In August 2015, the Union consumer affairs ministry had filed a complaint against Nestle seeking compensation for consumers of Maggi noodles. The government charged the multinational consumer goods giant with unfair trade practices and misleading advertisements for its popular instant noodles. The case is still on and leading the fight on behalf of the government for the consumers is a woman lawyer, Mrinalini Sen Gupta.
She filed a class action suit on behalf of the Centre in the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) in the unprecedented case where the government has reportedly sought a Rs 640 crore by way of compensation for allegedly selling noodles containing excessive lead and flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) to consumers.
When the case started off in 2015, Sanjay Jain was the Assistant Solicitor General (ASG) of the Delhi High Court. Mrinalini had worked with him on a few cases. Impressed by her abilities, the ASG recommended her name to represent the government.
Mrinalini is hopeful that the judgement in the case would be announced next year in the case that has now gone on for almost five years. Makers India caught with the Mrinalini to talk about her journey, feminism, the Me Too movement, and women in the judiciary among other things.
The early days
Mrinalini was born to lawyer parents. Her father Justice Vikramjit Sen is a former Supreme Court judge and the current chairman of BSE, while her mother worked with the Escorts Group for several years. Her parents also had their own private practice together for a couple of years before Mrinalini’s father became a judge.
But growing up as the youngest of three siblings, Mrinalini says law was never really discussed at home. “We never discussed legal issues or cases at home. When my parents left their offices for the day, it was just family time,” she reminisces.
Yet she had decided that she wanted to be a lawyer very early in life. “As a teen, I remember the entire family watching The Practice and Ally McBeal (legal dramas). We shared that passion for law purely in terms of TV shows,” she says.
Interestingly, when it was time for Mrinalini to go to college, her parents insisted that she not dive into law right away, lest she does not like it. “They wanted me to be able to pursue other fields in case I did not enjoy law and thus I did a bachelor in arts from St. Stephen’s College before taking up law,” says Mrinalini. She pursued law from Delhi University after graduating from St. Stephen’s. And later attended King’s College, London for her LLM.
But before moving to London, she got a chance to work with the then Solicitor General of India, the late Goolam E Vahanvati. Back in 2006, during her stint with the Solicitor’s office, Mrinalini had the distinction of being the only woman in the chambers.
Life as a woman litigator
After Mrinalini came back from London - where she also worked as a judicial assistant for judges there - she decided to set up her own practice so that she could litigate any case. “A part of the charm is that I can manage anything. I never wanted to specialise in one thing. It is amazing because in litigation, no day is the same. On a given day, one handles two-three different kinds of cases and the judges keep changing as well,” she says.
But life as a woman litigator is not easy. “In fact, it’s very hard for a woman in litigation. There is no creche in the high court, there is no six-month maternity leave, there are no women holding leadership positions in bar councils...these are just some of the many barriers that exist,” she says, while admitting that things are slowly changing for the better but there is still a long way to go.
Feminism and Me Too
The National Family Health Survey states that 30 percent of women in India in the age group of 15-49 have experienced physical violence and six percent of women in the same age group have experienced sexual violence at least once in their lifetime.
Mrinalini reveals that she and all her friends have also at some point or the other faced sexual harassment. “Have also been sexually harassed like everyone else while travelling in buses. All my close friends have divulged during conversations over the years that they have been sexually harassed at some point either by a relative or family friend,” she says.
Speaking on the Me Too movement, Mrinalini says that personally she has not faced any sexual harassment by “any colleague or someone in a position of power”, but the problem does exist and it is an encouraging trend to see women are speaking out against it.
However she expresses concern over a problematic trend where several male officers in the High Court have been expressing their reluctance of working with women lawyers due to the Me Too movement. “Lot of the male officers say, Please do not send us references for any women advocates, we don’t want to take a chance,” she sighs.
Mrinalini’s six-year-old daughter Bijoya also wants to become a lawyer like her mother and father (who is a corporate lawyer) when she grows up. By the time she does become one, if she does indeed decide to stick with her childhood plans, one hopes the issues faced by women lawyers today are long gone and only a distant memory.