Why I’m cheering the appointment of 3 women judges to the Supreme Court

A world that comprises diverse human beings across religion, caste, gender, class, geography, ideology, cannot be governed by a singular set of upper class, dominant caste, majority religion men, I write in the Hindustan Times

Making History: In 71 years, the Supreme Court has had only 8 women judges. Then, in a single day, three new appointments. Pic courtesy: Bar&Bench

The photograph should be framed in every law school, preserved for history books and written about in inspirational tracts for children.

It’s the one where four women judges — three freshly elevated, one of whom, BV Nagarathna is slated to become our first woman chief justice (CJI) in 2027 though only for 36 days — flank the current CJI, NV Ramana.

Given that it took 39 years to get our first woman Supreme Court (SC) judge, Fathima Beevi in 1989, and 71 years to get eight women judges, the photograph is significant.

Is it picture perfect? Far from it. While it signals the closing of the gender gap in the higher judiciary, the larger issue of diversity remains. Do we have enough representation from among the minorities? Where are the Dalits, Adivasis and LGBTQ judges? “The swearing-in of three women is unprecedented,” says Nikita Sonawane, co-founder, Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project. “But we still have a long way to go.”

“A matter of great importance touching upon judiciary’s independence”

In 2019, a junior woman staffer accused then chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment and, subsequently, a targeted harassment of her and her family. The Pegasus revelations tell us that her phone and that of 11 phones associated with her was likely under surveillance along with those of 10 prime ministers, 3 presidents and one king.

Ranjan Gogoi, former chief justice of India is now a member of the Rajya Sabha, nominated by the ruling BJP-led government. Pic: Wikipedia

At the height of the 2019 sexual harassment scandal involving then chief justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, ran the frisson of a rumour — was there a larger conspiracy?

Gogoi has since retired and is now a Rajya Sabha member nominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government. His accuser, after being dismissed from service, has been quietly reinstated.

All would have been forgotten but for the Pegasus revelation that the woman and 11 phone numbers associated with her were potential targets of surveillance. Who had the power to subject a junior court assistant to a level of global scrutiny that reportedly includes 10 prime ministers, three presidents and a king? Was the intended target someone else? Was there a quid pro quo? One can only speculate since Gogoi has refused to comment.

Challenging Patriarchy in Religion

The Tamil Nadu state government’s announcement that women, and non-Brahmins, can apply to be temple priests signals the beginning of the end of another male stronghold.

When the pujari at the Durga temple in Nalluthevanpatti village, Madurai, fell ill and could no longer perform the ritual pujas, his only child, a daughter, Pinniyakkal stepped up. Two years later when he died in 2006, she staked her claim to be the full-time pujari, a hereditary position at that temple.

The local populace was appalled. Even though the temple deity was female, tradition dictated the pujari could only be male. So, Pinniyakkal went to court. Agreeing with her claim, Justice K. Chandru of the Madras High Court ruled: “The altars of the God must be free from gender bias.”

Some 15 years later, the DMK’s state minister of temple administration announced earlier this week that women — and non-Brahmins — can apply for positions as temple priests, provided they’ve undergone training in “agama sastra”, the manual that lays down rituals of prayer and worship. “Women must be given opportunities to participate in every sphere of life, whether spiritual or material,” Justice Chandru who retired in 2013 said to me on the phone.