“To have criminals as politicians is an insult to our parliamentary system”– Lily Thomas

The Court in a landmark judgment in Lily Thomas v. Union of India had declared Section 8(4) of the RP Act as unconstitutional.
The Court in a landmark judgment in Lily Thomas v. Union of India had declared Section 8(4) of the RP Act as unconstitutional.

The woman everyone has been talking about looks surprisingly calm. When we meet her in Chamber No. 47, the Supreme Court lawyer, is sitting behind a towering stack of paper books. Every now and then, someone enters the chamber and shares a few words with her; her phone literally does not stop ringing. And there is reason enough for this. After all Lily Thomas, the 85-year old advocate may well be remembered as the woman who changed the face of Indian politics.

Last week, the Supreme Court, struck down the constitutional vires of S. 8(4) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 that provides sitting MPs and MLAs an additional layer of protection from disqualification in case s/he is convicted of certain offences. The concerned provision provides for a period of 3 months from the date of conviction within which the convicted sitting MP/MLA cannot be disqualified. Furthermore, if the sitting MP/MLA were to file an appeal or revision within these three months from the date of conviction, he/ she could not be disqualified until the appeal or revision were disposed.

The petitioner in this case? Lily Thomas. On being asked how she feels about this newfound fame, she smiles and says, “It feels nice.” Lily Thomas has been a lawyer for more than five decades. After obtaining a law degree from Madras University, she started her practice in the Madras High Court. Recounting her initial years Lily says, “The judges were very generous and encouraging in the Madras High Court. There was an atmosphere of learning”.

In 1960, she moved to Delhi to do a Ph.D but discovered that she was not really cut out for academia. “I realised that I was not competent to do research,” she says, “so I started practicing in the Supreme Court”.

Explaining her immediate reaction to the judgment Lily says, “I was very happy because [the petition] was for ethics in public life. Otherwise we are all subjected to loafers, criminals and rowdies. That is not acceptable in a civil society”.

Lily is vocal about her disappointment about corruption, something that she feels is deep rooted in politics. “Criminals and corrupt people should not be in public life,” says Lily pointing to a ToI article whose headline reads, “Parliament by Day Tihar by Night”.

“What greater insult can there be to this institution?”, she asks. “To have criminals as politicians is an insult to our parliamentary system and is very demeaning.” “The state of our nation is extremely distressing”, says Lily.

Lily had filed the petition in 2005, overcoming several obstacles over the years; she had mentioned the matter in 2008 before Justice KG Balakrishnan, who did not accede to her plea for urgent hearing on two separate occasions. In 2012, she mentioned the matter before Justice Altamas Kabir in 2012 who said, “It should be heard immediately”. Lily says, “Justice Kabir asked me to get the consent of the Attorney General, which is the procedure. The Attorney General readily gave his consent”.

So in September 2012, when the matter was listed for hearing, Lily approached Senior Advocate Fali Nariman to argue her case. She says, “I told Mr. Nariman I don’t have the learning like you to help the Court. You have to assist the court”. Lily was disarmingly frank with Nariman. “The court must have confidence in you that what you say can be acted upon”, she told Nariman, “I simply don’t have that stature or experience”. When Nariman agreed, Lily was confident that she had made the right choice. “I needed someone of his standing to argue before the court”, says Lily.

When asked whether there would be practical difficulties in the implementation of the judgment, Lily says,“It is for the public and political parties to respect the judgment and to see the meaning of the judgment, which is to cleanse the politics”. However, she is quick to add that, “Of course, the judgment alone cannot cleanse the system, which is much too deep rooted. We need to change the system but the judgment is a step in the right direction”.

As for the Court’s disinclination to entertain the Article 14 argument, Lily says that, “Whatever we got I thought was a great thing. At least we got something”,

Her candour is equally noticeable when she talks about her experiences as a woman lawyer over the last five decades. Lily says she didn’t really face any difficulty at the Bar though she does remember the time an advocate “tried to act smart” and kissed her in the Supreme Court library. She recalls, “I threatened that Advocate saying that I would complain to his wife and he immediately apologised for his act.”

There were some lighter moments as well. “Justice Desai once asked me in the Court, Madam Counsel “Are you Miss or Mrs.” And I immediately replied, “Well, I am Miss but I don’t miss much”. “Everyone burst out laughing.”

While talking about her female colleagues at the Bar, Lily says she was very jealous of friends who became judges. “When Sunita Bhandari became a judge, I was so jealous that I would explain it to myself that she is a daughter of Law Minister and that is why she has been elevated. I even told Bhandari this. Then Leila Seth became judge. Again, I thought Seth’s uncle is the Law Minister and that is why she became a judge.”

“Otherwise look at me, I am the first lady to get an LLM degree in India, still I couldn’t become a judge. May be because I don’t have patronage”, says Lily.

So was she disappointed at not being made judge? Her answer comes quickly,  “No. “God has assigned places for people. Grow where you are planted”.  She also explains that she eventually overcame the feelings of envy. “My friend SS Khanduja appropriately said that we are only jealous of friends and not of strangers. That is the day I understood and I was no longer jealous of other people after that point”.

Talking about the judges in her earlier years in the Supreme Court, Lily says, “We have had wonderful judges. Justice Bhagwati, Justice Chandrachud, Justice Hegde were great judges. They always encouraged us”.

Regarding the changes happening at the Bar and the Bench, Lily says, “Previously, if you had a good case, you are sure to get admission but now I don’t have that confidence. Good cases are lost because of some difficulty in putting it forward, judges are impatient, or SLPs are badly drafted”.

She is quick to point out, “We can’t make the judges accountable for these badly drafted pleadings. The problem of backlog is also because of drafting defects in a case. A judge is not expected to go through such thick pile of papers to find out what the main issues are”.

“It is extremely important that issues are clearly framed and properly set out for the judges to have a control over cases. These days the advocates draft in such a way that they don’t want the matter to be decided. Delay is only because of the advocates’ poor drafting and  language. It is very important to encapsulate the issue, which will make the disposal of cases much faster.”

At 85, she looks as strong and motivated as someone half her age. And she is, quite clearly, not yet done in her quest for justice. “We are all answerable to God. What will I say when God asks me, “What have you done as a lawyer?”. “In the end, we are all accountable.”

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