‘Biased’ towards a just cause

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For  Gyan Sudha Mishra, only the fourth woman judge of the Supreme Court, jurisprudence is as much about social justice as about personal freedom of expression, finds Shobhita Naithani

 

Gyan Sudha Mishra
Photo: Rajesh Kumar Sen

HER FINEST birthday gift came two days after she turned 61. On April 30, Gyan Sudha Mishra was sworn in as only the fourth woman judge of the Supreme Court of India since its inception in 1959. Though talks of her elevation began as early as 2007, soon after the retirement of Justice Ruma Pal (the third woman to become a judge of the Supreme Court), Mishra’s name, along with two other male judges, were approved only earlier this year by President Pratibha Patil.

Soon after her elevation, TEHELKA spoke to a source very close to Mishra, since the judge herself was advised against talking to the media.

A second generation judge (her father Satish Chandra Mishra was Chief Justice of Patna High Court between 1968 and 1970), Mishra began her practice in her native town Patna. “The reason for her becoming a lawyer wasn’t single-minded social reform,” says the source. “The endeavour was to take up a profession that could help the dispossessed get justice and also provide her freedom of expression and job satisfaction.”

Therefore, with a rapacious hunger to succeed as a lawyer, a profession considered unconventional for women in the 1970s, Mishra began practicing, first at the Supreme Court and later at the Bihar High Court. Her elevation as a judge of a high court came in 1994, exactly 24 years after her father’s retirement — a fact that Mishra, the only lawyer among her nine siblings, always points out in anticipation of questions about favouritism owing to her father’s standing.

That same year she moved to the Rajasthan High Court, where she served as a judge till 2008. Her judgments, say lawyers who have argued before her, were invariably about the ordinary people and their problems. Whether it was overturning a state government’s order to suspend over 500 government school teachers without formal degrees, or coming down heavily on the police to investigate cases of trafficked girls, or ruling against the shutting down of Christian missionary institutions on charges of conversion — Mishra’s concerns were clear. “She was open to other people’s opinion, a quality rare in a judge,” says Rajasthan High Court lawyer and PUCL president Prem Krishna Sharma.

But the biggest test was yet come. In July 2008, she was transferred to Jharkhand as the state’s first woman Chief Justice. Summing up her experience in a state as most challenging and most memorable, the source says that Mishra was so distressed about corruption in the state that she went to the extent of calling Jharkhand — ghotalakhand (land of embezzlement). “Given the experience as the Chief Justice of Jharkhand, in my opinion, the state needs a massive cleansing operation against corruption and other evils,” she had said in her last public address to the state. “She still cringes at the thought of corruption in that state,” says the source. “No government scheme is free of fraud there.”

After 15 years, Mishra is back to a place that is common to both her home and her work. Moving to the national Capital also means a long-awaited break from shuttling between different cities to be with her engineer husband and three daughters in the city. That apart, Mishra, who is a keen follower of news magazines and autobiographies, is looking forward to writing quality judgments. In the course of her four-year tenure one hopes she is as ‘biased’ as she is reputed to be — “towards justice,” as the source clarifies quickly.

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