“This is not just fantastic for women, but for the entire nation.”
The above line was quoted by Senior Advocate V. Mohana on swearing in of Miss Indu Malhotra, becoming the first woman lawyer to be elevated to the post of a Judge of Supreme Court of India.
Today is 170th Birth Anniversary of Late Madhusudan Das (28 April, 1848 – 4 February, 1934) also popularly referred by public as Madhubabu. He was the first graduate, post graduate and advocate of Odisha . He is the Pride of Odisha (“Utkal Gaurab”) and the Grand Old Man of Odisha (Kulabrudha). He was the ultimate path-breaker and trendsetter for the post-independent Odisha to follow. He was the ultimate freedom fighter in the struggle for independence for India and Utkal Pradesh( now Odisha).
On this auspicious occasion we cannot forget one of his major contributions was towards opening the doors of Legal Profession to Women Lawyers of India.
In the annals of the history for gender equality Madhusudan Das’s name will shine forever for his exceptional struggle for allowing women law graduates to enter the law profession in 1923. Before 1923, women were not allowed to practice law in courts in spite of possessing valid law degrees on account of the Legal Practitioners Act which allowed only men with graduation degree in law to practise law in courts. When the adopted daughter of Madhu-babu, Ms. Sudhansubala Hazra, finished her Bachelor of Law in 1921, she was asked by Madhubabu to apply to the Patna High Court for enrolment as a pleader. The matter was taken up by the full Bench of the Patna High Court which rejected it on November 20, 1921 on the ground of sex disqualification. The said Court held that the legal bar against women to do practice in law courts had to be removed by amending the Legal Practitioners’ Act and till that was done the High Court had no power to allow her application. She was heartbroken and shattered as her cherished ambition to pursue the profession of law and do practice as a lawyer received a fatal blow. She lost all hope and took a decision not to fight any more. Madhubabu, who was at that time the Minister of Local Government, was determined not to give it up. He drafted a memorial for her and it was sent to the Viceroy in August 1922 seeking for amendment to the Legal Practitioners Act for enabling lady lawyers to enroll as pleaders. A copy of the memorial was sent to the President of the Central Legislative Assembly, Sir Fredrick Whyte, who was then the President of the Central Legislative Assembly. In the enclosed letter he wrote that hardly memorials affecting public interest reached the Viceroy on account of the strength of the cause contained in it and stated that the memorial submitted by Sudhansubala “represents the grievances of a class of women who live in seclusion…” and “This is eminently a case in which public naturally expect personal attention of a Viceroy who is also an eminent lawyer.” Then he added: “Half of the population of India does not enjoy rights of citizenship of the British Empire. This is due to custom and caste. Government cannot abolish caste and social custom, but it is the duty of legislatures to steer between Scylla of social custom on the one side and the Charybdis of neutral policy of British Indian administration to the harbor of free British citizenship.” In other words, he was stressing the point that it was the legislature which should be proactive in taking up issues concerning rights of women without waiting for support from the caste and custom which hindered their progress. He also asked her to appeal to the Privy Council in London.
Accordingly the appeal was filed and the Secretary of State for India was made a respondent. To the utter shock and surprise of Madhubabu, the Privy Council informed its decision that 4000 pounds (Rs 6000) had to be deposited as fees to meet the expenses of the affected party, that is, the Secretary of State for India. He wrote a letter to Mr. William Duke, Member of the India Office, on February 8, 1923 seeking assistance in the matter to bring down the fees to be deposited. Inter alia he wrote: “The question relates to permission to Lady Lawyers to practice in Courts. If there is any country and where Lady legal practitioners are necessary, it is in India and especially in those Provinces in which the Purdah system is stringent and Purdah ladies are often parties to suits involving decision of rights to properties of immense value. They cannot instruct lawyers of the other sex and consequently they become victims to the dishonesty of unprincipled Gomastas.” On March 8, 1923 the agents of the Privy Council sent a letter to Ms Sudhansubala informing that the matter was treated as a public interest and, therefore, no expenses would be required to be paid. Apart from taking those measures Madhubabu took up the matter with a Member of the Central Assembly, Mr. H.S. Gaur, and requested him to introduce a Resolution to nullify the prohibition on women to enter the legal profession. He asked Sudhansubala to visit Delhi and meet the President of the Central Legislative Assembly and the then Home Member to sensitize them about the gravity of the matter. She also sent a copy of the memorial to almost all Members of the Assembly in August 1923 to make them aware of the importance of allowing women to become lawyers.
Eventually the Home Member introduced a Bill to amend the Legal Practitioners Act. The second reading of the Bill was completed in September 1923 and no Member opposed it. Ultimately it entered the statute book and became the law of the land empowering qualified women to practise law in the courts of India. Ms Sudhansu Bala enrolled herself as a lawyer on December 12, 1923 and appeared before the Patna High Court as the junior of Madhusudan Das who had by then resigned as the Minister of Local Government. It was because of the untiring efforts of Madhubabu that the women lawyers in India could remove an unjust barrier imposed against their entry into the legal profession. In the process he became the foremost champion of women’s rights to become practicing lawyers enjoying equal standing with men lawyers.
Referred to : “Utkal Gaurab Madhusudan Das as a Protagonist of Gender Equality and Skill Development” by S.N. Sahu , published in Mainstream, VOL LIV No 25 New Delhi June 11, 2016.
(Source: Sudhansubala Hazra, “How Women Got the Right to Practise in the Law Courts of India” in Madhusudan Das—The Man and his Mission (Ed.) by Debendra Das, (Pragati Utkal Sangha, Rourkela, 1998), pages 143-51.)