Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

Int'l Women's Day

March 8 is Int'l Women's Day.

To mark this day, students, activists, social workers and womens' groups assembled in the capital and walked down the streets with placards, chanting slogans, and singing songs. My favorite part of the procession was the women who sat on the back of the truck in mid-day traffic and sang songs with a tambourine in the typical dholak fashion that one typically sees at something like a wedding. This was a nice inversion of what is expected...

In India, the rising price of food has already been the source of protests. Basic staples like rice and lentils have become really costly...too costly in a country where about 40% of the population falls below the poverty line and where a third of the global poor reside. So, this year's placards and songs included phrases not only about freedom from more conventional forms of violence but also freedom from the rising cost of living...

Saturday, February 27, 2010


I took a trip to Godhra which is where the Gujarat riots began. The riots actually began on the train station in Godhra itself, before spreading to other towns in Gujarat, and it was eerie getting off the train and being in that same location. I don't know much about Gujarat, so whatever I write will just be a superficial impression of it. But 8 years after the riots, Godhra strikes me as a depressed place, still scarred with trauma.

For those who want to know more about the riots, law and philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum devoted the opening chapter in her most recent book on Gujarat on the politics of intervention (or rather lack of state intervention and government complicity in on-the-ground violence). The book is called the The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future.

At Godhra, I visited a school in a poor Muslim area, an initiative that was begun after the riots. The school is struggling now to obtain funds and just keep afloat. Initially, it had a larger vision of existing as a community center, a place where people might gather for events, discussions...especially the women in the community who might have a space for themselves beyond the familial, but that is now a distant vision. Like most sites where sudden violence and trauma has taken place and brought in aid and activism, the energy and commitment dies down and the local residents are left to sort through how to manage...

Godhra brought religious or what is termed as 'communal' violence to the forefront again in India. I sometimes wonder how much of these conflicts are rooted in religion as such or are rather just expressions of some other form of discontent.

On the way to Godhra, I went to a Kabir festival in the nearby town of Baroda. Kabir is a 15th century mystical poet whose songs and poems continue to be recited today in India. Kabir denounced formal religion as such, especially the caste system, advocating for a simple path to oneness with the divine. At the festival, a folk musician and devotee of Kabir had sung some of his songs, only to be later attacked by a circle of right-wing extremists who were insulted by the content of the musician's message. Luckily, the musician was not too hurt and decided the experience will not stop him from continuing to sing Kabir's songs. That experience was a proper introduction to the politics of religious violence in Gujarat, and in India more generally, showing how real it continues to be.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Symbiosis Law School

So, it's been interesting being here at the law school. I've done a bunch of family law presentations and see that basic concepts are the same in India but that religious laws called 'personal laws' govern with separate sets of laws for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Parsis. The formalization and codification of the law dates back to the British and something much more decentralized, amorphous, and oral in nature was in place before colonial rule. The laws have been amended repeatedly, especially under the Hindu Marriage Act so that one wonders how much of it can be said to derive from the religious texts any more. Some say the British created a mess and advocate for an Uniform Civil Code now. When I took a poll from one class on which legal system is preferable they clearly thought most Indians would not adopt an Uniform Civil code because religious identity is too predominant as a political identity now. I do think trying to interpret religious texts and glean codified law to apply in secular courts is an heavy task and one that hasn't been done too well so far...

The conversations and seminars on language access have been a lot of fun. The faculty are all multilingual, having some command and fluency of English, Marathi, and Hindi, and often communicating in all three languages in one conversation. So, they were fascinated by the concept of Title VI and the failure to provide language access as a civil rights issue. Language access is not a formalized concept here in India, although sometimes government agencies provide translation of documents where it's needed. The one area it's of most concern is in the criminal context. It also surprised the faculty to learn that there is a growing immigrant population that can't speak English in the U.S. and that language barriers overlap with poverty. So many of the dominant images that are exported of America make it seem like all Americans are Caucasian and wealthy. I was glad to disrupt that notion!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I recently visited a Muslim girl's orphanage called Anjuman-i-Islam in Pune. Many of the girls were referred there by the court or by the police who could not ascertain their parents. So, some are orphans, some have families who cannot take care of them. The institution provides full schooling and a Polytechnic institute whereby the girls can learn computer skills, handicraft, sewing etc. to later on gain employment. I was very encouraged by the work the orphanage did, as compared to other orphanages I've seen, because of the organization, resources, and cleanliness. The orphanage seems to also assume full responsibility for these girls, even to the point of formally arranging marriages and holding the wedding ceremony! Below is an example of handicrafts that are made by girls in the Polytechnic institute.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Shakuntala Patade

Shakuntala Patade is a painter who resides in Pune. She began painting at age 40 as a schoolteacher and is completely self-taught. I heard about her because she made paintings during the infamous Gujarat riots in 2002, the largest genocide in recent Indian history resulting in the deaths of about 2,000 people.

Every day she would read about the atrocities in Gujarat, largely against women, and she would paint. When she tried to have her paintings exhibited in a gallery in Gujarat, she was told her subject matter was too controversial. Her series on Gujarat was finally exhibited in Delhi.

Most of her paintings revolve around the condition of women and the girl-child. She has done many paintings on sex workers in the growing red light district, selling her paintings to donate to NGO's that work in that area. Shakuntala Patade is 76 now and is still painting away. Here is some of her work.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On Lawyering

The challenges of lawyering in India are quite tremendous. While the U.S. has the highest number of lawyers anywhere in the world (there are about a million lawyers), India has the second largest number of lawyers numbering about 700,000. In the U.S., the legal ratio is approximately 1 lawyer for every 300 persons. In India, it is 1 lawyer for every 1,125 persons.

Under the Legal Services Act of 1987, there is a right to civil legal services for certain classes of affected persons but as far as I can gather there isn't really the concept or functioning of a large public interest law firm. The court appoints respected advocates to serve as court appointed counsel pretty much on a pro bono basis. Most lawyers work independently or in very small size firms and rely upon securing fees from their clients as income. There are NGO's here and there that do engage in representing underserved populations but the largest and most reputable on I know of consists of 200 lawyers serving all of India. So, it's difficult to even describe to people here how lawyers can engage in legal representation for underserved and vulnerable populations and possess a decent income.

It's also challenging being a lawyer here because there is so much corruption in government institutions. In my own rudimentary understanding of Indian law, I see that there is often pretty good language in the statutes or what they call 'bare acts' but the law remains limp and unenforced because the mechanisms and institutions in place are inadequate and malfunctioning.
There was a panel assembled last week by the students in the legal aid cell who brought in 'advocates' (what we call practicing lawyers) to speak on some high-profile cases involving government officials charged with high profile crimes ranging from sexual assault to money laundering but who remain unpunished or inadequately punished because of judicial complacency/corruption. (One case was pending for 19 years!)

What's interesting/troubling to me is that it's common knowledge among students that judges are corrupt, the police are corrupt. Some students will even give you personal anecdotes of what they have encountered. The challenges students as young lawyers face is what role they will have in maintaining the status quo or challenging it. Challenging it means being honest and straightforward but that is not easy to do in the present environment.