We live in a world where women are expected to take a back seat, to put others ahead of themselves, and to be considered valid only when they play the roles of wives and mothers. It was Justice Leila Seth’s passion, courage, and tenacity that forced society to let go of its inhibitions and make way for a woman so powerful that she changed the legal landscape in India.
Leila Seth had a penchant for ‘firsts’ and she wore each honor with uncommon ease. She was the first women to top the London Bar exams in the 50s, the first women judge in the Delhi High Court, first women senior counsel to practice in the supreme court and first women chief Justice of a high Court (she was the Chief Justice of the Himachal High Court).
She served with distinction on many judicial and enquiry panels and was a fierce advocate of human rights. But as the mother of a gay man, novelist and poet Vikram Seth, it was her passionate defence of the rights of the LGBT community that caught the public attention.
A weighty legacy
In 2003, Justice Leila Seth published her autobiography, titled On Balance, a candid account of her life, her personal struggles in her early years and her experience as judge and jurist. In 2010, she published We, The Children of India- the Preamble To Our Constitution, an explainer on the constitution’s Preamble for young readers. And in 2014, Seth wrote Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India.
Seth passed away in 2017 at the age of 86 and left behind a weighty legacy. She was a member of the Justice J S Verma Commission set up in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang rape case that shocked the nation. The commission suggested important amendments to rape laws in India.
She was a member of the law commission from 1997 to 2000, and was responsible for amendments that gave equal rights to daughters in joint family property under the Hindu Succession Act.
Seth was a strong campaigner for human rights, but her defence of the LGBT community was personal when in 2014, the Supreme Court recriminalized homosexuality, As the mother of a gay man, novelist and poet Vikram Seth, the verdict of the apex court, overturning a dElhi High Court judgement that had ‘read down’ Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, touched a raw nerve.