A farewell party was organised for the retiring district judge Yogesh Dutta Shukla in Madhya Pradesh’s Harda early this year. All the judges and officers came dressed in formals. There was some dancing too. Everything was going well until the naagin dance began.
Chief Judicial Magistrate Panjak Jaiswal, who was doing the signature naagin step, was joined on the floor by two women civil judges from the 2018 batch. The dance video went viral, and it raised public ire and questions of decorum and the judiciary’s image.
The next day, the city woke up to the news that ‘female judges grooved to the naagin step’— ‘Mahila judges ne lagaye thumke.’ Major newspapers splashed screen grabs on front pages. YouTube channels replayed the viral video. And news anchors outdid each other in expressing outrage.
“Will the stern Chief Justice [of Madhya Pradesh] Ravi Malimath take any action?” asked anchor Neha Kaur on SS News Channel. A local Hindi daily, Dainik Report, ran with the headline, ‘Naagini aur naagin dance karna judges ko pada mehnga.’ Judges bear the cost of doing the naagin dance.
A week later, the dancing judges were suspended and the Madhya Pradesh High Court ordered an inquiry. Months after their suspension, the women judges were transferred to different district courts.
This is not an isolated incident. Social media addiction is taking a toll on the careers of the young district and high court judges. Some are punished. Others get warnings. But the friction between the new age magistrates and the old guards is challenging traditional notions of how judges conduct themselves in public.
Moral policing of women aspirants
The generational shift in the judiciary isn’t just a simple old-vs-young problem. With more and more young women joining the army of judges in small-town district courts over the past decade, this is taking on a different form. Some even call it ‘moral policing’ of women.
Here’s what happened at another farewell party. This time in Rajasthan.
In 2021, when the Jodhpur judicial academy held a farewell party for the trainee judges, one of them danced to Sapna Chaudhary’s hit songs such as ‘52 gaj ka daman’ and ‘Chatak matak.’
Her roommate recorded a video and shared it on a WhatsApp group. Within days, the video was being circulated among the highest ranks of the Rajasthan High Court. This time, the female trainee judge was not suspended.
The Rajasthan High Court itself did not take any formal action or issue circulars to coaching institutes. But a male retired high court judge stepped in with a stern message to judicial coaching centres.
“We were told, ‘Instil values in aspirants during coaching itself and tell them to stay away from social media’,” said MK Singh, who runs a coaching institute in Jaipur.
Almost all judicial coaching centres collaborate with retired high court judges to conduct mock interviews with aspirants. The message spread from one centre to another by word of mouth.
Singh himself witnessed this growing tension up close when he uploaded the videos of successful Rajasthan Judicial Service 2022 candidates’ mock interviews last month on his YouTube channel.
“One young woman’s 13-minute-long video got almost a million views. But the next video, which featured another successful candidate, got 4,500 views only. And soon I got a call from the woman. She requested me to either take down the video or disable the comments section,” said Singh.
Some spewed venom and a few commented in praise, but most of them—all men—fantasised about being arrested and produced before her in court. ‘Beauty with brains, I didn’t know judges are this beautiful’ was one of the comments that Singh recalls. The comments section of the video has since been disabled.
“Social media is good for discussion on legal issues and trends in legal thinking. It should not degenerate into a platform for vilification or ridiculing any judge. It should be remembered that judges too are human and have sensitivities like any one of us,” said former Supreme Court judge Madan B. Lokur. “It’s time we get rid of the patriarchal or condescending mindset among judges, lawyers and the people.”
Also read: Bangs, lipstick, low neckline—for Indian woman lawyers, merit evaluation steeped in misogyny
Operating from anonymous handles
In the cut-throat ecosystem of competitive examinations, a majority of students steer clear of social media. It affects judicial aspirants much more. When candidates make the cut for other sought-after services such as IAS and IPS, they instantly become social media celebrities.
Judges, especially women entrants to the judiciary, do not have as much leeway on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The oft-used line that provides indemnity to an employer— ‘views are personal’—does not work with the judiciary.
One young judge from Uttar Pradesh said she prefers LinkedIn where she presents a ‘more acceptable’ version of herself—one that is expected of a judge. But she can’t help but draw comparisons with her male peers who are not under such intense scrutiny.
“Look at the public profiles of my male contemporaries. It’s as if they are building their marriage biodata to attract the most suitable offers,” she said with a laugh.
It’s accepted if a male judge decides to flex his biceps and lift weights in a gym. But a female judge will think twice before posting an image or a glimpse of her personal life on social media.
These double standards are embedded in the system right from the word go. A civil judge from Bihar recalls how during a mock interview at a coaching centre–when she was an aspirant—she was asked a “bizarre question.”
“They wanted to know what my answer would be if the panel asked me what kind of clothes I would wear at a beach. Would I wear a swimsuit?” All through the mock interview, she kept wondering whether the question was necessary for a judgeship exam.
Some thrive, and some hide. Young male judges flex and flaunt on social media with much more ease.
Harshit Sharma, an additional civil judge in Rajgarh, Alwar district court, and a 2020 Rajasthan Judicial Services (RJS) officer, has cultivated a huge online following. And many of his batchmates have identical profiles, hashtags, and posts.
Some of the more popular hashtags are ‘call of duty’, ‘nation first’, ‘Satyamev Jayate’ etc. Their profiles give followers a peek into their private moments such as their celebration of judicial training, gala dinners with officers, field tours, meetings with bureaucrats, first postings, and a glimpse of their chambers and selfies with batchmates.
RJS officer Mayank Pratap Singh with 14,000 followers on Instagram shares similar posts, but with a nod to fashion.
Sharma’s Instagram account has more than 11,000 followers who get glimpses of him working out in the gym, running marathons, working on a judge’s desk, and his formal outings when he’s suited and booted. Many aspire to lead this life. Unlike a female judge on Instagram, the young male judge is a role model.
“You are my ideal, sir (sic),” reads one comment on Sharma’s post. “You always motivate us. One day, I will also sit in such a chamber,” reads another.
Also read: ‘Baby bail’ brouhaha, lessons on life & love — how live streams are winning HC judges a fandom
Navigating small towns
Not too long ago, being posted in a rural district court meant there was no opportunity for young judges to unwind in public and socialise. That is now changing. Small towns are buzzing with economic activity and entertainment hotspots like restaurants; malls are also coming up. There are more and more avenues for young judges to chill.
But here, too, gender bias comes into play. It isn’t all easy for female court entrants to navigate the small towns.
“There is one cafe and one restaurant. I called a friend to meet and as we sat there having dinner, I saw some familiar faces,” shared a young female judge. The chatter and laughter from the table made her uncomfortable.
“Later, I realised they were lawyers who appeared in my court daily,” another young female judge said.
That was her last visit to that restaurant.
This is part of a series on women judges in India’s lower judiciary. Read all the articles here.
This article has been updated to reflect the name of the retired Madhya Pradesh judge correctly. The error is regretted.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)