Prabha Sridevan, the fifth woman to become a judge of the Madras High Court talks to APARNA KARTHIKEYAN about her profession, passions and pursuits

Why is a women suspected of lying when she says she was raped, asks Justice Prabha Sridevan, former judge, Madras High Court. “The defence asks her very inconvenient questions. It calls for a detoxification, of all the mental baggage of myths and stereotypes, so that women can get justice at home, at work, and especially in courts.” In this freewheeling conversation, Prabha Sridevan — the fifth woman to become a judge of the Madras High Court — talks about her profession, passions and pursuits.

We start with the Delhi rape incident, which had the nation clamouring for justice, demanding fast-track courts and women’s police stations. “But if the persons who occupy these places are not sensitive, the purpose is defeated,” says Prabha. “When I became a judge,” she recalls, “an NGO called Sakshi called women High Court judges in India to Delhi for an equality education programme. I went on to become a trainer, and have been to several high-courts in India to train judicial officers. And this equality education helped me as a judge,” she says, recommending that the police, judges and Government officers, at all levels, undergo this training.

Pausing to pick the right words — Prabha’s literature background shines through in her incisive choices — she explains that dignity is all about treating another as an equal human being. “Why is it that when a man makes coffee at home, he is asked ‘you make the coffee here?’ in an insulting way? It is actually a wonderful thing! Once we change our society to be equal, automatically, everything will fall into place, and we will have a sensitive and enabling justice delivery system.”

But the system itself, right now, facilitates man’s progress rather than the woman’s, says Prabha. “If a young junior advocate works late into the night, even if she is not worried, people at home are concerned for her safety. If she’s a young mother, unless her home is a sharing home, she will be forced to go back early.” If this is the lot of the working woman, the homemaker’s is still more skewed. And it was recognising their role that Prabha pronounced a judgment — the first of its kind in the world — that took into account the homemakers’ contribution, when calculating monetary compensation for the death of a woman in a motor accident. “The judgemnt was discussed extensively, in the English and Tamil press; women came up to me in shops and said ‘you have given me a sense of worth’,” she says, adding that two of her male colleagues, admitted wishing they had given the judgment!

Her path-breaking judgemnts apart, Prabha’s personal journey has inspired countless women. “When they come to know that I went back to study 13-years after graduation, after marriage and children, they feel they too can do it!,” she smiles, adding that she herself was inspired by Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, a judge from the supreme court of Canada. “I was delighted to meet her in person at a women judges conference. I’m a confirmed letter writer, and I’m still in touch with her. You know, she always said ‘walk in their shoes’; and whenever a difficult situation arose in a case, I tried that.”

Being a judge also gave Prabha an opportunity to meet prisoners, HIV widows, destitute women. “I wanted to meet those whose lives are almost invisible to society, and know how the excluded feel,” she says.

It saddens her that we often forget about dignity. “So I want to write about how the right to dignity is ignored.” ” Currently the Chairman of Intellectual Property Appellate Board, Prabha came up with the motto, ‘Balancing IP Protection’, with which the Board seeks to protect intellectual property rights, while adhering to constitutional goals.” And such, indeed, is the power and reach of judiciary that judgments pronounced in a closed courtroom positively affects the lives of the underprivileged. Prabha illustrates it with a heart-warming incident. When she was a judge at the Madras High Court, Prabha met a person from Perumbalur district. “I had ruled that the Government’s resumption of land was correct, in a case where it was originally given to the oppressed classes and had been alienated, contrary to the original condition of assignment. This man, came to me and said, thanks to my ruling he was able to get back, for the oppressed classes, other lands that had been wrongfully taken away from them. He patted his shirt-pocket, and said he always carried the judgement there. I was very moved.”