The Narendra Modi government promises a dramatic overhaul of the law. Irrelevant provisions from the colonial period, which Bibek Debroy had earlier enumerated to the amusement of the public, are finally about to become history. The winter session of Parliament is likely to be a production line for new laws. After the UPA’s legislative listlessness, law-makers will apparently shine in use.
But Justice Leila Seth’s new collection of essays gently reminds that urgency was not a stranger to the UPA. For instance, it had botched its response to the December 2012 gangrape in Delhi, triggering unprecedented public outrage, but it made up for the debacle with the Justice Verma Committee.
Talking of Justice (Aleph Book Company) opens with a quiet Sunday lunch in Delhi, whose people were on the streets, shocked beyond endurance because the violence that women all over the country have learned to live with had suddenly, outrageously, touched someone in our midst. Friends asked Seth how the government would respond. She said that “it would appoint a committee or commission to look into the matter, thus postponing the decision for six months or more, by which time the momentum of the protest would be lost”. Moments later, she writes, P Chidambaram phoned and asked her to be part of precisely that committee, which would not be the standard dilatory tactic. It would deliver in 30 days.
Seth’s essays concern the legal response to gender, ranging from the flip-flop over Article 377 to the obvious need for a uniform civil code. The most interesting essay recounts the inside story of the Justice JS Verma committee, an emergency life-saving procedure performed on the law to rescue it from a history of misogyny. Its suggestions would assure the delivery of justice in cases of aggravated sexual assault, whose incidence and intensity have accelerated in recent years, propelled by social and political changes which are poorly understood.
Generally, bills are drafted and then the public is canvassed for opinion on their provisions. Frequently, it is a proforma exercise — the draft is posted on government websites and attracts the attention of no one except parties who were already interested and involved. But the Verma committee had opened proceedings with the commitment to hear all, and yet deliver on deadline. Seth writes of a political party which “sent its memorandum of suggestions to Justice Verma’s house at 11.45 pm on 5 January 2013, 15 minutes before the deadline, woke him up, and insisted that he personally sign the receipt!” And there is a heartwarmingly human account of a technical problem at an open hearing in Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan: “I am short and, seated on the chair that I was, I could barely reach the table, let alone see over it.” Her request for a cushion was met with bafflement since there were none in the building, and she was about to send her driver out to buy one when someone hauled at a lever under the chair “and, magically, the seat shot up”.
The Indian legal establishment is much taken with the majesty of the law, valuing the idea of justice far above the delivery of justice. Seth’s books are valuable reminders that the law exists for people, and that their interest comes before that of the lady who cannot see the scales she holds because she wears a blindfold.