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Justice Ruma Pal: I had always wanted to be a teacher. So after graduating I taught English at South Point School [in Calcutta] for a short while. After a few months though, I had a tiff with the management. B&B: A tiff? Justice Ruma Pal is one of the most well known judges in the history of the Supreme Court, where she was a judge from 2000 to 2006. In this interview with Bar & Bench, Justice Pal talks about her early days as a student in Shantiniketan, on being the only woman in Nagpur’s College of Law and how the Indian judiciary ought to change. Bar & Bench: You studied law in Nagpur. First, why Nagpur and second, why law?
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When he asked me what I intend to do, I said I haven’t thought of anything. He said the law college is close by and that I should go there. So I did. B&B: But didn’t you want to stay in Calcutta? RP: I was not really brought up in Calcutta at all. In fact, I went to a number of schools since my father had a transferable job. And soon after I finished my schooling, my father passed away. My mother felt we were getting far too westernized, and so my sister and I were both admitted to Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan. And that was really a watershed moment in my life. B&B: In what sense? RP: It brought me from a completely westernized background and threw
RP: I had disciplined some students and detained them after school hours. I went to get my books for correction and when I came back I found that the children had gone. So I asked who let them go and was told that some gentleman who was neither a teacher nor a caretaker had let them go. Now I was just 19 and this hurt my ego (laughs). So I made complaint and left the school. At that point of time, my brother was in Nagpur and so I went and stayed with him.
The boys would cramp themselves in the benches but they wouldn’t sit next to me. It was very different from anything I was used to. the long hair etc. I didn’t even know what "BCL" stood for but 2 . This would be in 1960. Someone had told me unless I had BCL from Oxford. But by the time I left after four years I loved it. Oxford. Ultimately they gave me a separate table and a chair next to the lecturer so that the boys could sit comfortably (laughs). and it was simply my brother’s suggestion that made me take it up. that when they had a photograph of all the college professors and students union heads. they included me simply because I was the only woman. You were very conscious of the seasons. our classes were held under trees. I have been to other universities like Nagpur. summer. Did you know that India has six seasons? Anyway (pauses) © Bar & Bench ! B&B: So you started your law at Nagpur University. So much so. winter. The bare feet. The teachers were different. RP: When I went for the convocation some youngsters came up to me from Calcutta university and they wanted to know whether I was interested in studying in any of universities abroad. autumn but the fact is that India has six seasons. I was the first woman in Nagpur’s College of law. the entire bench next to me would be empty. Annes College. Don’t forget that this was in 1956 and Tagore had died in 1941 so his influence was still there. but every time I sat on a bench. Oxford and others. I joined it and the principal told me that I could not attend classes publicly. I told him that I would attend classes whether he likes it or not. Initially I didn’t like it at all. B&B: Because you were a girl? RP: Yes. the first class first degree from Nagpur University was worth nothing. Anyway. He said that I could can take my classes privately.! me into a pool of Bengali culture. There was a lot of music. And I had just come from Shantiniketan where there was absolute parity and freedom. You were very close to nature. you think in terms of spring. give the exams privately but that I cannot attend classes with everyone else. The fact is that when people were brought up in the kind of AngloIndian culture that we had. So I used to attend. It was a life changing experience. you went to St. And nothing comes close. B&B: Why? RP: Because women did not. B&B: And from Nagpur. a lot of freedom and culture. RP: I had no interest in law.
I had always wanted to be a teacher. So you had to fight it out. B&B: Was it difficult to be a woman lawyer at that time? RP: Clients tended not to trust women. So having no other alternative. you came back to India.” This devalues your achievement and also makes you lose confidence. I told them I wanted a to do a BCL from Oxford. I 3 © Bar & Bench ! . So I came back and met the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University and asked him if I could get a part-time job. there was a relative of mine who happened to know [the future Chief Minister of West Bengal] Sidhartha Shankar Ray. B&B: And when did you overcome this resistance? RP: Initially. I frequently tell my juniors that there will be some breakers along the way. I remember winning a case and the opposing counsel saying “Ah yes. So I joined Mr. I never even sat for the Bar because I thought the BCL was an academic degree and I had wanted to come back and teach. it was the first one on the list! B&B: After completing the BCL. B&B: But you had a BCL from Oxford RP: So everything would fall in place? That is what I thought too but it did not. I then went around from office to office looking for a job because practice was out of the question. were you thinking of practicing? RP: Never. then things are very calm.! nevertheless when those boys asked me whether I was interested. I was more interested in earning my living and it was imperative that I stand on my feet. But there were lots of little incidents. It also made me so angry. They thought that women would not be able to fight. It is this initial resistance that you have to overcome. you have won because of a pretty face. RP: Oh yes it was but I left when he became a whole-time politician. In fact one solicitor firm told me that they had a rule against employing women because they would get married and leave. Fortunately I appeared before Justice Sabyasachi Mukerjee who was the toughest judges of my time and certainly made no allowances on the basis of your gender. B&B: That must have been an interesting office. And the reason why I chose St Annes was because when they gave me a list of colleges. he was sterner with women. And so I joined his office in 1968 and that’s how I started. And once you overcome these. to put it to the judge clearly etc. At this point of time. And I bested that very lawyer in Mukherjee’s court. And he said no since I had no experience. In fact. Dipankar Gupta who in fact was Ray’s junior. If anything.
By that time there were certain characteristics in some judges that I didn’t like . Lets just say I did not cooperate. “Come and see a girl argue. The next time it was offered to © Bar & Bench ! me was in 1989 by an Acting Chief Justice. RP: Yes. your clients are calling you. I knew in my mind what kind of judge I wanted to be. B&B: Why did you agree to join the Bench? RP: Well. you can’t expect the lawyers or even your officers to do so. Your clerk is calling you. RP: At times. In 1984. There were various other things I did not like. B&B: Are you shorttempered? RP: Pretty (laughs). And so I had decided that there would be certain practices that I would follow. So I became a judge during PD Desai’s tenure. By this time. The third is coming on time because if you don’t maintain the discipline. But the judge who offered it to me retired and we got a new Chief Justice. B&B: As a judge. I hope not. the responsibility of practice is enormous. not in court. Second is the actual behavior in court with the lawyer irrespective of their standing. He had recommended three of our names and then Chief Justice PD Desai approved these three names. you must have found your patience taxed.! remember going to Howrah District Court and a crowd forming outside the courtroom saying. When I became a judge. in winning a case. I thought this was not on. B&B: The Deadly sins? Seven RP: Something like that (smiles).favoritism for instance. And if you have got a reasonable practice. you refusedRP: I did not refuse. For example I would keep myself aloof from even the slightest that I may be inclined in favor of one party rather than the other. So there is a mental tension as well as a very physical tension involved. B&B: Just a few 4 . the normal rule is that the Chief Justice sends for you and it is a kind of invitation to join the Bench. your juniors are calling. eventually becoming quite successful. But this new Chief Justice got his PA to ask me to submit my bio-data. Some judge may be refusing to give your junior a passover for instance – this was something I just couldn’t take any more. I was 47 and decided to join the Bench. you were offered a post at the Bench. I didn’t submit the bio-data and I didn’t go see him. The kind of tension that you go through to win not for yourself for your client – there is a terrific amount of tension. you would have a case in Court 26. Now. one in 19 and so on and so forth. Well. B&B: So in 1984.” B&B: So you built up your practice over the years.
there is a kind of solicitation by the Bar. B&B: How would you deal with lawyers seeking adjournments or who would have long winded arguments? RP: The thing is that if you are strict. So in the natural order of things. go on holidays etc but I completely cut it off. You were sworn in the forenoon while Justice Sabharwal and others were appointed in the morning. must you about the case in a social setting. shifted his chamber out of the house. If I was unwise as a High Court judge I don’t suddenly become god-like once I join the Supreme Court. J. We used to travel together. he should have been sworn in before me. So no litigant or lawyer could come to the house. It is this attitude that somehow the Supreme Court judges are superior . It is ridiculous that a mere geographical change of location makes a person wiser.! months before your elevation. you were a member of the Bar and now you are a member of the Bench. and strict across the board then everyone respects you. Any thoughts? RP: You know this is all rubbish that I didn’t become the Chief Justice of India because of some miscommunication. It was just in the normal course of things. Sabharwal became a judge of the Delhi High Court before I became one. The house was completely sacrosanct. My husband. B&B: In January 2000 you were elevated to the Supreme Court but that was not without a bit of controversy. But I wasn’t there to be popular. And I had to tell them then that I was sorry but I would have to completely disassociate myself with all of them. then they respect that judge. At least they were assured that no one would have dinner with me or talk to me © Bar & Bench ! . who is also a lawyer. In fact. we were very close. I really don’t think there is any truth behind this at all. RP: When you become a judge. It is the jurisdiction that is different. B&B: This have made unpopular. But if you are strict with some and not with others then people start resenting you. Sabharwal went on to become CJI. B&B: But it has 5 RP: It might have. But if they know that a judge doesn’t grant adjournments to any one. Yes. There was none of that. That is is all. B&B: Do you see elevations to the Supreme Court as a “promotion” of sorts? RP: No I don’t.that is what I don’t like. You must have shared a certain level of camaraderie with other lawyers. Absolute rubbish. And then J.
something to do with looking back all the time. It has always been the case. The other is through the very transparency of the judicial process.how is he superior as a Chief Justice. as if you are speaking to a subordinate. you will find a lambasting of the High Courts. I don’t know but most people in the legal system are very traditional people who don’t like changing. Someone who doesn’t have an axe to grind. you have said that the Courts are bound to protect the 6 . to a puisne judge? B&B: Your Tarkunde lecture in 2011 – that was quite a no-holds barred speech you gave. It may be something to do with following precedents. the judiciary has become very reluctant to change? RP: Not really. B&B: You have said that judicial independence cannot exist without accountability. In one of your books. And a person who just happens to have the accident of birth . B&B: You have criticized certain aspects of the Indian judiciary but you have also stressed on the importance of the institution itself. In fact. do not make it as Chief Justice. One. B&B: Do you think that of late. For instance when there is a provision that the green tribunal or some other tribunal must be headed by a Supreme Court judge or the Chief Justice of a High Court – why? Because of the accident of seniority? © Bar & Bench ! There are several High Court judges who are absolutely competent but by reason of becoming judges later in life. It is open to the public and it is the public that will tear you to shreds if your decision is wrong. do the same to District Courts. as far as judicial capacity is concerned. RP: I can even understand that because the High Court has disciplinary jurisdiction and administrative control over the District Courts. There really isn’t anything else. for their part. The other thing I don’t understand is this is the distinction made between a Chief Justice and a puisne judge. There is no judgment that is delivered behind closed doors.! become a hierarchy of sorts – RP: Unfortunately. Which is why in many Supreme Court judgments. yes. After all a judge really lives on his or her reputation. The High Court is supreme in its state and it is under no one. most of those who practice law are great traditionalists. RP: Well someone has to speak. How do you introduce this accountability in the system? RP: In two ways. a formal way with the possibility of disciplinary action being taken. B&B: The High Courts.
Listen. You can’t just ignore that completely. B&B: As a judge. unless you are going to question their motives or their competence in terms of ability. impartiality and commitment I have found right down to the CJM level. anyone can make allegations against me. B&B: Any advice for students of law? RP: Keep your options open. J Ganguly has nothing to do with the Supreme Court anymore just as I have nothing to do with the Supreme Court anymore. Particularly after the Supreme Court. B&B: Were surprised allegations raised at all? you that were RP: Nothing surprises me any more. Right down to the munsif level . I don’t know the other parts of the country but as far as Bengal is concerned this honesty. had expressed its’ view B&B: Surely without jurisdiction. Nothing at all. impartially and independently. I would have resigned and © Bar & Bench ! asked for an enquiry because I don’t want to involve the office in any mudslinging of this sort. Why should I deal with this? It does not affect me. My advice is after your graduation. They don’t make catchy headlines and it is only when one or two behave in a particular fashion that it is absolutely blown out of proportion. For all you know. RP: Nevertheless. B&B: Why? 7 . That was the first though that struck me. practice for three years and then make up your mind. RP: Absolutely correct! They had no business taking it up in the first place. B&B: The second half of the order says that they would not deal with allegations against retried Supreme Court judges. good or bad and with or without jurisdiction. I was labeled anti-Sikh. Do you think they still do? RP: Oh yes they do. experienced judges deciding the fact that there was a prima facie finding. how did you deal with public criticism? RP: I remember when I decided the water dispute between Haryana and Punjab in favor of Haryana. if your conscience is clear it doesn’t really matter what people say. B&B: What do you think of the allegations of sexual harassment that were made against Justice Ganguly? Do you think he should have resigned? RP: If it were me and some allegations like those were made against me.! Constitution. I still believe in the strength of the institution. Because this was not an administrative matter. And I think we don’t talk about the massive number of cases that the majority of judges tackle honestly. you had three impartial.
That was when I delivered my ITC judgment and a senior lawyer who had been appearing. The lowest would probably be when I lost my temper in the Supreme Court. Because I recalled the judgment they came back helter skelter. 400 crores to ITC. I felt absolutely betrayed. “A junior took it away” etc. But once you are in the profession. And then I called the next matter. There was dead silence. I told them to file an affidavit so that it was on record.2014 in Calcutta. B&B: One last question. asked to see the judgment. losing my temper happened more than once (laughs) but on one occasion I was so angry I had to rise. So I recalled the judgment. which in fact had given Rs. It was first published on March 25. Suddenly the court officer whispered to me saying this senior lawyer had left with the judgment! I was furious. it is never too late to get a job because it adds to your CV. and said I am rising. I delivered the same judgment. If a judge can’t trust a senior lawyer then that is a really low point. Anyway. as a judge what was the lowest point in your career? RP: Let me think. this lawyer asked to see it and I © Bar & Bench ! said that he could. He has obviously gone to get it Xeroxed. Of course. it will be too late to come back to profession. And you can't change a judgment can you? I made him sweat for twenty-four hours (laughs) and the next day. I was so angry that I stopped all proceedings in court. J. apologizing and so forth.! RP: Because it keeps your option open. Now I had signed the judgment but the judge sitting with me. Reddy had not yet signed it. 2014) 8 . if you regret joining a job later. The other way doesn’t work. “We did not see it”. And I told them to get the lawyer back. (This interview took place on January 31. provided he sat in court while reading it. Secondly. to get the judgment back.
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