Prabha Sridevan's tenure as judge of the Madras High Court is marked with judgments that she recalls as precious. Her stand on many issues reflects her personality. An ardent crusader of women's empowerment, she believes empathy and understanding are not peculiar to women alone.
“Judiciary stands on the faith of the people. That is the only thing we have.” That is a statement coming after a great amount of contemplation from Prabha Sridevan — the fifth woman who served as Judge of the Madras High Court.
But then what does she feel about the state of the judiciary today? Is there a perceptible fall in standards? “Whatever decline we see in the judiciary is only a reflection of what happens in society. We must remember that persons who occupy positions in our court come from society. The ordinary man is hurt more if the judiciary fails. People can't escape the consequences if good cases are lost more so if it's a public issue and the public feels strongly that this is not how things should be.”
Ask Prabha Sridevan if she saw things differently as a woman judge and she turns pensive. “I am not very sure. Definitely the life experiences of a woman are very different from that of a man's. Therefore, a woman judge might look at issues differently. That said empathy and understanding are not peculiar to women alone. It all depends on the individual.”
Always maintaining a sense of balance and perspective in everything she says, Prabha adds “There have been some judgements which one might say I wrote because I am a woman. However, it would be most unfair to say that no man can deliver similar judgments.”
Referring to the judgment which insisted that a woman's work as home maker has to be assessed, and was described as illuminating by Justice Ganguly, she notes, “A homemaker's job is a 24x7 job, a thankless job, to ensure that the house runs but our work often goes unnoticed. There was yet another judgment in the case of two women who applied to be members of an Educational Trust and the district judge rejected their application (the District court is the scheme court for that Trust) on the grounds that they were not experienced) and instead threw it open to even male off spring of female descendants as opposed to only female descendants. I had applied the CEDAW guidelines. If public spaces are not occupied by women — the applicants were second to none in terms of experience and had worked hard to get where they had — it is a sad commentary. There should be equality of treatment.”
Yet another landmark “woman judgment” related to compulsory registration of marriages, “First of all it serves as proof of the marriage and proof of paternity and secondly it can be used as evidence for prosecution in case of a second marriage. No child will be left to wonder who his/ her father is in such complicated situations. It's also about the dignity of the woman. As per the Hindu Succession Act, children from a void marriage have a right to the property — but it leaves it entirely to the man to decide whom he will acknowledge.”
While she has been an ardent crusader for women's empowerment, Prabha is quick to point out “It is not as if I gave only women judgments. There were some very precious cases which I remember.” For instance one that she calls is the Da Vinci code Case — with the judgment supporting freedom of speech.
What may come as a surprise is that Prabha Sridevan took to law at the suggestion of her husband after marriage and motherhood. Acting on her husband's suggestion she graduated in law in 1983. From 1983-1993 she worked with her husband dealing with civil cases, writs and family court matters.
“He allowed me to grow. Like any junior whenever I had doubts I would go to him and he did what he would have done for anyone. There were times when I demanded that he teach me things. His way was to make me watch and observe him and learn.”
The untimely death of her husband when he was just 53 came as a big blow to Prabha. “It was something out of the blue. I was naturally angry and sad but someone I respect greatly told me to channel this emotion into something positive. First I thought I would look at women's issues; for instance I engaged myself with parents of mentally challenged girls and dialogued with them on the correctness of compulsory hysterectomies for their wards. Later, as a judge I realised that there is so much one could do for the ones who had not. The courts are really for them. So when a case came up when I could give expression to my thoughts and beliefs I hope I made the best of it.”
The versatile Prabha Sridevan is a woman of many interests having dabbled in writing and theatre. She even acted in a Madras Players production — a play by Maria Fornes in which she played the part of a maid. “I resented the fact that while the lady of the house could sit in a chair the maid had to be on her toes. Theatre makes you walk in the shoes of other people. A judge should walk in the shoes of others for only then you will understand the case.” More recently she translated verses from the Mahabharatha for the Madras Players production “Karna”.
Post retirement she teaches at the National Judicial Academy Bhopal, studies Sanskrit, attends music concerts and spends time with one of her grandchildren who lives in Chennai. She still writes but “hasn't decided what to do with it.”
As for teaching law she says, “I don't like to limit my teaching to the various sections. What I teach is the judicial attitude and temperament. While knowledge is important; attitude is the one thing that sets everything right.”
Does she have a word of advice for women? “On the one hand we want power and on the other hand we want protection. I have been fortunate in a lot of ways. Yes, I lost my husband but I had an education — a law degree — and my husband's family was great. These are advantages all women may not have. I don't want to pontificate but I think women should take charge. They should want to know, become aware of their rights and display indomitable courage. You never know when your chance might come but you should be ready for it.”