Twenty-seven per cent female judges in the lower judiciary across India; 10 per cent in high courts; less than one per cent in the Supreme Court. This is how skewed representation of women is in the judiciary in the country. The statistics were published by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in February 2018.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Justice Sujata V. Manohar, the second woman judge in the top court who served from 1994 to 1999, said, “That’s very unfortunate because right now they can appoint more women judges. There are eligible women to be appointed. The Supreme Court should have the most suitable judges from the entire pool of judges in the country.”
Having served the longest time as a female judge in the apex court from 2000 to 2006, Justice Ruma Pal was the third woman judge elevated from the Calcutta High Court. Justice Pal said the most important reason for this disparity was “men, who normally choose the judges, tend to overlook the ability of women”. Explaining further, Justice Pal said, “You can have a competent woman being overlooked for a mediocre male judge. There is an inbuilt bias that way, men wanting to appoint people who are like them. People selecting the judges are very rarely women, it’s usually a male.”
The less important reason for the lop-sided proportion, according to Justice Pal, is the “unconventional quota” which focuses on all states being represented in the top court. She drew a similarity between the religious diversity and gender diversity terming it as “tokenism”. “This ‘quota’ acts as a limit. You appoint one woman and you’ve done your bit. You are not seeing purely through the eye of merit; like if there’s religious minority, so one Christian would be appointed or if there’s gender minority, one woman would be appointed,” said Justice Pal.
In 2015, members of the Supreme Court Women Lawyers’ Association (SCWLA) submitted their suggestions to a top court bench comprising Justice J S Khehar seeking inclusion of more female judges in the collegium and high courts.
President of the SCWLA, advocate Mahalakshmi Pavani, said, “No woman is appointed for long term. It depends how many voices are raised. Until and unless women do not come out to accept their rights, nothing will change. We are not asking for charity, we are asking for equal rights.”
Justice Pal and Justice Manohar, however, said male judges are more sensitive to women’s issues than their female counterparts. “Women per se are not necessarily sensitive towards other women. There’s a general feeling that men are more sensitive towards women’s issues than woman. It depends on the individual judge,” said Justice Pal.
Arijeet Ghosh, Research Fellow in the Judicial Reforms Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Ghosh suggests that four serving female Chief Justices in the high courts should be elevated to the top court. “And how they (collegium) decide who should be elevated has been contested a lot and nothing is public about it. But the scrutiny should be on the collegium system because the collegium is responsible for the movement up from the high court to the Supreme Court,” said Ghosh.
Justice Fathima Beevi, who was the first woman judge to be included in the collegium in 1989, however, said the number of women in the judiciary is increasing gradually. “In the course of time they have appointed women judges. There is no particular reason, it is gradually increasing. In the course of time the number of judges also increased. I don’t think an agitation is necessary for these matters. More women are coming in the Supreme Court, at least one at a time. This depends on the executive, I don’t think we have to fight for it,” she said.
Justice Beevi, however, adds a caveat. “The people responsible for appointing the judges should broaden their minds.”