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The Life and Legacy of M Fathima Beevi, India’s First Female Supreme Court Judge

Justice Beevi paved the way for female judges and advocates to enter the profession.

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On 23 November, the country lost its first woman judge of the Indian Supreme Court, Justice M Fathima Beevi, at the age of 96. 

She was also the first woman judge of the Supreme Court to be appointed as the Governor of a state, and was also awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the US-India Business Council.

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Early Life and a Supporting Family 

Born on 30 April 1927, in Kerala, Fathima Beevi completed her legal education when India was on the verge of independence from British rule, and her ambitions took flight thanks to the support of her family, who encouraged her to take up law as a career in the 1950s.

Born to Annaveetil Meera Sahib and Khadeeja Beevi, Beevi was the eldest of eight siblings and an earnest student. Her father, a government servant, encouraged both his sons and daughters equally to study well.

She pursued law from Government Law College in Kerala, following which she not only cleared the Bar Exam but also went on to become the first woman to achieve a gold medal in the Bar Council in 1950. 

Beevi began her practice in 1950 in a town called Kollam and broke the glass ceiling of  a male-dominated profession, which ultimately saw Indian women practising law in the courts - a sight to behold and admire. In India, the representation of women in different spheres - political, judicial, and social - has been a matter of concern since Independence. Justice Fathima came out as an example that people will remember forever. 

Here’s a timeline of her professional career: 

1950: She enrolled as an Advocate and began her career in the subordinate courts in Kerala.

1958: She was appointed as the Munsiff in the Kerala Sub-ordinate judicial services.

1974: She was promoted to the position of Chief Judicial Magistrate.

1974: She was promoted to the position of the District and Sessions Judge. 

1980: She was appointed as the Judicial Member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal.

1983: She was elevated to the Kerala High Court. 

1989: She was elevated to the Supreme Court of India where she served for three years and retired on 29 April 1992. 

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She was a Supreme Court judge for a short period where she dealt with many constitutional matters. In Scheduled Caste & Weaker Section Welfare Assn. v. State of Karnataka, a bench comprising Justice Beevi observed that, “...it is one of the fundamental rules of our constitutional set-up that every citizen is protected against exercise of arbitrary authority by the State or its officers. If there is power to decide and determine the prejudice of a person, duty to act judicially is implicit in the exercise of such power and the rule of natural justice operates in areas not covered by any law validly made.”

In the case of Assam Sillimanite Ltd. v. Union of India, where the court was determining the constitutionality of a state act/enactment, a bench comprising of Justice Beevi held, “Notwithstanding the declaration of the legislature that any particular Act has been made to implement the directives specified in Article 39, it would be open to the Court to ignore such declaration and to examine the constitutionality of the same. The declaration cannot be relied on as a cloak to protect the law bearing no relationship with the objectives mentioned in Article 39.”

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Fathima Beevi’s Political Sphere

In the historical landscape of Indian politics, Justice Beevi also went on to become the first woman Supreme Court judge to be appointed as a Governor. In the year 1997, she was made the Governor of Tamil Nadu by the then President of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma. During her tenure, she also rejected the mercy petitions filed by four condemned prisoners in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. 

There was an interesting turn in her political career as Governor. In the year 2001, during the state elections, AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) led by Jayalalithaa won the Assembly elections. It is pertinent to note that back then Jayalalithaa was convicted in a land scam case and in accordance with Section of the Representation of People Act, any person convicted for certain crimes, or a term more than two years was/is disallowed from contesting elections for the next six years. 

Fathima Beevi, in the same year, invited her to become the Chief Minister even though she did not contest the elections. The whole process was carried out after invoking Article 164 of the Constitution - a provision that allows a non-member of the state Legislature to become the Chief Minister. 

Fathima’s political career came to a halt in 2001 when she resigned from the post of Governor after the Union cabinet alleged that she failed to discharge her constitutional duties. Although Beevi released a statement about her resignation, she remained silent about the talks and criticism against her. The statement dated 02.07.2001 reads, “Politicians can trade charges and retaliate but a Governor cannot, at any point of time, seek to justify his acts being done in accordance with the Constitution and the law in the normal course of [the] discharge of duties." 

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A Legacy Left Behind

The life of Fathima Beevi not only left behind an impact on the bar but also on the bench. She paved the way for female judges and advocates to enter the profession, always believing that women should create their own paths. The issue of women's representation in the judiciary has been one of the most debatable topics in India's legal discourse. Although, we have an independent process to appoint judges to various courts (especially the Supreme Court and the High Courts), at present – the Indian Judiciary still signficantly lacks representation of women.

The said contention can be reflected through a report by the Supreme Court Observer (SCO), which found that in the 73 years of the Indian Supreme Court, there have been 268 Judges. Of these, only 11 Judges have been women.

So far, the apex court has not had a woman Chief Justice. If the principle of appointing the senior judge as the CJI is followed, Justice B V Nagarathna will be India’s first woman Chief Justice. However, her tenure as CJI will last only 36 days.

While paying tribute to her legacy, a short documentary titled Neethipathayile Dheera Vanitha (A Brave Woman on the Path of Justice) was directed by Priya Raveendran, and the script was written by R Parvathy Devi. 

While giving an interview to The Week about women's representation in the legal field, Fathima Beevi said:

 “There are many women in the field now, both at the bar and on the bench. However, their participation is meagre. Their representation is not equal to men. There is a historical reason for that… Women took to the field late. It will take time for women to get equal representation in the judiciary. When I went to Law College, there were only five girls in my class in the first year. The number went down to two or three in the second year. Today, in law colleges, we are seeing that a good percentage of the students are women.”

(Areeb Uddin Ahmed is an advocate practicing at the Allahabad High Court. He also writes on various legal and social issues. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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