A Judge’s Journey to the Highest Court: Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai

Bar & Bench December 22 2018
Justice (Retd.) Ranjana Prakash Desai

Justice (Retd.) Ranjana Prakash Desai

I am often asked how smooth my journey to the highest court in the country was. I want to answer that question today. It was very difficult at times, even turbulent, making me wonder whether it was a mistake to enter this profession. A few kind individuals and my determination saw me through. I feel that if I speak about my experiences, that will have the desired impact. It may perhaps benefit my sisters in the legal profession.

In any society, it is difficult for a woman to achieve her goal. This was more so when I began my career in 1973. At that time, there were very few women lawyers in the Bombay High Court, and the successful amongst them could be counted on the tips of one’s fingers. I can name three of them whom I admired the most - Justice Sujata V Manohar, who later became a judge of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Sohini Nanavati, and Mrs. Kusum Hariani. They inspired me. I remember how I used to walk up to the Original Side Library to see them sitting at the table working on their briefs. I wondered whether I would ever be like them.

I was fortunate to have parents with a liberal outlook. I have no brother. We were three sisters brought up in a free environment. We were encouraged to speak on any subject, we had the liberty to oppose our parents, and the liberty to move freely in society. No questions were asked; no restrictions placed. My father, Shamrao Samant, was a distinguished criminal lawyer. My mother, Sharayu, was a highly educated lady. She held a major in Western Philosophy and a degree from the prestigious Wilson College of Bombay.

Surprisingly, when I passed my LL.B. examination and declared that I want to become a lawyer, my father opposed my decision. This came as a shock to me. From my maternal side, I was a third- generation lawyer. My grandfather, Mr. TN Walavalkar, had a good civil practice on the Appellate Side of the Bombay High Court. My maternal uncles also established successful practices. Several of my cousins continue to practise in the Bombay High Court. Surprisingly, my maternal uncle Mr. VT Walavalkar, a senior lawyer, was also not too happy about my decision to join the legal profession.

A criminal lawyer himself, my father was only being protective of me. He asked me whether I would be able to deal with the kind of people who came to his office. He suggested that I join the London School of Economics for further studies. I remember the day when I wanted to accompany my father to court. He was not keen to take me with him. I was shattered. At that time, it was my mother who stood by me. She said that if I wanted to practise law, no one could stop me, not even my father. She told me that if I had made up my mind, I should go to the Bar Council, take my sanad and start practice.

So I went all by myself to the Bar Council, completed the formalities and took my sanad. Thereafter, it was my mother who constantly encouraged me. She wanted us sisters to excel in the field of activity we chose for ourselves. To some extent, we fulfilled her aspirations.

I had a similar encounter with my father-in-law, Dr. Amul Desai. He was very kind to me. But once he told me that there was no need for me to practise. He advised me to concentrate on managing the family property. I was again shattered. Another woman stood by me at the time. My mother-in-law, Indira Desai, heard what my father-in-law had said to me. She firmly told me not to give up on the legal profession. For her encouragement at that critical time, I am grateful to her.

After my father’s resistance, my mother suggested I go and sit in the chamber of her cousin, Barrister Malati Patil, who was to leave for USA. I began my career alone from a small room on the 4th floor of Yusuf Building, Fort, Bombay. The chamber was full of books. Bands and a gown were neatly kept ready for me. But there was no work. I was not practising for money. God was kind. I needed no money but I wanted work. I sat in the huge office of my aunt waiting for some work.

Fortunately, one man showed some confidence in me. He wanted me to file a bail application for a person who had overstayed in India. He offered a fee of Rs.35/-. I was delighted to land my first brief. As luck would have it, the Magistrate rejected the application. I was very disappointed. Everyone around me except my mother, was opposed to my practice. I was determined to make it. The man who briefed me for the bail application asked me whether I could take the matter up to the High Court. I readily agreed. He increased my fee to Rs.45/-.

I appeared before Justice SK Desai. In the Bombay High Court, at the time, his court was the most difficult in the sense that though one knew that justice would be done, one could not be sure how the judge would treat you. Being a brilliant judge, he expected precise arguments and would fly into a temper at shoddy work. I will never forget the day when I stood in that court – a slip of a girl, trembling at the thought of the judge, throwing my application into the dustbin. I argued and the judge granted my client bail. My modest career began there.

Thereafter, my father was all for my practice. I attended several sessions cases conducted by him. I assisted him, but never joined his chamber. I am grateful to my father for the liberal education that he gave us. I learnt from him the value of hard work. He would pour his heart into every case he took on. He worked 18 hours a day and told me that hard work would not kill me but no work was sure to ruin my health. I have tried to emulate him. I do not know how far I have been successful.

My parents set very high standards of behaviour for us. I was always conscious of the fact that even a slight deviation from the path of rectitude would not be tolerated by them. There was no compromise on the basic requirements of honesty, integrity and impeccable character. That upbringing has stood me in good stead.

My school, Bal Mohan Vidya Mandir at Shivaji Park, imbibed in me values of simplicity, honesty, integrity and a deep understanding of the reality that one cannot segregate oneself from the common man and woman, whom one must serve. My life changed when I joined Elphinstone College. A great college where Dr. Ambedkar, Dr. Homi Bhabha, Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Jamsetji Tata, Mr. Seervai, and many such stalwarts studied. I can never compare myself with any of those stalwarts. But I am proud of the fact that I studied in an institution which gave this country such stalwarts. The Government Law College, Mumbai, which I joined after graduation, is equally a great institution and some of my fellow students are now on the Bench.

Coming back to my profession, I must also speak about my unsuccessful stint of a year and half on the Original Side of the Bombay High Court, where I was sent by my father after he realized that I had the potential to be a good lawyer. But in those days on the Original Side, work moved in circles and outsiders, particularly a young woman like me stood no chance. I had to return to the Appellate Side where I had my roots. But time spent on the Original Side had its own benefits. The Original Side has its own style and sophistication. Scholarship, erudition, and the crisp language of some of the counsel on the Original Side had a marked impact on my mind.

Justice Pratap, who later went on to become Chief Justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, played a great role in shaping my career as a lawyer. Once, when I was arguing a civil revision application before Justice Apte, Justice Pratap, then at the Bar, happened to be in the Court. That evening I received a call from him. He mentioned that he was likely to be elevated and asked whether I would join his chamber. I was thrilled. I started attending his chamber. That was a take-off point in my career.

Justice Pratap gave me a range of matters to argue, both civil and criminal. Justice Ajit Shah, who later rose to be Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, was my chamber colleague. Both of us worked together on a number of briefs. During that time, I had occasion to brief many stalwarts of the Bombay Bar. Some memories are etched in my heart.

I remember having instructed senior Mr. Andhyarujina, Mr. TR Andhyarujina’s father, in a Rent Act case. It was a great experience. I earnestly briefed him on all the points raised in the petition. Mr. Andharujina was an authority on the Rent Act. It was like taking coals to Newcastle. Obviously, he knew it all but he patiently heard me out. It was quite late in the evening. After the conference was over, he smiled, and in his typical Parsi accent and kindness, an inseparable attribute of a Parsi, asked me how I would make my way home. He was concerned about my safety and insisted on getting his driver to take me home. I was touched. Such were the caring seniors at the Bar.

I had occasion to work with Mr. VR Manohar, Advocate General of Maharashtra, Mr. Bobde, father of Justice SA Bobde, who was also Advocate General of Maharashtra, Mr. Jethmalani, and other such seniors. I appeared with them and later opposed some of them. Each one of them taught me something new.

It was during this period that I opposed Mr. Ramrao Adik, another senior lawyer of the Appellate Side, who later rose to be the Law Minister of the State of Maharashtra. It was Mr. Adik who appointed me as an honorary Government Pleader in the High Court. In that office, I got the opportunity to deal with all types of cases involving important questions of law. But, even there, life was not easy.

I remember the day when my appointment as Additional Government Pleader was expected, purely through the dint of my hard work. A person much junior to me, whom I used to guide even in drafting affidavits, came to be appointed instead. I wrote out my resignation letter and was about to tender it when I received a call from Mr. VR Manohar, the then Advocate General of State of Maharashtra. He told me that he had received information that I was tendering my resignation. I said that indeed, I wanted to resign because I felt humiliated. Mr. Manohar said to me,

“Ranjana, this is our society. Mindsets will never change. Please do not tender your resignation. I see a great future for you.”

He was able to persuade me against tendering my resignation. His prediction came true and I was appointed Government Pleader of the Appellate Side. But, later I learned that even at that stage, there was opposition. Doubts were expressed as to whether I would be able to deal with so many police stations in Maharashtra and whether I would be able to sit till late into the evening in the office because there was a great pressure of work. Some well wishers stood by me and thus, I was appointed as the Government Pleader. It is from that office that I was elevated to the Bench of the Bombay High Court. That office was a stepping stone to judgeship.

Just as judgeship came, my mother was struck with Alzheimer’s disease. I do not know whether she understood that I had become a judge. But to her I owe an enormous debt. As I was growing up, it was my mother who single-handedly took care of the house. Busy outside Bombay with big sessions court cases, my father was hardly at home. As children, my sisters and I were never taken out of Bombay for vacations. As a little girl, I once asked my mother when she would take me to Delhi. She was busy with her domestic chores. She looked at me sternly and said,

“[Y]ou must go to Delhi only if the President calls you. Go, do your work.”

When the warrant of my elevation to the Supreme Court came so many years later, tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought of what she said. She was the woman who set the goals for us.

I must now come to the Bombay High Court. Each High Court has, in its own way, contributed to the development of law in this country. As a judge of the Supreme Court, I feel that all the High Courts of the country are my own. But as I demit office, memories of the Bombay High Court flood my mind. I would fail in my duty if I do not salute the Bombay High Court. The Bombay High Court taught me the value of hard work. It imbibed in me a work culture which helped me in the highest court in the land. There was and there always is a perfect equation in the Bombay High Court between the Bar and the Bench. The Court functioned exactly by the clock and judges apologized to the Bar if they came late. There were great judges like Justice Tulzapurkar, Justice Chandurkar, Justice Madan, Justice Lentin, Justice Mukherjee, Justice GN Vaidya, and Justice SK Desai to name a few. I also had the pleasure of appearing before Justice Mohta.

As juniors, we sat in the Chief Justice’s court and listened to the erudite arguments of Mr. Nariman, Mr. Sorabjee, Mr. Andhyarurijina, Mr. Chagla, Mr. Rafiq Dada, and so many others. As seniors, they were protective of us but never spared us when we committed mistakes. As a judge, I had the good fortune of sitting with the finest judges. I sat with Chief Justice YK Sabharwal, Chief Justice MB Shah, and Chief Justice CK Thakker. I also shared the Bench with Justice AV Savant.

The three years and one month spent in the Supreme Court were the best part of my career. Time just flew. My brother and sister judges were very kind and friendly towards me. I shared the Bench with Justice Aftab Alam for almost half of my tenure. I always felt that I was sitting with an English Judge. He talked less, but his silence was eloquent. His interruptions were meaningful. He taught me how to conduct the court proceedings with dignity. I do not know how far I have succeeded, but I have tried to follow him. Once in jest, I told Justice Alam that if I write an autobiography, there would be a chapter on him. He said to me,

“[P]artner, a footnote will do”.

Partner, today I can say that I may have to devote a few chapters to you. I was fortunate to have spent so much time with you on the Bench.

I also shared the Bench with Chief Justice Dattu. I learnt how to deal with the heaviest matters in the shortest possible time and I realized that behind the tough exterior, there is a kind man. I shared the Bench with many of my brother judges and I enjoyed every bit of it. I had great stints with Justice Lokur and Justice Ramana.

We are all proud to be Indians, but, I did not know the true meaning of ‘being an Indian’ till I came to the Supreme Court. I saw my country in its true colours here. I was never parochial. But, if there was even a shred of any parochial tendency in me, it got washed away here. I saw lawyers coming from Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab & Haryana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, all with their typical accents, just as I have a Marathi accent. I realized what great talent there is in every state of our country. We are such a beautiful mix. The Supreme Court made me realize how little I knew of the law and perhaps an entire lifetime is not sufficient to learn the law. My experience truly humbled me.

I learnt a lot from the Bar. If there were points arising out of a law totally new to me, the Bar was patient with me. I went back to read and the matter progressed beautifully. The Bar gave me a great deal of affection. Perhaps, at times, I might have been harsh to some and as I demit office, I ask for forgiveness. In this last court, the knowledge that there is no one above to correct a mistake I may have made, that my pen might do injustice to someone, brought immense pressure on me. But, as one judge in the Bombay High Court told me in the early years of my career, a judge should not have a vacillating mind. A judge must take a decision. That is exactly what I did and left the rest to God.

I must acknowledge the support my family gave me in this journey. My elder sister, Dr. Rekha Pandya, based in the U.K., stood by me like a rock. Her husband, Dr. Suresh Pandya, and her daughter, Dr. Priyada were always there for support. My younger sister, Kirti Gupte’s contribution has been immense. When our mother was struck with Alzheimer’s disease, she sacrificed her precious time and career to take care of her. She took over the entire responsibility and never allowed me to stay at home, even for a day, to look after our mother. Without her support, I would not have made the strides that I did. I don’t think I can ever repay her debt. That is a debt which will always remain unpaid. Her husband, Milind Gupte has been a great support.

I must also mention the contribution of Mr. and Mrs. Vaidya, who were like parents to me. I have no words to express my husband’s contribution to my life and career. He has a lion’s share in my success. I have also deprived my son, Mike, of my company when he really needed it, but he makes no grievance about it.

My tenure in the Supreme Court was very short, but I am thankful to the Almighty. I was given the opportunity to serve the people in this highest court, which has shaped the destiny of our country. God gives you as much you deserve. Perhaps I deserved only this much and nothing more. Judges have come and gone. Their photographs still hang in the Supreme Court. I have already seen the corner where my photograph will be hung. I may be forgotten, but for me, it has been a great experience. All those who have interacted with me will have a place in my heart and their fond memories will be my companion till the day my memory serves me right.

This piece was originally published as an article in the Women and the Law edition of The Indian Advocate, the journal of the Bar Association of India. It contains excerpts from Justice Desai's speech at the farewell event organized by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) in her honour.