Justice Leila Seth, the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state high court, has died aged 86. In her lifetime, she has headed and chaired numerous judicial and humanitarian institutions. She was a member of the 15th Law Commission of India from 1997 to 2000. She was the Chair of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) for several years. In the aftermath of 2012 Nirbhaya incident, when India needed to look at reforming and invigorating anti-rape law, she was one of three people who the government zeroed in on, along with Justice J. S. Verma.
Apart from the most trustworthy voices on jurisprudence, she is an author of high caliber. For a person who holds human rights, including prisoner’s rights, and justice close to her heart, she has been the voice of reason in the troubling times of human rights. Later in her illustrious career, she was responsible for studying the effects of the television serial, Shaktiman. She was there to understand that phenomenon, which speaks volumes of her deep connection with storytelling and the mediums that affect children. No wonder in her book “We, the children of India”, she makes the words of the Preamble to the Constitution understandable and less challenging to the younger reader.
She was born in October 1930 in Lucknow and was the first woman to top the London Bar exam in 1958. In 1959 she was also selected for IAS, but in pursuit of a legal career, she joined the London Bar. Justice Seth was also part of an inquiry into the custodial death of Biscuit Baron Rajan Pillai. She was responsible for the amendments to the Hindu Succession Act that gave equal rights to daughters in joint family property.
In defense of LGBT rights, coming out in support of her son and writer Vikram Seth, she wrote a piece titled “India: You’re Criminal If Gay” in The New York Times. She wrote: My name is Leila Seth. I am eighty-three years old. I have been in a long and happy marriage of more than sixty years with my husband Premo, and am the mother of three children. The eldest, Vikram, is a writer. The second, Shantum, is a Buddhist teacher. The third, Aradhana, is an artist and filmmaker. But our eldest, Vikram, is now a criminal, an unapprehended felon…
For all the achievements that she had, from voicing human rights concerns to reforming Indian judiciary, she has produced the literary marvels that would resonate for the times to come.