Until just over a week ago, the 34-member strong Supreme Court of India had just one woman among its judges. Now it has four, with the new appointments of Hima Kohli, B.V. Nagarathna and Bela M. Trivedi, who join Indira Banerjee, who was sworn-in in 2018. They were among nine new justices who have been elevated to the apex court, a decision made by a collegium headed by the Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana. The CJI has remarked that he is still unsatisfied with the low percentage of women presiding at the Supreme Court. I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say: well, so are we.
To the Supreme Court’s credit, that the work still left to be done is being highlighted is a good thing. The celebration of small gains is best reserved for our personal lives; on a larger scale, we wind up celebrating the tokenistic too often. In over 70 years, the Supreme Court of India has only had eleven women judges, beginning with M. Fatima Beevi as late as 1989 (which is also to say: until last month, the Supreme Court of India only had eight women judges in its entire history). Courts across the country are disproportionately headed by male judges. High Courts in some states, including Uttarakhand and Bihar, do not have any women judges at all. The high percentage of vacancies (42% out the sanctioned strength) in the High Courts is an issue that the CJI’s collegium say they intend to address, and a better gender ratio appears to be one of their criteria for selection. There are presently at least three transgender judges in the country (Swati Bidhan Baruah in Assam, Joyita Mondal in West Bengal and Vidya Kamble in Maharashtra), but this number too must rise. The recently-appointed Justice BV Nagarathna is scheduled to become India’s first woman CJI in 2027, but she will retire barely a month later upon reaching the stipulated age.
The need for greater gender and other forms of parity in the legal arena isn’t about optical representation (which it can sometimes be in other fields, including entertainment) but about how this can positively impact the application and the development of the law itself. The glaringly obvious human rights travesty of marital rape remaining legal in India is just one that if corrected will bring countless people succour or freedom. One would imagine that a Supreme Court with more women in it might bring in the necessary change.
With that being said, the expectation that a more diverse court will be more progressive or sympathetic to nuances that your average Indian man (no matter how erudite) can miss is a bit optimistic. Power is power, and people tend to abuse it, regardless of gender or other identity markers. Patriarchy cannot persist without the participation of people who don’t benefit from it but who are conditioned, and then keep deciding, to be its agents anyway. But I assure you: all this cynicism is just another way of expressing hope that good change is coming, but we need so much of it that we aren’t holding our breath.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 9th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.