India's Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is on a Rampage - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Leila Seth was the first woman judge on the Delhi High Court and also the first woman Chief Justice of a state high court.


Because rape in India might be the subcontinent’s Arab Spring.

By Aayush Soni

Leila Seth is 84 years old and one of the most important legal voices in India. The first woman to become chief justice of a high court — and the mother of respected novelist Vikram Seth — she’s seen the country change enormously when it comes to women’s rights. But despite advancements such as an increase in the literacy rate for women, what preoccupies Seth today is what happened on a now-infamous night in December 2012: The brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman brought young people to the streets in protest and turned the world’s judgment on India.

And the Indian government’s response? It created a commission, the Justice J.S. Verma Commission, to recommend changes to existing laws that deal with crimes against women. Seth, now retired, found herself on this team, as the only appointed woman trying to shape the future of women’s issues in India — where some of the key issues at stake are marital rape, dowry deaths, sexual harassment by family and/or friends, stalking and molestation. The Verma report, which Seth says got slapped together in a quick 29 days, prompted the government to make changes to in the law, which included awarding the death penalty to those who rape a woman. However, many in India criticized the government for not adopting some key findings of the commission. 

Seth has detailed her stint at the commission in her new book, Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India  (published by Aleph in India; available on Amazon but temporarily out of stock). It’s a collection of 11 essays examining a slew of socially liberal topics: women’s rights, gender and the judiciary, children’s rights and gay rights, among others. OZY sat down with Seth to discuss the inner workings of the commission on rape, the problems of women’s rights in a secular nation with so many religions, and what exactly made those December 2012 protests such a big deal. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


What’s the state of women’s rights in India?

Leila Seth:

The constitution gives women equal rights and also provides for what Americans call affirmative action. But I would say that a lot of the personal laws in India are not the same for everybody. We don’t have a uniform civil code but we have personal laws, which depend on your religion. So, we have a different law for the Muslims — and there a man can just say talaq talaq talaq [divorce, divorce, divorce]  thrice and she has no remedy; she can’t do the same to him. Similarly, the Christian law in India was so discriminatory towards women that a man could get a divorce on the grounds of adultery whereas a woman could not. She had to prove adultery and cruelty; that law’s been changed recently after a lot of agitation. Even with Hindus, there have been changes to ancestral property rights for women but they’ve been slow. So that’s why I’m very keen that we have a uniform civil code, which is good for women and should not be based on Hindu, Christian or Muslim law, but should be just and fair for women.

When crimes against women happen in the house, they’re not even reported.

— Leila Seth



What sort of change have you seen on these issues through your five decades on the judicial circuit?





First of all, when crimes against women happen in the house, they’re not even reported. If an uncle rapes a girl, it’s not reported because it’s some kind of ”family honour.” But of those that get reported, in the recent past there is some change. Otherwise, it was [blamed on] the victim — she was dressed badly, she wasn’t behaving in a proper manner. But that is very slowly changing now, especially after the Verma Committee report we gave where we talked about stricter punishment for sexual crimes.

  • According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, there were 309,546 crimes against women reported to the police in 2013, compared to 244,270 in 2012.
  • Charges included rape, sexual harassment, trafficking and molestation.
  • Reported rapes increased by 35.2 percent in 2013 (according to the Crime Records Bureau).
  • Delhi recorded the highest number of reported rapes of all Indian cities at 1,441 in 2013.


How has rape reporting changed? Are more people speaking to the police about it?


I think those that are happening outside the family are getting reported. Before, everything was just pushed under the carpet. People are willing to talk about it and discuss that something like that has happened. The papers are also reporting it. As a result, people think that more crimes are taking place, which isn’t necessarily so. It’s just that reporting is better. What’s happening within the families is difficult to say because those [crimes] are still not getting reported.

Justice Leila Seth with her son Indian Poet and novelist Vikram Seth at the release of his book 'Two Lives,' in New Delhi.

Justice Leila Seth with her son, Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth, at the release of his book “Two Lives” in New Delhi

Source TC Malhotra/ZUMApress


What was it about the December 2012 incident and protests that prompted the government to set up this committee?






It was probably the first time that there was a nonviolent protest by people on an issue. Normally, people go out and protest when a leader or a party calls them. Here, people didn’t even know each other but were interacting on social media. Young men and women were facing water cannons day after day on a cold December morning. But the reason young people went out was because it touched a chord. It was one of them who’d gone to see a movie with her boyfriend, coming out of the movie, getting into a bus and something happening to her. The government realized they won’t be able to stop it without doing anything. So they thought they’d set up a committee, which will take months to decide and things might fizzle out. But they didn’t know that we’d produce the result.

There still aren’t protections for men who are raped — the definition only applies to women.

Excerpted from Talking of Justice

That Sunday, during lunch, my friends were curious about the sort of response I thought the government could be expected to make to the demands of the protestors. My cynical reply was that it would appoint a committee or commission to look into the matter, thus postponing the decision for six months or more by which time the momentum of the protest would be lost. Just a few moments later, the then-finance minister, P. Chidambaram, telephoned and requested me to be a member of just such a committee! A bit apprehensive, I asked him about the composition of such a committee. He told me it would be headed by Justice J.S. Verma and that its third member would be a senior advocate. I knew Justice Verma to be a fiercely independent and courageous judge and felt it would be a privilege to work with him. I then asked the finance minister when the committee would be expected to table its report. “Within thirty days,” he replied.



But not all of the changes you recommended have been adopted in the year-and-a-half since you first made them in the Verma report. For instance, there still aren’t protections for men who are raped — the definition only applies to women. And marital rape isn’t even criminalized.


I think one has to look at all the things that they did accept. I’m an optimist, and I think we moved some steps forward. We made many other suggestions in the report, which were very important — pertaining to police reforms because without those, you won’t get implementation [of the law]. 

What has been criminalized? Stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks. The law now states that a simple absence of physical resistance doesn’t mean consent. And there are stricter punishments for violent sexual crimes, including life imprisonment. 


And what about the way judges themselves see the cases? You have some strong opinions on this, that low-level male judges aren’t completely fair in their judgments.


Well, we said that in the lower judiciary, there should be seminars and discussions held for them — mindsets need to be change. [Editor’s note: Those seminars haven’t been implemented.] The way they’ve seen their fathers treat their mothers or sisters is they way they treat their daughters. When it comes to education, the boy will get educated, and if there’s a shortage of money, the girl won’t go to college — the son will. That’s the kind of thing we don’t want. Treat people as human beings, irrespective of their sex. Those are the changes we want, and it’ll take time, but they’ll come.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories