Queen of Justice
Justice Prabha Sridevan is the fifth woman Judge of the Madras High Court. During her tenure as a High Court Judge, she has been instrumental in delivering several judgments of importance. She now goes to the National Judical Academy Bhopal as resource person for topics like social justice, gender justice, exclusion, and poverty.
In an exclusive interview Justice Prabha Sridevan shares with Marie Banu her views on women empowerment
How did you feel when you were invited to be fifth woman judge of the Madras High Court?
I was zapped. That was my first reaction.
You pursued law after marriage. Was this easy for you? Did you choose this subject because you have a lineage of law professionals?
It was difficult. The joke was, "nobody studies in Law College." I wanted to be a good student. I was much older and had two children while the rest of my classmates were 13 years younger to me. They were just out of college and were having fun. But for me it was more serious. My husband was a lawyer. So, I thought that it would be easy for me to slip into his office instead of going out and working elsewhere.
Which of the professions are challenging –Lawyer or Judge?
My years as a judge were more important to me. I think you can make a social change by your judgments on the basis of what your philosophy is. You can make a change In a way no other position can, I think.
Being a woman, was it advantageous to have this portfolio?
Women have a woman’s perspective. I really think—without talking about quotas— that the composition of the court should be representative of all of us in the society. If the composition of the court is not so, then I feel that an ordinary man is not likely to think that it is ‘my’ court. So, there should be women, minorities, people with disabilities, and so on. It should represent the society. We cannot get away with the fact that our society has castes. There should be a good mixture of everyone. Only then the ordinary ‘RK Laxman’ man would feel ‘this is my court’.
Can you share an incident in your career which made you feel proud of being a woman?
There are many such incidents. There are some cases where I felt that it was providential that it came up before me, because I could say what I think on that issue as a woman. Being a judge, I took part in several meetings here and abroad, where I could share my beliefs and my ideas. I would say I feel very happy (the word is not proud) to be a woman!
You want an incident. This is not a particular one but several times women have come up to me and said, "Ma'am, after reading about you, I too feel I can also start a career or pursue studies after some years at home." The fact that I had been taking care of home and family for 13 years before I started going to law college and the fact after so many years I could do 'something' in the public space, was important to the women. That made me very happy, as I said the word I would use is not ‘proud’. It is important for women to feel that at any stage they can do this.
What is your view on ‘woman empowerment’? Do you feel woman today are empowered enough?
Frankly, I really do not know what one means when they say ‘empowerment’. If we are talking about knowing one’s rights, I sometimes wonder if rural women know more. While I was a practicing lawyer, I had a client, a double graduate, who did not know what her husband was earning.
I understand woman empowerment to mean that a woman is in total control of herself, knows her physical autonomy, and is aware of her rights. It is not about something that we exert on another. When women become strong, they know what they are, their worth, and that they have charge over their mind and body—I would call this empowerment!
Two years ago, while addressing a group of educated girls on Women’s Rights, I learnt that they had not heard about the Domestic Violence Act. I said to them, ‘I am depressed that you do not know’. The Act has been widely discussed in newspapers so many times and it is surprising that they had not read about it. There have been jokes on it as well. Is it because we do not care? That was a moment of doubt for me. God forbid, I don’t want these girls to be abused. But, they should be able to lend their hands to their less fortunate sisters and for that they should know the law. Empowerment is not fighting, but knowing. It is knowledge and awareness.
About an insurance case that you judged, and the housewife’s economic contribution to the household. Can you elaborate on this please?
That was a case in which a young girl Deepika lost both her parents in an accident and her grandfather had therefore filed for compensation on her behalf. How we work out on the compensation is that – we give under various heads e.g some amount towards loss of love and affection, which is notional, and it varies. For monetary loss, we find out how much the breadwinner was earning and work out on an arithmetic calculation. It was easy to work out the loss because of the father's death based on his earning, but for the mother—a home maker—it was a notional value.
Against the award passed, the insurance company filed an appeal before the High Court, saying that they had paid too much already and it was anyway only one accident. It came up before the Division Bench presided by me and I said that actually for the child it was two accidents. Then suddenly, I said to the judge who was sitting with me, ‘if I do not talk about the value of a homemaker in this case, I will not get another opportunity.’ So, it was on a tangent I took up this issue. In fact the judgment reads "really this is a digression.." and starts the discussion on the value of a homemaker.
I realized that I had only some more time as a judge and I wanted to start this dialogue. I found four ways of calculating this and I spoke about it all, and we calculated the value of Deepika's mother's work choosing one of them since only for one of the methods there was evidence before us..
This case is now followed by all the Lower Court Judges handling motor accident cases. Fortunately, a subsequent case came up in the Supreme Court from another High Court in which the same issue was raised, and Supreme Court approved of the Deepika judgment saying it was an illuminating judgment. Homemakers have to be valued more in consonance with dignity.
Your comments on Anna Hazare’s Lokpal bill?
There are difficulties in the draft bill. But, for me I look at it as a moment in history when the society also came out in the open and declared that the evil of corruption must go. Everyone needs one totem pole to go around. Anna Hazare probably provided this. I hope it does not turn out to be just a seven day wonder and all of us would go back to our own work. Civil society should work and negotiate at removing the defects and improving the existing draft as it did in the RTI Act.