In an extremely candid interview, Justice(Retd.) Ruma Pal talks about a wide array of issues, ranging from her connection to Kolkata and IDIA, to issues faced by women in the judiciary and about how, being the only woman in her college, no one wanted to sit with her in class, and how even judges didn't want to sit on a Division Bench with a female judge. With a touch of humour, she even spoke about how her introduction to law was entirely accidental, and how she actually wanted to be a doctor, but was told her eyesight was too weak for it. She ended the interview by suggesting that we take a selfie with her instead of a boring formal photograph.
Justice(Retd.) Ruma Pal, an alumnus of the University of Oxford, is a well-known face of the Indian judiciary, having served in the Supreme Court for 6 years, as well as the Calcutta High Court. In her illustrious term at the apex court, Justice Pal has deliberated on several pertinent issues in critical cases, especially in the field of human rights. Justice Pal is also recognised for her contribution to legal studies, by editing several textbooks, including the famous "Constitutional Law by MP Jain", a volume that is widely considered an authority on the subject. She was the Ford Foundation Chair Professor on Human Rights at NUJS, and was also a part of previous NUJS Executive Councils. She is also the Chancellor of Sikkim University, one of the trustees of IDIA, and a member of the "International Forum of Women Judges". She is also the founding member of the Asia-Pacific Advisory Forum on Judicial Education on equality law and an executive council member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW
Q. Can you tell us about your connection with the Kolkata? When you moved to Delhi after being elevated to the SC, did you miss the city?
A: Yes, very much. In fact, when I retired from the Supreme Court, I immediately came back to Calcutta the very the next day. I actually missed my husband the most. My home has always been in Calcutta. I've been a judge here for ten years, and unlike most of the other Chief Justices who have gone to other High Courts, I went directly from my parent High Court of Calcutta to the Supreme Court. Delhi was alright. My friends were there, B.N Srikrishna and all my colleagues, so I enjoyed that.
Q. Could you tell us about your early education and about your time at Shantiniketan?
A: I went to six schools(laughs). My father had a transferable job in the post and telegraphs. I was born in Assam, and then we were in South India, in Coimbatore. After that I moved to Chennai, followed by Lucknow, Mumbai and Delhi. After that we finally moved to Nainital.
Regarding Shantiniketan, I studied for my intermediate, that is my +2 there. I did it in one year. I had done senior Cambridge before that so I got a one year exemption. I was very ill, but nevertheless I took the exam and I topped it. Then I read for philosophy, which I majored in.
Q. Ma’am you were the only female student in your law college in Nagpur. From that time to now, where there are an equal number of girls pursuing law, what are your thoughts on the change?
A: Absolutely, I’m extremely happy to see the difference now. I went back to give a lecture in Nagpur and the number of students in the law college was enormous. That, compared to the time when I wasn’t permitted to sit in class because I was the only woman, has been a massive difference.
Q. How did you decide to take a career in law? What prompted you and how did you decide to do it?
A: People join legal education for various reasons. Accidentally in my case, parents in another case, peer pressure, or sometimes if you yourself choose to become a lawyer. It mostly falls within these categories. I actually wanted to become a doctor, but they said my eyesight was too weak. The kind of reading one has to do as a lawyer though, is incidentally more(laughs).
But law for me, was actually an accident. I had a fight with my mother so I stayed with my eldest brother, Shankar Ghose. Gosh was my maiden surname. He said “why are you fooling around doing nothing, there is a law college across the road, why don’t you join it?" When I joined, the principal first said I could not take the exam because I was a woman. Of course, I fought with him because I came from Shantinetakn where there was no disparity on grounds of gender. I said “nonsense I will sit in the classroom!” I was given a small little table next to the lecturer and then he would address the boys sitting on the benches. All the boys sat on the benches, but if I ever sat on one of the benches then the entire bench next to me would be empty. They would fall off the benches at the back, but not sit with me. It was that conservative in those days. But I was actually given a lot of importance because I was the only woman. Infact, when photos of the faculty were taken, I was brought in, even though I was just a student.
Q. Ma’am, you have been associated with IDIA and its activities. What do you think about diversity in National Law Universities currently?
A: IDIA is like an epidemic, you know. It has grown in such a fashion that you cannot imagine. It has capillaries everywhere, and it is growing bigger. Now that Shamnad is gone, one of the issues is who is going to be the managing trustee. Two trustees were Prof. MP Singh and myself. As I said in my lecture, I was in Banglore for a memorial service, where we discussed who should take over the organization. It was decided ultimately that there would be board of trustees. Prof. Singh and myself are aged and we would be out of our depth to deal with the complexities of the organization. It so widespread. I don’t have the time also. So Mr. Shishira Rudrappa would be the managing trustee and there would be a board that would help him. And of course, Prof Singh and I would be there, as long as we are there.
Q. Ma’am you mentioned that there is an increase in the number of women attending law schools. However, even though the corporate sector has a decent number of working women, do you still think there are structural barriers for women in litigation and judiciary? What do you think women can do to deal with this?
A: I think the main reason for a smaller proportion of woman in litigation, is that after law school, there is a huge drop-out rate for women. Some people get married or they join a law firm. Women prefer not opting for litigation because it is uncertain. Everyone wants an immediate return and hence they join these law firms.
Q. Just to add onto the previous question, are there any challenges you’ve faced as a woman in the judiciary?
A: When I became a judge, I was alone, since I was the only female judge, during my entire tenure of 10 years in the Calcutta High Court. But there was never any problem as such, since I wasn’t the first woman. The first women were Manjila Bose and all these people, and they had borne the brunt of all the discrimination that was prevelant. If there was a Division Bench, no one used to sit on that bench with a lady judge, so they all had to sit singly. So things like that existed, but by the time I came, there was no problem at all.
Q. We asked this question to Justice Chelameshwar as well, and we wanted to ask this to you too. There’s extensive data about lack of diversity in the judiciary, in terms of gender, caste etc, and that there’s an “unspoken way to select judges”. So what do you think about this phenomenon? Do you think diversity in the judiciary is an issue?
A: It is an issue, in the sense they go by two raw criteria. One is regional, and the other is religious. No one actually looks for caste. But it’s about the rule of preference, if there are two candidates, and one is a woman, it’s more likely that you’d get selected. For example, there were 4 of us who became judges on the same day; Justice Altamas Kabir, Justice Tarun Chatterjee, Justice AN Ray, and myself. But I was chosen to go directly to the Supreme Court, all my contemporaries, who were much younger than I was, became Chief Justices of High Courts, then they came to the Supreme Court. So they were much junior to me in the Supreme Court, since I went directly.
Caste on the other hand, is something very Hindu-specific, you don’t have caste in other religions. So you don’t look for caste while selecting judges.
Q. Do you have any advice for women who are aspiring to be part of the judiciary?
A: It depends. If you want to take the Bar way to the judiciary, then i think you should just take your chances at becoming a judge. But if you take the Judicial Services route, you’re bound to become a High Court judge at some point or the other. So, this is the advantage of taking that route. Or there’s even a lateral appointment route they’ve announced recently.
Q. Ma’am, you’ve been associated with NUJS in the past too, what do you think makes us stand apart?
A: Well, I really think that it’s good that students in NUJS take responsibility into their own hands. And alongside that, you’ve got an excellent Vice-Chancellor, and he’s trying very hard to revive the various research centers within the university. From KIIT, where you come to this enormous university, there are several issues that need to be addressed, which he’s trying his best to solve.
[This interview was conducted at The National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, one of the premier law universities in the country, where Justice(Retd.) J. Ruma Pal taught a Credit Course, titled "Fundamentals of Constitutional Law", from 15th-17th September 2019. The interview was conducted by the press team of the Student Juridical Association(the official student body of NUJS), comprising of Aakanksha Jadhav, Ayushi Thakur, Saieesh Kkamath and Tanishk Goyal from the Class of 2023.]