NEW DELHI: Pushpa Kapila Hingorani, the lady behind many movements;one of the first legal luminaries of India;a pioneer in the use of public interest litigation on behalf of women’s movements; an indefatigable and militant advocate for women’s rights, took her last breath on 31st December morning.
Kapila Hingorani, who more than three decades ago became the first woman lawyer to file a public interest litigation on behalf of voiceless under-trial prisoners in Bihar to earn the title ‘Mother of PIL’, has passed away.
She was 86. In her nearly 60 years practice as advocate, she and her three practicing lawyer children – Aman, Priya and Shweta, have fought more than 100 cases in the Supreme Court voicing concern through PILs for the poor, tortured and remedy-less before the judiciary.
Pushpa Kapila attended the University College Cardiff in 1947 to study English, Economics and History before embarking on her pioneering work as a lawyer in India. But her journey to a UK University was not an easy one. ‘I was born in a community where the question of girls going abroad was not even considered. My mother thought I should get married and settle down, but, my father, a social reformer, who was educated himself, encouraged me to apply to Cardiff’, she once said.
At one time, Hingorani had petitioned on behalf of 11 victims of dowry cases registered with the police. The fight culminated in the court directing the setting up of special police cells to deal exclusively with crimes against women. She also fought for the prohibition of the devadasipractice in Karnataka in 1983, setting up family courts in India and was a spokesperson for theaamjantaof Bharat.
In a landmark case which saw the emergence of Public Interest Litigation in India, later known to every law student in India as Hussainara Khatoon case, was the first PIL in India. 31 years hence, she cascaded the apex courts with PILs.”The success of the Khatoon case was so widespread that the Supreme Court in the 1980s opened a new section in the Registry devoted to PILs. Officers used to sift through the incessant bombardment of letters or petitions from citizenseveryday and choose the ones which should be brought to the court’s attention,” Hingorani had said.
In her words, “I petitioned for them in court, alongside my husband, and as a result some 40,000 were freed. Then, there was the horrific case of the Bhagalpur Blindings where the police had blinded 33 suspected criminals using needles and acid. The Supreme Court directed prosecution of the erring officers for this ‘barbaric act for which there is no parallel in civilised society’, terming it to be a ‘crime against the very essence of humanity’.”
The court in 1979 laid down important guidelines on under-trial prisoners in Khatoon case. It had said: “A procedure which keeps large number of people behind bars without trial for long,cannot possibly be regarded as ‘reasonable, just or fair’ so as to be in conformity with the requirement of Article 21 (right to life). It is necessary, therefore, that the law as enacted by the Legislature and as administered by the courts must radicallychange its approach to pre-trial detention and ensure ‘reasonable, just and fair’ procedure.”
“Speedytrial is of the essence of criminal justice and, therefore, delay in trial by itself constitutes denial of justice,” it had said. Importantly, the apex court for the first time talked of the necessity of free legal aid to poor persons to make the justice system mount a meaningful protection of their rights.
It had said: “Free legal services to the poor and the needy is an essential element of any ‘reasonable, fair and just’ procedure. A prisoner whois to seek his liberation through the court’s process should have legal services available to him.”
Eight years after the judgment, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) was constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 to provide free Legal Services to weaker sections
of the society and to organize Lok Adalats for amicable settlement of disputes.
The second most important PIL, which Hingorani herself filed in the SC, related to denial of salary to thousands of employees of Bihar government ranging from 4 months to 94 months. She alleged that hundreds of government employees have died of penury actuated poverty.
If in Hussainara Khatoon case, the intervention of the apex court was swift resulting in release of thousands of under-trial prisoners, Hingorani had to wage a long legal battle pro bono to convince the Supreme Court to force the Bihar government to pay salaries and its arrears.
She worked extensively in areas as diverse as human rights and Constitution. Her career involved fighting nearly a 100 cases, many of them dealing with police torture, dowry crimes, gender discrimination and child labour, that brought relief to millions. She was restless with a spirit which never lacked motivation. After a successful career, when askedwhether she is looking forward to retirement, she had famously said, ‘Lawyers never retire! I will continue my work in Public Interest Litigation and have yet to finish my book on this subject’. And as she said, her work never retired for the movements she led and the causes she mothered.
When she breathed her last on Tuesday, the ‘Mother of PIL’ may have died, but she left behind a rich legacy of self-less pro bono fight for the under-privileged through PILs.