Thursday, July 25, 2013

Who is Lily Thomas?

The answer to this question lies in an old, familiar story:

Once upon a time, politicians in India were public-spirited freedom fighters and nation-builders. Then came a generation of midgets who made up for their lack of real public support by using criminals to intimidate voters, stuff ballot boxes and bully the opposition. One fine morning, the midgets woke up to discover that their pit-bulls had taken over the podium. Instead of remaining as mere sidekicks, the criminals donned the politicians white costume, and got themselves elected to the parliament and state assemblies.

The old story had, by now, become a real nightmare. In 2012, more than 25 percent of the sitting Members of Parliament (MPs) faced criminal indictment. In State Assemblies, the number hovered around 20 per cent. The public remained largely apathetic -- except for occasional howls of protest from NGOs. So the political parties, already struggling to fund election campaigns, continued to put up candidates who had been flitting in and out of courthouses and jails.

Then, on 10 July 2013, something unusual happened. A Supreme Court bench of justices A K Patnaik and S J Mukhopadhaya held that, "The only question is about the vires of section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951 and we hold that it is ultra vires and that the disqualification takes place from the date of conviction".

Behind all the Latin and legalese, this simply meant that, henceforth, convicted criminals could no longer sit in the Indian parliament, or in the state assemblies.

Who had prodded the Supreme Court to come to this wonderful conclusion? --- An old lady named Lily Thomas.

Lily is one of oldest advocates practicing at the Supreme Court of India.  In 2005, she had filed a writ petition in the apex court along with Satya Narain Shukla, challenging a provision (Section 8.4) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951,  which protects a convicted lawmakers against disqualification if they just filed an appeal. It took her eight years to win this fight.

Now around 85 years old, she was of the earliest women to get an LLM degree in India. She began and  her practice in the Madras High Court. In 1960, she moved to Delhi to do a PhD but discovered that she was not really cut out for academia. “I realized that I was not competent to do research,” she says, “so I started practicing in the Supreme Court”.

The criminals in our parliament will surely rue the day she started 'practicing'!



* Kalra, Aparna (2013): Lily Thomas: 87-year-old crusader against 'tainted' legislators, Sify-BS, 14 July 2013 -- url --
* PTI (2013): MPs, MLAs will be disqualified on date of conviction: SC, New Indian Express, 10Jul13 -- url --
* Heroes who have sent politicians scurrying for cover, Mumbai Mirror, 17 July 2013 -- ]
* Bar & Bench article (17 July 2013) --
* Vaishnav, Milan (2011): THE MARKET FOR INDIA'S CRIMINAL POLITICIANS, The Hindu Business Line, 2011

* The Representation of the People Act, 1951 -- url --,%201951.pdf

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