Women of the Indian judiciary: Justice M Fathima Beevi

In this series, the authors profile women judges of the Supreme Court and the important judgments they rendered during their tenures.
Women of the Indian judiciary: Justice M Fathima Beevi

Women of the Indian judiciary is a series that celebrates former women Supreme Court judges.

In this series, the authors chronicle the important judgments women judges have rendered during their tenures at the apex court.

Even though the representation of women in the Indian judiciary has made progress, it remains underwhelming. Over the past five years, there have been some significant milestones, such as the appointment of Indu Malhotra as the first woman lawyer to become a judge of the Supreme Court of India in 2018. This was followed by the appointment of Justice Hima Kohli as the first woman Chief Justice of the Telangana High Court and Justice BV Nagarathna as the first woman judge to be elevated as a Supreme Court judge from Karnataka.

Despite various efforts, factors such as the lack of adequate support systems for women lawyers, social and cultural barriers and gender bias continue to pose challenges for women who aspire to become judges.

Even as gender parity in the Indian judiciary is yet to be achieved, we take a look back at some of the women who have graced the Bench.

One such woman who broke the glass ceiling and rose to become the first woman judge of the Supreme Court of India was Justice M Fathima Beevi. She was born in Kerala in 1927 and her father encouraged her to study law. In 1950, she topped the Bar Council exam, becoming the first woman to receive a Bar Council gold medal. She started her career as an advocate in Kerala and worked her way up to become a district and sessions judge in 1974. In 1980, she joined the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal and was appointed as a High Court judge in 1983. She made history in 1989 by becoming the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. After retiring in 1993, she served as a member of the National Human Rights Commission and then as Governor of Tamil Nadu.

On March 8, 2023 a documentary titled Neethipathayile Dheera Vanitha (A Brave Woman on the Path of Justice) was screened in Thiruvananthapuram to pay tribute to Justice Fathima Beevi. The 30-minute documentary sheds light on Fathima Beevi’s journey to the Supreme Court. As a Supreme Court judge, she became the first Muslim woman in the higher judiciary and the first woman to become a Supreme Court Justice in an Asian country. She received several awards during her career. She resigned from the post of Governor of Tamil Nadu after rejecting the mercy petitions filed by four condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

Here is a look at some of the most important decisions she was part of during her tenure as an apex court judge.

In Scheduled Caste & Weaker Section Welfare Association v. State of Karnataka (1991), the Supreme Court of India dealt with the issue of limitations on statutory power, principles of natural justice and the applicability of the rule of law. The case involved the welfare association representing the Scheduled Castes and weaker sections of society in Karnataka, challenging certain provisions of the Karnataka Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Appointments) Act.

Justice Fathima Beevi, who was a part of the Bench hearing the case, emphasized the fundamental rule of the Indian constitutional system that protects every citizen against arbitrary exercise of authority by the state or its officers. She observed that if a power to decide and determine to the prejudice of an individual exists, the duty to act judicially is implicit in the exercise of such power. She further noted that the rule of natural justice operates in areas not covered by any validly enacted law.

Another interesting case which she dealt with was Ratan Chand Hira Chand v. Askar Nawaz Jung (Dead). Here, the Court discussed the validity of a contract under Section 23 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872. Justice Beevi observed that any agreement with an unlawful object or consideration is not legally binding. So, an agreement's object or consideration is considered unlawful when it goes against public policy, which is based on the community's current needs. Further, if any action is taken that violates public law or public policy, it would be deemed illegal because it could harm the interests of the public. While construing 'public policy' in judicial interpretation, she said that it is not fixed and must adapt over time to meet the changing requirements of the community.

Another interesting case worth mentioning is Mool Chand etc v. Jagdish Singh Bedi and Ors. Here, the Bench looked into the scope of Article 136 of the Constitution. It was held that if the evidence presented allows for two plausible interpretations, and the High Court favored the accused, then the Supreme Court will be cautious in overturning the acquittal. However, if the High Court has made a significant mistake in evaluating the evidence, ignored legal principles, or misinterpreted the facts leading to a questionable conclusion, it can be deemed as perverse or illegal. In such cases, the apex court can intervene under Article 136 of the Constitution of India. Conversely, the verdict stated that if the judgment of the High Court is backed by strong and logical reasons, it must be upheld.

Justice Beevi's contributions to the Indian judiciary while interpreting the most complex legal questions is remarkable. Her rejection of the mercy petitions in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, while a matter of debate, demonstrated her unwavering commitment to upholding justice and the rule of law. Her appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court in 1989 was a significant milestone in Indian legal history, breaking gender barriers and inspiring more women to enter the judiciary. Throughout her career, she strongly advocated for equality, playing a crucial role in shaping jurisprudence through the application of principles of interpretation while pronouncing some landmark judgments. Her contributions, both in terms of her impactful judgments and her pioneering role as a woman judge, have left a lasting impact on the Indian legal system.

Nabeela Siddiqui is an Assistant Professor at VMLS, Chennai.

Amisha P. Dash is a Student at CHRIST (Deemed to be University).

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