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“Did you know that India has six seasons?” she asks, smiling ever so gently as she talks of her days at Shantiniketan. The beautiful but completely uninterested golden retriever at my feet half-wags his tail in the ensuing silence and then goes back to sleep. Thus far, the interview has not really gone as I had thought it would. But, as I was soon to learn, apart from having a wonderful sense of humour and razor sharp memory, Justice Ruma Pal has an incredible ability to surprise.
Elevated to the Supreme Court from the Calcutta High Court in 2000 as only the third woman in the history of the Apex Court, Justice Ruma Pal entered the institution with a reputation of a judge who tolerated no nonsense. Retiring in 2006, she continued being a vocal critic of all that is wrong with the Indian judiciary; her Tarkunde speech on the seven sins of judges for instance, makes for an excellent read.
Lawyers in both Calcutta and Delhi, fairly senior ones at that, had spoken of Ruma Pal in tones that held equal amounts of fear and respect. Sitting face to face with her though, I wondered if perhaps they had been guilty of over-exaggeration, an offence not uncommon for lawyer folk. A few minutes later though, I begin to see only too clearly what these lawyers had been talking about.
The only woman in her class
Part of the charm in interviewing Ruma Pal lies in the almost nonchalant way she has of describing things, especially her younger days. Daughter of a civil servant, she attended schools in six cities before eventually completing her schooling in Nainital. Her upbringing, as she describes it, was “far too westernized” for her mother to handle. And so in 1956, after Ruma Pal finished her schooling, she was packed off to Shantiniketan along with her sister. It was an experience that was to change her life.
“I have been to other universities like Nagpur, Oxford and others. And nothing comes close. Don’t forget that this was in 1956 and Tagore had died in 1941 so his influence was still there. You were very close to nature, our classes were held under trees. The teachers were different. There was a lot of music, a lot of freedom and a lot of culture.”
Because of the conversational and matter-of-fact tone that she is prone to using, the importance of what she says is often realized only much later. It is only on replaying the conversation later on does one truly get a sense of what she has accomplished and the odds she faced. For instance, when she first sought admission into the Nagpur College of Law, the principal told her that she would have to be taught in private, and take exams in private as well. Evidently, girls were not allowed in class.
She told the principal that she would attend the classes and that was that. However, it was not the principal alone who was aghast at her decision.
“Every time I sat on a bench, the entire bench next to me would be empty. The boys would cramp themselves in the benches but they wouldn’t sit next to me. Ultimately they gave me a separate table and a chair next to the lecturer so that the boys could sit comfortably.”
She graduated first class from Nagpur, eventually completing a BCL from St. Annes College at Oxford University. Of course, this decision too was marked by a series of coincidences. It so happened that someone had told her that without a BCL from Oxford, a first class degree meant nothing. Then, while attending her convocation, she was asked whether she wanted to attend Oxford University. When they handed her a list of colleges, she chose St. Annes because it was the first one on the list. She left India to go to Oxford and after completing her BCL, returned back to teach. With the degree in hand, getting a teaching position would have been the easiest thing in the world. Or so she thought.
“I came back and met the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University and asked him if I could get a part-time job. And he said no since I had no experience. I then went around from office to office looking for a job. In fact one solicitor firm told me that they had a rule against employing women because they got married and left.”
She eventually joined the chambers of Sidhartha Shankar Ray, who would soon become the Chief Minister of West Bengal. However, when she saw Ray getting actively involved in politics on a full-time basis, Pal left her chambers. One of the few women lawyers practicing in the Calcutta High Court, Pal did face a lot of opposition.
“I remember winning a case and the opposing counsel saying “Ah yes, you have won because of a pretty face.” This devalues your achievement and also makes you lose confidence. I also remember going to Howrah District Court and a crowd forming outside the courtroom saying, ‘Come and see a girl argue.’”
Undeterred, Ruma Pal built her practice and eventually became one of the leading lawyers of the Calcutta High Court. In 1989, when she was offered judgeship for the second time, she accepted. Aged forty-seven at that time, Ruma Pal says that she was getting tired of the physical and mental stress of running a successful practice.
“If you have got a reasonable practice, you would have a case in Court 26, one in 19 and so on and so forth. Your clerk is calling you, your juniors are calling you, and your clients are calling you. There is a mental tension as well as a very physical tensiorn involved – this was something I just couldn’t take any more.”
The first woman Chief Justice of India?
Thus, in August 1990, Ruma Pal became a judge of the Calcutta High Court already sure about the kind of judge she did not want to be. This is where the Tarkunde lecture becomes all the more interesting since Pal has had first hand experience of the workings of the Indian judiciary. And the points she raises are extremely significant and certainly merit attention.
“I would keep myself aloof from even the slightest possibility that I may be inclined in favor of one party rather than the other. My husband, who is also a lawyer, shifted his chamber out of the house. So no litigant or lawyer could come to the house. The house was completely sacrosanct. Second is the actual behavior in court with the lawyer irrespective of their standing. The third is coming on time because if you don’t maintain the discipline, you can’t expect the lawyers or even your officers to do so.”
Ten years later, she was elevated to the Supreme Court amidst rumors that her swearing in was delayed, thereby preventing her from becoming the country’s first woman Chief Justice of India. When the topic of this particular rumor is broached, she scoffs at it, dismissing it as “absolute rubbish”. What is more interesting to learn though, is her views on a Supreme Court elevation being equated to a “promotion” of sorts.
“It is ridiculous that a mere geographical change of location makes a person wiser. If I was unwise as a High Court judge I don’t suddenly become god-like once I join the Supreme Court. It is this attitude that somehow the Supreme Court judges are superior – that is what I don’t like.”
As a judge, Ruma Pal delivered several important judgments but it is her insights into the Indian judiciary that are particularly interesting. And she does not hold back with her criticism on processes that she thinks are inherently illogical. The provision that a tribunal can only be headed by a retired Supreme Court judge or a Chief Justice of a High Court for instance, meaning that the several competent judges are automatically disqualified merely, as Pal puts it, “the accident of seniority.”
There are several other topics that Pal talks about, often interjecting her arguments with that sharp yet understated sense of humor. Every now and then, she will break into a smile while reminiscing about a particular case, an important conference or a particular incident during her time as a judge. Of course, this humor is best enjoyed from the seat of a distant spectator; for the humor too is built upon a toughness that is all too evident.
For example, when asked what was the lowest point of her career as a judge, she takes a moment to ponder the question before finally answering. The moment relates to a judgment she had delivered in open court but one her brother judge had not yet signed. When the senior counsel appearing in the matter asked to read the judgment, she permitted him to do so provided he read the judgment in court.
While the next matter was called out, her court master urgently whispered to her that the judgment had been taken out of court by the senior lawyer.
“I was furious. I was so angry that I stopped all proceedings in court. There was dead silence. And I told them to get the lawyer back, to get the judgment back. I felt absolutely betrayed. So I recalled the judgment and because I recalled the judgment they came back helter skelter, apologizing and so forth. I told them to file an affidavit so that it was on record. But you can’t change a judgment can you? I made him sweat for twenty-four hours and the next day delivered the same judgment.”
She breaks into a mischievous grin when she recounts this and it is impossible not to laugh along. Of course, a significant part of the laughter is based on the fact that I wasn’t the lawyer in question. I would have been more than just sweating “a bit” if I was. I request for a bit more time, a few more questions to be answered and she firmly shakes her head no as she walks me out. “Your allotted time is up,” she says and I can almost hear the unsaid “counsel” at the end of that sentence. When asked to pose for a photograph, she replies, “ Can you take it from the Supreme Court website?” It is not a question.
I say my goodbyes and she walks me out of the chambers; it is all very polite and civilized without an iota of doubt as to who is in charge of the situation. Minutes later I walk through the carefully manicured streets of Alipore and stare at the giant mansions. A day later, I will replay the interview and be amazed at all that she has achieved. And I will laugh when she narrates the story of the sweaty senior counsel.