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Justice Indu Malhotra’s Unforgettable Journey

Justice Indu Malhotra’s Journey from lawyer to first woman judge of the Supreme Court to be directly elevated from the bar will never be forgotten, especially by women lawyers, who draw inspiration from her, writes SHOBHA GUPTA


TO women lawyers at the Supreme Court, Justice Indu Malhotra will always be “Indu ma’am”. Hers is a success story that any lawyer would aspire to relive and own, writes.

I came to practice in the Supreme Court in 1997 and, in no time, was in awe of Justice Indu Malhotra, who was then practicing as a lawyer in the court. I can say with certainty that none could miss her presence, graceful and astounding in equal measure, in the corridors and courtrooms of the Supreme Court.

It was always a pleasure to hear her argue cases. Impressive, persuasive, and one who came directly to the point, her submissions had utmost clarity on the law. She was always abreast of facts and worked in a poised and highly-dignified way. Never did even a hint of aggression come from her. She was always respectful towards the judges and meticulous in her work.

To be completely candid, a young first-generation lawyer from Jaipur, Rajasthan, I used to be in awe of her personality. I had a chance to interact with Indu ma’am on various issues, including those concerning women at the bar. The clarity in her approach and her balanced views on every issue always inspired and appealed to me. She was a guide like an older concerned member of a family and was always ready to help those who needed it. She always insisted on a very correct and principled approach. She would never promote or approve of shortcuts or a half-baked or compromising route.

It was a very proud moment for all, but especially for women lawyers, when she swore an oath to become the first woman judge of the Supreme Court of India directly elevated from the bar. The Supreme Court has had other judges elevated from the bar, but as women lawyers, the feeling of belonging was exceptional and very delightful in the case of Justice Malhotra.

As Justice Indu Malhotra, from day one, she was a fish in the water. Women lawyers, including I, would deliberately go to her courtroom even if we did not have matters listed in her court. We just wanted to see her working as a judge. Our happiness and feeling of pride were beyond words and expression. We would return to the ladies’ barroom and engage in delightful discussions. More women lawyers would feel encouraged to go and watch her conduct the business of her court. It seemed each of us wanted to live those moments of pride as much as we could. Whether Justice Malhotra noticed our child-like acts or not, I do not know.

Even after her elevation, she stayed connected with the bar, especially with women lawyers. When we lost a senior female colleague, Justice Malhotra did not just attend her funeral but the complete prayer meeting. Whenever we met her at a function or get-together, we never felt we are meeting with a distant judge but someone we respect and admire from close quarters.

In her tenure as a Supreme Court judge, Justice Indu Malhotra showed exceptional calmness of disposition. She remained respectful towards lawyers and accommodative of their genuine requests. We, lawyers, felt comfortable and confident that we would get a patient hearing and appropriate order, whether it was in our favour or not. It was always a satisfying experience to appear before Justice Malhotra.

It is an exceptional feat for any judge when every lawyer can enter their court feeling confident and without fear of insult, disrespect, or chances of being belittled or neglected. This is because she neither passed nor extended, undue favours nor indulged in any bias. The face value of a lawyer can change depending on the bench they are standing before. This never happened with Justice Malhotra, so every lawyer before her could leave the courtroom with a great sense of satisfaction. Irrespective of their standing at the bar, lawyers felt valued in her courtroom.

Even in her short tenure, Justice Malhotra has left an indelible impression on the court and lawyers. Her contribution to developing the law on various issues, especially her dissenting judgment relating to women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple, is tremendous. She noted in this ruling that “what constitutes an essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide” and not a matter that should be decided by the courts and that “notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts”.

She was also on the Supreme Court’s historic Constitution Bench that delivered a judgement that held that consensual same-sex relationships among adults are not a criminal offence. Her other major contribution is the judgement issuing guidelines on payment of maintenance in matrimonial matters.

To me, she is the ideal judge for a lawyer. I wish her court proceedings could be made available for law students and newly-appointed judges to watch and learn how to behave in or conduct a court, respectively. She will always be remembered very fondly by all of us for her achievements as a judge.

Justice Indu Malhotra’s dissenting judgment on women’s entry into Sabarimala is a legal opinion of great significance. She noted in it that ‘what constitutes an essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide’ and not a matter for courts; and that ‘notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts’.

Though the bar will miss Justice Malhotra as a judge, we are happy to have her back at the bar and hope to benefit from her vast experience, including as a judge. She is certainly a role model for women lawyers, an icon, as Justice DY Chandrachud rightly said on her last day as a Justice of the Supreme Court.

An inning well-played Justice Malhotra, more to come from you!

(Shobha Gupta is a lawyer at the Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal.)

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