Starting the PIL revolution

Thirty-one years ago, a woman lawyer confidently climbed the 17 steps of the Supreme Court and walked into a cold, thick-walled courtroom without a thought for the frowns trained at her from the high priests of Indian judiciary and her male colleagues.

Senior Advocate Pushpa Kapila Hingorani had a mission that day in December — one that the Supreme Court had never heard of before and one which would eventually kick off a revolution called the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) across the country. It was the same year she had resolved to give up her law practice and stay home.

The two pages she carried to the court contained the plight of undertrial prisoners languishing in jails in Bihar— men, women, children, lepers and mental patients cast away into jails and forgotten by the state. She wanted the court to intervene immediately and give orders to release them on bail. The historic case, later known to every law student in India as Hussainara Khatoon Vs Home Secretary, Bihar, drew its name from one of the prison inmates. It was the first PIL in India.

A shocked Supreme Court Bench led by Justice P.N. Bhagwati went on to release over 40,000 undertrial prisoners from various jails nationwide.

"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 citizens everyday and choose the ones which should be brought to the court's attention," says Hingorani, who was born at the Kenyan Capital Nairobi into an Arya Samaj family.

"The Supreme Court held in the Hussainara Khatoon case that speedy trial and legal aid to the poor are the two essentials of a PIL. Today, as a woman who gave birth to PIL, I get hurt when people misuse it or judges do not understand the public problem laid before them," she says.

Her title— "Mother of PIL" — is well-deserved. She has over the past 30 years done nearly 100 PILs, free of cost, including the Bhagalpur Blinding case of 1981 and Rudul Sah case of 1983. Her personal favourite among the PILs she did was one in which the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) agreed to pay Rs 1,000 to lepers to build their jhuggies. "I asked the court how people who could not even eat with their hands, build jhuggies? I sought the court to order the DDA to build them jhuggies and build them better," she remembers before slowly walking indoors to escape the winter evening nip.

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