India Hasn’t Had a Woman Chief Justice Yet and We Might Not Get One Until 2027. Here’s Why


India Hasn’t Had a Woman Chief Justice Yet and We Might Not Get One Until 2027. Here’s Why

Illustration: Arati Gujar

While India might have already had a woman Prime Minister and President, the representation of women in the judiciary is dismal. India has never had a woman Chief Justice of India, a fact pointed out by Attorney General K K Venugopal to the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Improving the representation of women in the judiciary could also go a long way toward a more balanced and empathetic approach in cases involving sexual violence, he told the court. It’s about time.

Venugopal pointed out that the Supreme Court currently has only two women judges against a sanctioned strength of 34 judges. A bench of Justices A M Khanwilkar and S Ravindra Bhat was told by Venugopal that currently no data is centrally maintained on the number of women in tribunals or lower courts. “The goal must be to achieve at least 50% representation of women in all leadership positions,” he said.

Furnishing the data in his written submission, he said there are only 80 women judges out of the total sanctioned strength of 1,113 judges in the High Courts and the Supreme Court. That’s an embarrassing 7.18 per cent. However, even out of the 80, there are only two in the Supreme Court, and the other 78 are in various High Courts.

Venugopal suggested that data should be collected from all High Courts, lower courts and tribunal, and efforts should be made for greater representation of women at all levels of the judiciary. “Of the 26 courts whose data was accessed, including the Supreme Court, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has the maximum strength of women judges (11 out of 85 judges) in the country, followed by the Madras High Court (9 out of 75 judges). There are eight women judges in both Delhi and Bombay High Courts,” his submission stated.

At six High Courts – Manipur, Meghalaya, Patna, Tripura, Telangana, and Uttarakhand, none of the sitting judges include a woman. And this low representation of women also extends to politics.

Economist Shamika Ravi pointed out that it took us 50 years to triple the proportion of women legislators across our state assemblies. Yet, they remain less than 10 per cent on average.

Aware of the poor representation of women, the SC Collegium is planning to recommend two names for elevation to fill the existing vacancies in the apex court. One of the names doing the rounds is that of Karnataka High Court judge B V Nagarathna. If she is elevated to the top court now, she will be in line to become the first woman Chief Justice of India in 2027 for a period of eight months.

However, if Justice Nagarathna doesn’t get elevated to the Supreme Court, which comes with a three-year extension, she will retire in October 2024.

While this is encouraging news, it’s not good enough. As Venugopal pointed out, improved representation must percolate to all levels of judiciary and not merely be a headline statement for the top courts. If roughly 50 per cent of the population is women, the representation in the judicial system cannot be around the 10 per cent mark. As politics, entertainment, sport, and boardrooms around the world get more diverse, the courts of Indian cannot afford to be left behind.