New Delhi: An icon, a role model for young lawyers, a judge whose career will leave a long-lasting impact on judiciary, one of the finest judges of the Supreme Court — this is how Justice Indu Malhotra was described by her colleagues as well as senior members of the Bar on her last day in office.
Elevated to the Supreme Court on 27 April, 2018, the judge demitted office Friday, after a short tenure of less than three years. She was a practising advocate in the Supreme Court prior to her being appointed as a judge.
As part of tradition, Justice Malhotra held court with the Chief Justice of India (CJI) on her last day of work. CJI S.A. Bobde couldn’t help but reminisce about the first time the judge appeared before him as a lawyer. CJI Bobde had then just got appointed to the apex court.
“When Justice Malhotra appeared, she would not stop her arguments and so I asked my colleague why she wasn’t stopping. I was told she prepares well so that she cannot resist telling everything she knows,” CJI Bobde said, after the short list of business before the bench got over.
Justice Malhotra, who always maintained a calm and tough exterior, was choked with emotion when the CJI added that he doesn’t know a finer judge than her.
In her parting speech, the judge said she is leaving with a great sense of satisfaction, despite having a short tenure in the apex court.
Just as she overwhelmed her colleagues on the bench with her commitment, dedication and honesty as a judge, Justice Malhotra had carved out a space for herself even in the corridors of the Supreme Court, often seen as a male-dominated area.
The expert in arbitration law
Known for her expertise in arbitration law, Justice Malhotra was equally passionate about fighting matters related to public interest.
Her persuasive skills as a lawyer prompted the apex court to push the government to frame guidelines for the protection of good samaritans, who come to the aid and rescue victims of road crashes. These guidelines were later approved by the top court, making it mandatory for all states to follow them.
In the words of CJI Bobde, Justice Malhotra was a hardworking and meticulous lawyer and carried these qualities to the bench, as she was always thorough with her case files.
As a judge, Justice Malhotra was firm, but at the same time patient and compassionate. She always believed in giving opportunities to junior members of the Bar and never hesitated from voicing her dissenting view, even while sitting as a puisne judge on the Bench.
Her opinion was the lone dissent in the Constitution Bench judgement that permitted entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, which traditionally barred entry of women in the age group of 10-50 years. Justice Malhotra was the only woman judge on the five-judge bench that delivered the verdict.
On Friday, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal appreciated and praised Justice Malhotra for propounding “constitutional morality” in her judgement.
The judge had struck an emotional chord with a packed courtroom when she read out her opinion in the Section 377 case. “History owes an apology to the members of this community and families, for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism,” she said.
A constitution bench, including Justice Malhotra, had decriminalised consensual sexual intercourse between two adults of the same sex.
The judge was also part of the constitution bench that unanimously declared section 497 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) – adultery – unconstitutional.
Justice Malhotra’s career — from a lawyer to a judge — was quite an eventful one.
She herself professed on Friday that she had in the past thrice declined offers for judgeship — once for Gujarat HC and twice for Delhi — due to personal reasons.
But she accepted it the fourth time in 2018, thinking it was her destiny.
A short Supreme Court tenure
Justice Malhotra’s tenure is one of the shortest by the eight women judges who have been appointed to the SC since 1950. But her elevation created history, as she was the first woman advocate to directly become a Supreme Court judge.
However, the glass ceiling was broken way back in 2007 when she was designated as a senior advocate in the apex court, then the second only woman to get the honour from the judges of the Supreme Court.
Before she took up law as a career in 1983, Justice Malhotra taught students political science in a Delhi college in the 1970s.