Remembering Justice Suresh, the Feminist and Human Rights Champion of Our Times

Forever with his ear to the ground, this was a rare judge who constantly attempted to make family courts an easier experience for women and children.

Justice Hosbet Suresh is well known for the various fact-finding commissions he headed and the reports subsequently published on the denial of basic human rights of the marginalised. The reports put the spotlight on victims of communal or ethnic violence, and on the atrocities committed on Dalits and Adivasis in almost every nook and corner of our country. They provided a voice to the voiceless.

He passed away on June 12.

However, the various obituaries published in print and social media have failed to focus upon the human side of him and his deep commitment to women’s rights. It will come as a surprise to many that he was a trustee of the Majlis Legal Centre, a forum I founded for women’s rights discourse and legal initiatives, for well over two decades.

So in this article, I will focus on the man that he was. 

Those of us who were closely associated with him regard him as the ultimate feminist man of our times – a women’s rights defender, both in his public as well as personal life, who never wavered from his ethical and moral values, even when faced with the greatest of challenges. Despite several adversities that he faced, his faith in the judicial mechanism remained firm and unshaken till the very end. 

I first associated with him when he was on a fact finding mission about the riots in the city soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid during the months of December, 1992 and January, 1993. The work of this commission, the Citizen’s Tribunal, was time bound and the report, the People’s Verdict, had to be brought out within six months of its institution.

His faith in this legal instrument devised by the renowned Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was so strong that he did not blink even when the official commission headed by Justice Srikrishna sent a legal notice to the tribunal, restraining it from proceeding with this enquiry as it would amount to a parallel legal mechanism.

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All this is public knowledge. But what very few people are aware is that during this period in 1993, his ailing wife, who was just about 56 years old, passed away.

I vividly remember going to his residence for the funeral at Bandra on St. Martin’s Road. We felt that this would pose a great setback for the time bound work of the commission. But that was not to be. Within a day he was back and continued the work of hearing the victims and survivors first hand. Such was his deep commitment to the work of the tribunal.

At the same time, he  did not neglect his four children – three daughters and a physically challenged son. He took on the role of a father and mother to them, as a single parent. Recently at a condolence meeting his eldest daughter Rajni shared that he had taught her to cook. He would also involve himself in preparing sweets for them!

These qualities also reflected in his official duties. Way back in the 1970s, as a judge of the City Civil and Sessions Court, he introduced the novel concept of involving counsellors to solve lingering marital disputes but without compromising women’s entitlements. This innovative strategy of mediation then became the cardinal principal for the functioning of the family courts which were set up two decades later in the nineties. In most of his public lectures on women’s rights, he would talk about this to highlight how there is a wide scope for a judge to bring in innovative reforms even without the aid of a statute. Where there is a will, there is always a way, he would emphasise.  

He prioritised having his ear to the ground. For this, he was always listening to the narratives of young lawyers practicing in the Mumbai family courts, to understand how, over the years, the concepts of women’s rights were being shaped. He would be deeply distressed about instances where women’s rights were trampled upon in an effort to adhere to strict technicalities and rigid rules which would cause inordinate delays.

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But it was destiny that soon he would experience this first hand while providing much-needed support to his daughter Rajni, in the custody battle she was facing in litigation against her husband who was residing abroad and was a Swedish national. Two children were involved, a minor son and a daughter who was of age, but suffering from Downs Syndrome. Justice Suresh was emotionally attached to these children and had raised them without adequate financial support from the well-to-do father. There were endless delays in the family court. The appeal in the high court where the bench kept changing every time there was a hearing was no less arduous. The final drama took place in the Supreme Court. 

He witnessed the entire process and noted how custody issues get decided, how the issue of pending arrears of maintenance are put on the back burner, how children are brainwashed, how skewed the process of interviewing children is, how opposition lawyers adopt strategies and how the press reports it all in a warped way.

By the time the final verdict came to hand over the custody to the father, along with permission to take them abroad, he was completely shattered. Yet his faith in the legal mechanism did not deter and he carried on.

He was no ordinary man. He had the unconditional support of many senior lawyers and had a realistic picture of the trauma which ordinary middle and working class women, who are victims of domestic violence, go through in the process of litigation in family matters. And experiences such as these deepened his respect for the young lawyers in Majlis who were litigating for a pittance of maintenance, or for restraining orders or fighting custody battles in highly contested cases.

He also listened attentively and with deep anguish while our lawyers and support persons narrated heart-rending stories of sexual abuse and untold violence on young children over a prolonged period by their own family members. He heard of difficulties involved in getting an FIR filed or in preparing a child to face cross examination in court.

Though a legal luminary of great repute and a senior in the profession, he was the personification of utmost simplicity. He had no airs of being a former judge of the high court. He freely interacted with young advocates and interns, and guided and advised them. He also encouraged us to experiment with innovative strategies and take up campaigns to bring about reforms in the functioning of family courts. He was keen that our team should not be content with routine litigation but strive to push the boundaries of law.

The ultimate test of his feminist principals came when his own son wanted to grab the entire proceeds received from the developers for his residence on St. Martin’s Road, thus denying the daughters their share. He did not hesitate to file a case against his own son to protect the  rights of his daughters. His desire was that the amount be divided in five parts, each child taking one share and his own share earmarked for charity.

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In order to reach a compromise, during settlement meetings held in the chamber of Justice Chandrachud (while His Lordship was presiding as a judge of the Bombay high court), he agreed to the suggestion that the son be given 40% while each daughter gets 20%. But the son would settle for nothing less than the entire amount which ran into crores. Finally under great persuasion from His Lordship the matter was resolved by the son receiving 50% and Justice Suresh retaining 50%. This litigation caused him immense mental trauma, he even became physically sick but he would not buckle down under pressure and give up his valued ideals. Rarely do we find a man of such immense moral strength.

I personally regarded him as my mentor and guide and he treated me like his own daughter and welcomed me as part of his family. At my age which runs into the seventies, it is difficult to find someone one can respect as a mentor and guide but one could, without hesitation, confer this title on Justice Suresh.

When the litigation unit faced its worst challenge, Justice Suresh stood firmly on its side. He had the moral strength to counter the allegations hurled against the legal centre and its functionaries. He provided us much-needed legitimacy. Because of his support, the legal centre survived. I am deeply indebted to him and miss his loss very acutely at a very personal level.

He led an active life till the very end. His last public lecture was fittingly the prestigious M.C. Chhagla Memorial Lecture which he delivered on March 7, 2020 at the Convocation Hall of the Mumbai University. Even though he started the lecture with his trademark opening comments, “I am a retired judge but not a tired judge,” he appeared extremely pale and did not have the strength even to stand and deliver the lecture.

But his mind was ever so sharp as he spoke about the seven decades of human rights in India, tracing its successes and failures and speaking on how the various institutions set up with high expectations have been reduced to just token mechanisms. He appeared highly disillusioned with the current state of affairs in the Supreme Court as well. 

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The issue of the flagrant violations of basic human rights of the unorganised sector workers, who subsequently came to be known by a new title, “migrant labourer,” and the loss of life and livelihood the overnight lockdown had bought to them had not even surfaced then. He has been saved from the daunting task of bringing out yet another report about violations of human rights which gather dust in the offices of human rights lawyers and activists across the nation.

It is my hope that the legacy he has left behind will be carried forward by all those who have worked with him and hold him in high esteem.

But at Majlis we know that the void he has left behind is irreplaceable because it is not just about defending human rights. It is about living by the values and principles one has set for oneself both in public and personal life for the personal is every bit the political.

Flavia Agnes is founder of the Majlis Legal Centre and can be reached at flaviaagnes@gmail.com.