride, and self-esteem are crucial to the personal freedom of a woman. Social progress depends on the progress of everyone.
“Following words of the father of our nation must be noted at all times:
“To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage?”
“Without her, man could not be. If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with woman. Who can make a more effective appeal to the heart than woman?”
“Crime against women is an area of concern. Over the past few decades, legal advancements and policy reforms have done much to protect women from all sources of violence and also to sensitise the public on the issue of protection of women and gender justice. Still, the crimes against women are on the increase.”
As per the 2015 annual report of National Crime Records Bureau, 3,27,394 cases of crime against women were reported that year, which shows an increase of over 43 per cent in crime against women since 2011, when 2,28,650 cases were reported.
A percentage change of 110.5-per cent in the cases of crime against women has been witnessed over the past decade (2005 to 2015), meaning thereby that crime against women has more than doubled in a decade. An overall crime rate under the head, ‘crime against women’ was reported as 53.9% in2015, with Delhi UT at the top spot.
It was her commitment to gender justice which found Justice Seth a place on the Verma Committee, a task she completed with great accomplishment. Many witnesses who deposed before her from the NGO community she knew personally. She was a much-sought-after member of several boards of non-profit organisations. While being an Additional Solicitor General, I had the privilege of making the opening statement before the committee, and she often told me, it was rare to see a government officer being critical of the polices of that very government on issue of gender justice.
The report led to the amendments of the law relating to rape, of which she was justly proud. She, nevertheless, remained critical of the fact that rape within marriage was not made an offence, nor was Section 377 deleted from the Indian Penal Code.
Justice Seth went to London in 1954 with her husband, Shri Prem Seth, and then enrolled in law classes. In 1958, she topped the London Bar Examination, and joined the bar in Patna in 1959. She also passed the IAS examination in 1959.
As a rare woman barrister in Patna, she faced a lot of gender discrimination, and after 10 years in the city, she joined Calcutta Bar, where she made her name as a tax lawyer. She joined the Delhi High Court as the first woman judge in July 1978, and remained there until August 1991. She became the first Chief Justice of the High Court of Himachal Pradesh on August 5 1991 — she was in that position until October 1992.
Her book, ‘On Balance’ describes her well: a balanced person who lived a full life. May she rest in peace.