Madhu Barrister: Architect of Equality in India's Legal Fraternity

Madhusudan Das, a legal luminary and freedom fighter, pioneered gender equality in India's legal profession, laying the groundwork for women to enter the courts and advocate for justice.

Every year on the 28th of April, Odisha commemorates Lawyers Day in honour of its esteemed and cherished freedom fighter and legal luminary, Shri Madhusudan Das. Fondly called as Madhu Babu or Madhu Barrister, he born on April 28, 1848, in Satyabhamapur, Cuttack, was a lawyer. When he was in his fifties, he boosted the linguistic movement by creating a group called Utkal Sammilani to promote Odia culture. Due to his selfless dedication and unparalleled commitment to the welfare of the state, Madhu Babu was honoured with the titles of 'Utkala Gouraba,' meaning the Pride of Odisha, and 'Kulabruddha,' signifying The Grand Old Man.

In the late 1800s, during British rule, the Odisha linguistic movement started. This movement arose after many years of Odia-speaking communities being divided under different kingdoms.

In 1875, the initial suggestion to unite these communities into a single state was made. However, it was rejected in 1888 by Sir S. C. Bayley, who was the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal at the time. Then, in 1895, the Odia language faced an outright ban from ‘official use’ in the Sambalpur district, sparking widespread protests that unfortunately did not lead to any changes.

The linguistic movement appeared to have widespread support from the people, as efforts persisted into the early 1900s. However, it lacked a prominent leader from a privileged and respected background who could effectively represent the cause and compel the establishment to take it seriously. Moreover, this leader needed to fully grasp the essence of the movement and guide it accordingly.

Madhusudan Das hailed from a privileged background, born into a zamindar family and belonging to the 'Karana' writer caste. However, he took a bold step away from tradition by converting to Christianity in 1868, breaking away from his familial ties and religious norms.

Once he liberated himself from the constraints of tradition, Madhusudan Das unleashed a wave of innovative ideas to propel Odisha into a new era. His visionary leadership attracted numerous nationalist poets, writers, and followers of the Satyabadi school of thought who were inspired by his example and vision.

The Odisha linguistic movement is hailed as the inaugural and groundbreaking effort of its kind, led by the Utkal Sammilani. This organization convened for the first time towards the end of 1903 and continued to gather annually in various locations across the region until the establishment of Odisha as a separate state in 1936.

When Madhusudan Das wasn't at the forefront of pivotal linguistic movements, he was applying the expertise he had cultivated over decades as a lawyer to shine a spotlight on health concerns in the region, emphasizing their importance and advocating for solutions.

In early 1923, Das raised the alarm about Odisha's cholera epidemic in the Central Legislative Assembly, criticizing the Raj for failing to allocate the necessary budgetary resources to uphold adequate public health standards in rural Odisha.

Madhusudan Das, driven by his scientific mindset and deep concern for the declining welfare of Odisha's rural population, highlighted a significant disparity. Despite advancements in medical science and the ability to diagnose epidemic causes, these benefits were not reaching Odisha's rural communities. Instead, they were left vulnerable to superstition and powerless against recurring epidemics.

It's fascinating to note that Madhusudan Das achieved several firsts in the academic realm among Odia individuals, securing Bachelor's, Master's, and LL. B. degrees. Madhusudan Das holds the distinction of being the first Odia to serve as a member of both the Legislative Council and the Central Legislative Assembly of India. Additionally, he made history as the first Odia to embark on a journey overseas. Despite his success as a leading lawyer, Madhu Babu, as he was affectionately called, also gained fame as a versatile writer, poet, and journalist. Patriotism resonated strongly throughout his literary endeavours, with works like "Utkal Santan," "Jati Itihash," and "Jananira Ukti" standing out as significant poems in his repertoire.

Shri Madhusudan Das demonstrated remarkable foresight and insight when he advocated for the separation of the Odisha Province from Bihar based on linguistic considerations. Through his relentless efforts and unwavering perseverance, Odisha achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first Indian state to be reorganized on linguistic grounds on April 1, 1936, during the pre-independence era. His visionary leadership paved the way for linguistic reorganization in India, setting a precedent for other states to follow.

Shri Madhusudan Das's determination was formidable; when his initial demands were unmet, he had the courage to distance himself from the Indian National Congress. Eventually, the government had to yield to the powerful movement he spearheaded, leading to the bifurcation of the Odisha State. Madhu Babu was revered as a remarkable legislator and journalist. Not only did he excel in the legal field with a successful practice, but he also dedicated himself to serving the nation and uplifting the masses. Unlike many in his profession, Madhu Babu prioritized the welfare of the less privileged, leaving a lasting legacy of compassion and service.

In addition to his contributions to the nation's welfare, Madhu Babu also embarked on entrepreneurial ventures. In 1897, he established the Orissa Art Ware Works, supporting the remarkable craftsmanship of Filigree gold and silver ornaments. Furthermore, Madhu Babu founded the Utkal Tannery in 1905, a factory specializing in the production of shoes and leather goods. Through these endeavours, he adopted a diversified approach to the development of the state of Odisha, fostering economic growth and showcasing the region's artisanal skills.

Madhu Babu's legacy transcends mere short-term fixes; he laid the groundwork for enduring reform that the people of Odisha still benefit from today. From establishing the first library in Cuttack to advocating for the creation of the first girls' high school in Odisha, his vision encompassed educational advancement and empowerment. His relentless pursuit of educational reform and the founding of Utkal Sammilani, a socio-cultural organization, underscored his commitment to fostering Odisha's self-sufficiency and distinct identity.

Shri Madhusudan Das's birthday is celebrated as Lawyer's Day because of his remarkable contributions to the legal field, particularly in paving the way for women to enter the legal profession in India. Despite being a driving force and trailblazer for women practitioners, his significant role has often been overlooked by history. Today, when we acknowledge women breaking barriers in the legal arena, names like Cornelia Sorabjee, Regina Guha, the pioneering female judge Anna Chandy, the first Supreme Court Judge Justice Fatima Beevi, the first Indian woman Barrister Mithan Jamshed Lam, and the first Woman Additional Solicitor General of India, Indira Jaising, among others, come to mind. Yet, it's important to recognize Madhusudan Das's pivotal role in laying the groundwork for their achievements.

Indeed, Sudhanshu Bala Hazra holds the distinction of being the first Indian woman to practice law in India, and her achievement was made possible with the support of her adoptive father, Shri Madhusudan Das. Despite his pivotal role in advancing women's participation in the legal profession, Shri Madhusudan Das's name often remains overlooked in this narrative. It was through his relentless advocacy and efforts that an amendment was made to the Legal Practitioners Act, 1923, granting women the opportunity to enter the courts of law—a struggle that might seem unimaginable in today's context.

In her memoir titled "A Woman at Law," Sudhanshu Bala Hazra reflects on her role in breaking barriers that prevented women from entering the legal profession, acknowledging that she was destined to play a humble part in this significant endeavour. She credits her adoptive father, Shri Madhusudan Das, for achieving this monumental task, for which she believes he earned the everlasting gratitude of Indian women.

Sudhanshu Bala Hazra, whose groundbreaking entry into the legal profession paved the way for countless women advocates across the country, reflects on the significant strides made by women in traditionally male-dominated fields. She acknowledges the strenuous strife and enduring struggle endured by women worldwide to establish their presence in these domains. Behind the presence of every woman lawyer in the country today lies a debt of gratitude owed to a visionary man who envisioned women standing and fighting for justice in the courts of India.

Sudhanshubala Hazra encountered numerous obstacles throughout her journey, yet her perseverance paved the way for many outstanding women advocates who now tirelessly pursue justice in the courts of law. Initially, she faced resistance from the University of Calcutta when seeking permission to appear for the preliminary law exam. Despite reluctance, after much persuasion, the university finally granted her permission. However, nearing the completion of her graduation, the university subjected her to a rigorous test to assess her passion and capability to become a lawyer. Undeterred, Sudhanshubala continued to prove herself, gradually paving her path to become the first woman advocate to practice in India.

Despite obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Law from the University of Calcutta, Sudhanshubala Hazra faced a significant hurdle: she was denied the right to practice in the courts of law. When she applied to be enrolled as a pleader at the Patna District Court, her application was forwarded to the High Court of Patna. After careful consideration, the full judge bench of the High Court of Patna issued three separate judgments, all concurring that a woman was not entitled to a certificate under section 7 of the Legal Practitioners Act. This decision stood, despite the provisions of the General Clauses Act of 1868 and 1897, where the definition of a person includes both men and women. Section 2 (48) of the General Clauses Act 1897 defines a person to include "any company or association or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not."

The decision of the High Court of Patna was influenced by a precedent set by the High Court of Calcutta in the case of Regina Guha, commonly referred to as 'the Persons Case,' in 1916. In that case, the court ruled that individuals in the legal profession were limited to the male sex. This ruling dashed the hopes of Sudhanshubala Hazra, a young woman aspiring to practice law, especially when a full judge bench upheld this precedent. However, her father, Shri Madhusudhan Das, urged her to pursue further action and seek leave to appeal before the judicial committee of the Privy Council in England. Unfortunately, her application for leave to appeal to the Privy Council was dismissed by the High Court of Patna on April 12, 1922.

The journey from Odisha to England posed significant challenges, but the Hazra family remained determined to pursue justice. Eminent barrister Mr. Hasan Imam sought assistance from Mr. Dube, a practitioner in England, to file a special leave to appeal before the Privy Council. After overcoming the logistical hurdles, the petition was heard by the Privy Council on November 21, 1922, bringing relief to Madhusudhan Das and his daughter. Their hopes were bolstered when an order was passed granting the leave to appeal by esteemed members of the Privy Council, including Right Lord Buckmaster, Right Lord Fillmore, Right Lord Mr. Amir Ali, and Right Lord Salvesen. However, this victory came with a hefty cost— a deposit of £400, approximately equivalent to £19,000 today or nearly ₹20 lakhs.

As Sudhanshubala Hazra faced the daunting prospect of her dreams slipping away due to the exorbitant deposit amount, anxiety and uncertainty clouded her thoughts. However, it was once again Madhu Babu who emerged as her unwavering champion. He took decisive action by writing a compelling letter to Sir William Duke, advocating for the waiver or reduction of the £400 deposit. In his letter, Shri Madhusudan Das underscored the significance of gender equality in the legal profession and the importance of women lawyers in the country. Thanks to his persuasive plea and the recognition of the matter's importance, Sudhanshubala's case transitioned from a private litigation to a matter of public interest, titled 'Indian Lady's Appeal Against Patna Decision.' As a result, the £400 deposit was waived off, paving the way for Sudhanshubala to continue her pursuit of justice.

During the pendency of the matter before the Privy Council, Madhu Babu, ever the visionary, found a kindred spirit in Advocate and social reformer Shri Hari Singh Gour, a member of the Central Legislative Assembly. Recognizing the opportune moment, the two leaders seized the initiative, with Shri Gour moving a resolution without prior notice to the assembly to eliminate discrimination against women and amend the Legal Practitioners Act to ensure their inclusion in the legal field. In his impassioned speech, Shri Gour emphasized the vital role of women and invoked their historical contributions to society. While Shri Gour garnered support from some members of the house, procedural issues and assurances within the assembly led to the withdrawal of the proposed amendment. Nonetheless, this bold initiative marked a significant step towards addressing gender discrimination in the legal profession.

The very next day after the resolution was withdrawn, Shailabala Das, wife of Madhusudan Das, took proactive steps by meeting with the Home Member, Sir William Vincet, and urging him to introduce a bill in the Assembly to amend the Legal Practitioner's Act. In response, Shri Madhusudan Das prepared a memorial to be addressed to His Excellency the Viceroy, which Sudhanshubala Hazra presented. This memorial contained compelling grounds for amending the Act, including recognizing the right of educated women to earn money as practicing lawyers, thus acknowledging their economic rights alongside other rights.

On February 2, 1923, the bill was introduced in the Assembly. Through the combined efforts of visionaries and strategic legal and legislative approaches, the Legal Practitioners (Women) Act of 1923 was passed. This historic legislation received the assent of the Governor General on April 2, 1923, declaring that "no woman shall, by reason only of her sex, be disqualified from being admitted or enrolled as a legal practitioner or from practicing as such." This landmark achievement was a testament to the perseverance and determination of those who fought tirelessly for gender equality in the legal profession.

Following the progressive and groundbreaking amendment, Sudhanshubala Hazra was finally liberated to pursue her dream. She had the rare privilege of practicing law under the guidance of her father, Madhusudan Das. Her journey reached a significant milestone when she made her inaugural appearance before the High Court of Patna on January 22, 1924.

Indeed, the contributions and pivotal role played by Shri Madhusudan Das must never be overlooked or forgotten. His unwavering dedication and tireless efforts paved the way for women like Sudhanshubala Hazra to enter the legal profession and realize their dreams. While Sudhanshubala nurtured the ambition of becoming an advocate, it was the constant support and advocacy of her father, affectionately known as Madhu Babu, that enabled her to turn her dream into reality. Madhu Babu's legacy as a champion of gender equality in the legal profession will continue to inspire generations to come. His pioneering efforts in bringing women into the mainstream of the legal profession have left an indelible mark on India's legal history and serve as a beacon of empowerment for women everywhere.

Mr. E.S. Hoernle, the then Commissioner of Orissa Division, paid a poignant tribute to Madhusudan Das on the occasion of his 1st Death Anniversary, words that resonate profoundly even today. He remarked, "Madhusudan earned much appreciation and fame for his personal greatness, high qualities, burning patriotism, incessant efforts in the service of the people, noble sacrifices, and great achievements. Not one of the least of his great work is the opening vocation of law to Indian women. I have no doubt that the present and future women advocate of India shall always remember him not only with gratitude but also with deep respect. To him, they owe their careers, to his memory they owe grateful remembrance. May his memory last forever. May his soul rest in peace." These words encapsulate the enduring legacy of Madhusudan Das and his monumental contribution to Indian society, particularly in advancing the cause of gender equality in the legal profession.

Mahatma Gandhi rightly recognized him as a "great philanthropist," acknowledging his dedication to the welfare of society. Moreover, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, while writing "The Untouchables" and "The Pax Britannica," acknowledged Madhusudan Das's significant contribution by drawing from his speeches on caste and Dalit issues.

It's inspiring to see the Orissa High Court honouring legal excellence with the institution of the 'Lawyer of the Year' award, to be presented annually on Lawyers' Day, observed on April 28.

It's a humble tribute to a remarkable individual who, despite remaining in relative obscurity, played a pivotal role in securing a significant victory for Indian women in the legal profession. Madhusudan Das's relentless advocacy and unwavering commitment to gender equality paved the way for women to enter the legal arena, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to inspire. His contributions may have been overlooked by some, but the impact of his efforts in breaking down barriers and championing equality for women in the legal field remains undeniable.