When the ‘ beti padhao beti bachao ’ scheme was launched in January 2015 with much fanfare by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there was applause and salutations. In a country where daughters are slaughtered in the womb in many pockets, this was indeed a laudatory scheme.
And, yet, women continue to face harassment and obstacles on many fronts; crimes against women and rape are common. After the horror of the Unnao rape case, the Supreme Court recently had to intervene to find a missing law student from Shahjahanpur, UP, who was allegedly being harassed by a former Union minister. A two-judge Bench comprising a woman judge, R Banumathi, and AS Bopanna, had to order the UP government to produce her for a confidential interrogation. The girl confirmed the harassment and sought admission to a college outside UP. While one woman Supreme Court judge intervened in this case, another female High Court Chief Justice, Vijaya K Tahilramani, has hit the headlines over her “demotion” from a 75-judge Madras High Court to the much smaller three-judge Meghalaya High Court. The Supreme Count collegium, which carries out the transfers of High Court judges, did the swap of the Madras and Meghalaya CJs last fortnight, raising questions on why one of the senior-most judges in the country had been “slighted” thus.
Justice Tahilramani appealed for a reconsideration of her transfer to the compendium, which was rejected with the response that this was in the interest of “better administration of justice”. Subsequently, she put in her papers, making a dignified and bold exit from the judiciary. Rightly, she has declined to respond to media queries, thus reducing to a considerable extent a media trial.
Interestingly, it was after a series of punishment transfers done of upright judges by the Indira government during the Emergency in 1975, that the collegium system, headed by the Chief Justice of India and four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, was established. This was done to preserve judicial independence.But the questions now being asked are if the collegium has unfettered powers on transfers, and if it can exercise them arbitrarily and without any explanation, as implied in this transfer.
The judge herself has not made any controversial comments regarding her transfer or attributed any causes, but what has not gone unnoticed is that in May 2017, as CJ of the Bombay High Court, she had upheld the life imprisonment of 11 convicts in the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots. She also set aside the acquittal of seven people in the same case, and this included five police officers and two doctors. Another speculation is that she is being “punished” for opposing the elevation of two lawyers as judges in the Madras High Court on the grounds that they were younger than the qualifying age. Since neither she, nor the collegium, is talking, all this will remain only in the sphere of speculation.
Justice Tahilramani’s transfer is snowballing into a controversial one, as she among the senior-most and one of the two women CJs in India. The Madras High Court Advocates Association, with a membership of 1,800, has called for a one-day boycott of all courts on September 10, to protest the “undemocratic and arbitrary transfer”.
Its president, G Mohanakrishnan, has gone on record that such transfers will affect the independence of judges “and their power to individually decide on cases,” adding that for a Madras High Court CJ to be transferred to Meghalaya High Court is like “making the principal of a school a teacher for kindergarten students!”
An exemplary judge
So that leaves us with only one woman CJ in India. As for the beti padhao mantra, we can be proud of the independent streak displayed by Justice Banumathi in the Supreme Court. I am a long-time admirer of hers. Right from 1996, when she was the Sessions court judge in Pudukkottai, when, on the basis of a story I had broken in 1994 on the shenanigans of the fake godman Premananda, he was arrested, and the case came up before her. Ram Jethmalani, who just passed away, was the defence counsel for Premananda and had summoned me as a witness in her court to prove the charges made in the series of articles.
Justice Banumathi exposed the fake godman’s so-called spiritual powers by asking a magician to perform those tricks in court. She gave him two life sentences for the crimes he had committed — rape of numerous destitute women in his ashram, abortion and also murder. The DNA test on one of the rescued pregnant inmates established his paternity. The case went up all the way to the Supreme Court through appeals, but her verdict was upheld at every level.
Let us hope that more “ betis ” like her will be allowed to reach the zenith of their profession, and not sacrificed at the altar of prejudices, egos or whatever.