Though even after 75 years of Independence the representation of women both at the Bar and the Bench has been meagre, we have numerous examples of women who have fought all odds to emerge as a winner in this male-dominated profession and who have made a name for themselves. This column is an ode to such fighters.
Born on 30th October, 1949 in Mumbai, Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai completed her Bachelor of Arts from the Elphinstone College in 1970 and her LL.B from the Government Law College in 1973.
She worked as a junior in the chambers of Late Justice S.C. Pratap, before he became a judge, where she got an opportunity to appear in several civil and criminal matters, as well as with her father Late Mr. S.G. Samant who was an eminent criminal lawyer. In 1979, Desai began working as an Assistant Government Pleader in the Bombay High Court, appearing for the Government of Maharashtra, and in 1983, she was appointed as an Assistant Government Pleader and Additional Public Prosecutor for the State of Maharashtra. In 1986, she was appointed as the State of Maharashtra’s Special Public Prosecutor in cases concerning preventive detention. In 1995, she was appointed to the post of Chief Government Pleader, Appellate Side of the Bombay High Court.
Justice Desai was initially appointed as an Additional Judge of the Bombay High Court on 15th April, 1996 for a period of two years, and was confirmed as a Permanent Judge on 12th April, 1998. On 13th September, 2011, Justice Desai was appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court of India and served in that capacity until 2014. She was the fifth woman to be appointed as a Supreme Court Judge.
After her retirement from the Supreme Court, she was appointed as the Chairperson of the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity with effect from 1st December, 2014, a position which she held till 30th November, 2017. Later, she was appointed as the Chairperson of the Advance Ruling Authority [Income Tax] with effect from 2nd July, 2018, a position which she held till 29th October, 2019. On 6th March, 2020, she was appointed as the Chairperson of the Delimitation Commission on the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which was set up to assess and redraw the Assembly constituencies of the region. She also chaired the Lokpal Appointment Committee constituted by the Government to search for members and a Chairperson who would make up India’s anti-corruption agency, Lokpal, in 2020.
She was appointed the Head of the five-member panel formed by the Uttarakhand Government to examine the State’s personal laws and effectively implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) on 28th May 2022.
Justice Desai has been at the forefront of the judgments that she has been a part of. In 2013, she was one of the members of a three-member panel of the Supreme Court which ruled that elections should have a ‘none-of-the-above’ vote option, which would lead to a systemic change in polling, forcing parties to bring forward clean, effective candidates. She was also part of the Bench that ruled in a 2013 judgment that women lawyers can appeal against harassment in a courtroom. She was one of the many Supreme Court judges who reprimanded a lower court for deeming ‘wife-beating’ as a normal facet of life in 2013. In 2012, she was a part of the Bench that ordered the ruling Government to end the Haj Subsidy by the year 2022.
On 17th June, 2022, the 72-year-old retired Supreme Court judge became the first woman to be appointed as the Chairperson of the Press Council of India (PCI).