Her passion for reading as a child cultivated the literary bug in her that would sail the young woman through her initial academic journey, until a day when the young English graduate contemplated the future course of her life. An inner churning of sorts drove her into recognising her innate sense of justice that she purposed herself to explore further. And in that moment of self-realisation, one of the nation’s forthcoming lady judges was born.
Rajputana Collective considers it its privilege and honour to be featuring Justice Abhilasha Kumari , an eminent legal advocate and reputed judge, most recently known for her service to Manipur as its first woman Chief Justice. With an exemplary record over three decades of judicial practice, Justice Abhilasha Kumari ’s story provides to be an inspiring tale of struggle, perseverance and the implications that India’s male-dominated work spheres have on its most able women. But awaiting one’s odds is a tale of the faint-hearted in an era when determinant women have begun to crack the glass ceiling. Justice Abhilasha Kumari demonstrates just how.
The decision to convert her academic pursuit from English literature to law resulted out of an epiphanic moment, wherein Abhilasha Kumari felt her innate sense of justice metamorphose more concretely into a career choice that now awaited her. She expresses that phase in hindsight in her own words: “I often thought about the inequities heaped by man upon man or by institutions upon individuals and felt deeply for the victims of any sort of injustice. The conviction grew within me that given the chance, I could serve the cause of justice.” Wasting no time, Abhilasha Kumari proceeded to complete her L.L.B. course at the Himachal Pradesh University before enrolling at the state’s High Court to commence formal practice in 1984.
The eldest daughter of Raja Virbhadra Singhji- the illustrious statesman and record-breaking ex-Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Abhilasha Kumari was born with the privilege of having the world as her oyster. Himachal Pradesh, in particular, was synonymous to her home turf. However, the young aspirant had willed it upon herself to achieve her dreams on her own merit and through contentions that she could call her own. “The earlier years were full of struggle but I persevered and was determined to make it on my own and not gain any advantage from the privileged background of my family. I walked to the court and took public transport till I could affort to purchase a Maruti 800 from my own earnings. Steadily, my practice increased and apart from private briefs, I was Standing Counsel for several government institutions, corporations and universities. I was also a Standing Counsel for the central government”, she elaborates.
After two decades of intense perusals of justice, Abhilasha Kumari was appointed as Additional Advocate General and later, as a Judge in the Himachal Pradesh High Court. The following year saw her being transferred to the Gujarat High Court, where she was conferred the status of a permanent judge. Abhilasha Kumari dedicated her esteemed discretion towards the honourable conduct of this post for twelve long years before being appointed as Manipur’s first women Chief Justice, albeit for a short tenure of 14 days due to her impending retirement. Even in this brief duration, Abhilasha Kumari ensured her tenure was as impactful as possible by packing each moment with significant work input. For example, she expedited some long-pending issues of the Manipur High Court, facilitated greater intra-judicial cooperation and even laid the foundation stone of the Manipur Judicial Academy, ending its wait of over ten years. “Those two weeks were memorable as I was determined to make every minute count administratively and judicially. I received so much respect and affection from the people of Manipur that my short tenure proved to be a very fruitful one”, says Abhilasha Kumari.
While seeming like a culmination, Abhilasha Kumari’s impeccably-maintained career as lawgiver was to find added sustenance in the domain of Human Rights law, which heralded her arrival earlier this year as the Chairperson of the Gujarat State Human Rights Commission, where Abhilasha Kumari currently adjudicates human rights’ law. Abhilasha Kumari summarises her journey thus far and says, “on the whole, my journey has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. It gave me deep satisfaction to advocate the cause of the underprivileged and financially weak. My years as a judge were deeply fulfilling. Each day, I reminded myself of the oath of office to decide without fear or favour, affection or ill will. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve the litigants within the constitutional framework. Looking back, I have no hesitation in saying that I gave up the reigns of judicial office with a clear conscience and no regrets. I now look forward to serving the society in the area of human rights.”
Based on Abhilasha Kumari ’s inspiring track record and almost linear professional ascend, one would ascertain her journey to be one fuelled with determination and backed by privilege. However, her more specific accounts of battling a male-dominated workforce as a female-aspirant of law point to the more subliminal nuances of gender-based discrimination across all levels of the legal framework of India. In other words, while it goes without saying that a larger number of women have entered into and excelled in legal professions, the glass ceiling is not limited to the corporate sphere alone. The Indian judicial system tries its female members in similar measures, wherein they are required to toil much harder than their male counterparts, regardless of the equality of merit across both genders.
As a matter of her personal experience, Abhilasha Kumari the rampancy of deeply-residing stereotypes and impediments in the nation’s judicial institutions despite their normative embrace of gender-neutrality. Abhilasha Kumari explains this further by stating, “Considering the demands of the legal profession and the long hours of work required to be put in by serious practitioners of law, it is much more difficult for women to sustain themselves in the profession than for men. In spite of this, women are making a name for themselves in the legal field, which is commendable. A subtle mindset prevails due to which women in the legal profession face several undersides of presuppositions and judgements. One has to prove one’s merit through sheer hard work and determination. This is unfortunately a fact. If a woman lawyer does well, she poses a threat and has to face all sorts of innuendos. Women have to persevere, be strong and ignore such behaviour. After all, merit and hard work cannot be hidden for long and is bound to be recognised in the end.”
These structural challenges notwithstanding, Abhilasha Kumari sincerely believes in strongly-willed women to be changing the course of history, to which the judicial domains are of no exception. According to her, an inclusion of a greater number of women in the nation’s higher levels of jurisdiction would help them attain the much-needed representation. She also proceeds to highlight a less gender-based structural deficits in India’s judicial system that severely hampers its optimum functioning, namely that of pendency. Due to several posts lying vacant across India’s high courts, Abhilasha Kumari points a chronic overburdening of the country’s judges in terms of the number of cases that they’re expected to handle. “Today each Judge does the work of three or four courts. The daily cause list before a single Judge contains 150-200 cases. It is not physically possible for a judge to complete it in a day, so a next date is given. In my experience, Judges work hard and burn the midnight oil. They even work at home on holidays”, Abhilasha Kumari adds. She proposes the filling up of the existing vacancies and raising the retirement age for High Court Judges as palpable solutions to the problem. As the former counters issues of burden and delays in delivering justice, the latter ensures a more sustained practice of high-quality jurisprudence by lawyers who are well ahead of a pre-assumed deterioration of their rational faculties. In combined action, Abhilasha Kumari ’s proposed solutions are also likely to provide reputed lawyers an incentive to join the Indian judiciary, for its added sense of security versus the lucrative benefits offered by private law firms.
As Abhilasha Kumari rightly points out, a dedicated service to the national law-adjudicating apparatus requires one’s utmost dedication and service that supersede material remunerations. It is no surprise that Abhilasha Kumari ’s journey as a law practitioner has consistently been in pursuit of a deep sense of satisfaction that she has attained as a result of advocating the cause of the underprivileged and the financially weak. Her selfless devotion to the causes of justice and an equitable access thereof bear a strong resonance in a concluding testimony, “I recall a client who was a retrenched daily wager and wanted to challenge his termination. He was in no position to pay fees. However, his self respect was such that he frequently brought small things such as a jar of ghee, which he insisted I accept. I did so with respect and made sure to use it in my puja. His happiness when the court ordered his re-engagement was only equal to mine!”
May India continue to be guided by committed and inspiring leaderships such as that of Justice Abhilasha Kumari’s. Rajputana Collective wishes her all the very best for her upcoming endeavours.