In 1919, the Southborough Committee on Franchise, which the British colonial government had set up to design a system of electoral representation for the Dominion of India, called upon Dr BR Ambedkar for his views on the matter.
In his written submission to the committee, Ambedkar had listed all the essential criteria for citizenship in India. However, there was one particular criterion which he emphasised above all else.
“The right of representation and the right to hold office under the State are the two most important rights that make up citizenship,” he said.
Unfortunately, some criminal politicians have time and again have abused this fundamental facet of citizenship.
Lily Thomas, a Supreme Court advocate from Kottayam, was having none of it. She was sick at the sight of convicted politicians getting multiple stays from the courts on appeals against their convictions, contesting elections and eventually winning them.
This led to her filing a petition in the Supreme Court alongside Lucknow-based no profit Lok Prahari, to strike down Section 8(4) of the Representation of People Act, 1952. She did this so that legislators who were convicted of a crime which entails a prison term of two or more years would no longer be able to contest elections.
As per the erstwhile law, the situation was as follows:
Disqualification on conviction for certain offences: –
(4) Notwithstanding anything in sub-section (1), sub-section (2) or sub-section (3)], a disqualification under either sub-section shall not, in the case of a person who on the date of the conviction is a member of Parliament or the Legislature of a State, take effect until three months have elapsed from that date or, if within that period an appeal or application for revision is brought in respect of the conviction or the sentence, until that appeal or application is disposed of by the court.
In her petition, Thomas sought the Supreme Court’s intervention to declare Section 8(4) of the Representation of People Act, 1951, as unconstitutional, which the court eventually upheld.
The petition was rejected at the first attempt, but eventually, nine years and two more attempts later in July 2013, a Supreme Court bench comprising of Justices AK Patnaik and SJ Mukhopadhaya, passed a verdict.
Affecting nearly 5000 elected representatives, the judgement stated that MPs and MLAs would be immediately disqualified if they were convicted in a criminal case by a trial court.
Among the first women advocates of India, Lily Thomas, today, is a nonagenarian who has retired as a Supreme Court lawyer, but continues to consult.
Thanks to her contributions, convicted politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav and the late J Jayalalithaa could no longer contest elections.
After the court verdict, the previous UPA government had sought to pass an ordinance as an attempt to render its verdict redundant.
Responding to the Centre’s attempt at overturning the court’s order, Thomas filed a review petition and was all set to endure a showdown. Fearing public backlash, the Centre eventually withdrew their ordinance.
A native of Kottayam, Thomas grew up in Trivandrum before making the shift to Madras (Chennai), where she enrolled in the bar in the Madras High Court in 1955.
Two years later, she enrolled in the LLM course offered by Madras University and became the first woman at the varsity to graduate from the course. After its completion, she joined the Supreme Court as an advocate —one of only four women practising in the courts then.
It was during her tenure at the Supreme Court, which first gave her taste of taking on the Central government. Such was her penchant for taking up cases and petitions against the Centre, she earned the moniker of ‘Lily Thomas vs Union of India.’
Her first major case was in 1964 when she challenged the validity of the Advocate on Record (AOR) exam against the wishes of the Centre. “Thomas has been filing petitions since 1964 on a variety of issues—from questioning the validity of government exams and sorting out issues of railway employees to one in which the Supreme Court came down heavily on conversion to Islam for the express purpose of entering into a second marriage [led to an amendment in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955]. Her hero is her father, also an advocate, who fought all his life to demolish a church meant only for Dalits,” says this Economic Times profile.
Quoting Winston Churchill, she once said that boldness is the highest virtue of man. Without this particular virtue, there is no way his/her other virtues can come to the fore.
Well, in her service to the law, Lily Thomas has practised a sort of boldness, which we can all be thankful for.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)