Indira Jaising: An Outsider, Inside

Indira Jaising lives in Mumbai and Delhi and is Director of the Lawyers’ Collective (Women’s Rights Initiative), an NGO engaged in providing legal aid services and conducting research and advocacy on women’s human rights. She was the first woman to be designated as Senior Counsel in the High Court of Bombay in 1985 and is currently the first, and only, woman to be appointed Additional Solicitor General of India. Her election to the Committee for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), on which she currently serves, has given her international experience in the field of women’s rights and enriched her advocacy. In this excerpt, Jaising recalls the influences that went to shape her as a legal professional.

I have often been asked the question how did you become what you are, how did you excel in a male-dominated profession, how did you come to work on socio-legal issues? I don’t know, perhaps there are no real answers to these questions, or perhaps all answers are rationalisations of one’s past. Or maybe some memory of displacement has always been with me and it propelled me into the fascinating world of activism in law.

My family is from Sindh, and they migrated toIndiaat or about the time of Partition in 1947. I still have memories of my grandparents’ house inPakistanand think of it as the home of my childhood. The horrors of Partition have escaped my memory, but the longing for my ancestral home has not. I sometimes wonder whether this longing is just another form of escapism or a symptom of a real connection with my past. Years later I visitedPakistan, a step which I alone in my family took – the older members of my family had no desire to do so – and remember the wonder that I felt when I heard people in government offices, the visa officer, the police house officer speak to each other, and to me, in Sindhi. For the first time I realised that the language into which I was born was actually spoken by a majority community in some part of the world. InIndia, from childhood, I was aware of the fact that in a country divided into linguistic states, the language I spoke at home had no state. It made me feel stateless. This feeling has been with me since my days at school, and I tend to think that in some ways it has given me a certain rootless freedom – of mobility and identity, an identity which I created for myself. I know that generations that came after me in my own family do not feel the same way, nor do they have the same memories. Perhaps I carry the legacy ofmidnight’s children. For the rest, my childhood was uneventful, born as I was into a family of businessmen accustomed to travelling from theportofKarachito theportofBombay.

Like all girl children in Sindhi families I was expected to marry early in life, procreate and settle down. I did neither. (I married much later in life, after I felt I had acquired a certain level of independence and autonomy in my career.) No sooner did my parents try to marry me off, than the question of dowry arose. I distinctly remember my proposed in-laws negotiating dowry with my parents. I was horrified. We lived in a joint family, and I had seen my cousins getting married with negotiated dowries and the consequent disputes in the respective families. The institution of dowry was entrenched in the Sindhi community, nobody questioned it. My parents thought it was natural, and even said so to me as justification for negotiating. So widespread was the evil in Sindh that it had its own Anti-Dowry Act long before our act of 1961. The community seemed to have carried its most backward traditions intoIndiaafter Partition, but I knew that this was not the life for me.

My refusal to be bartered away in marriage gave me a sense of self-worth. The life option of an early marriage and childbearing having been ruled out, a career was what I wanted, the ability to work and earn my own living. I pursued that option and chose to study law. Not having any lawyers in the family once again gave me the freedom and ability to invent myself. I do believe that I owe a large part of my ‘success’ to the fact that I had no one in the family who practiced law, and so I could choose my own role models. But I found none. Again, I had to invent my own, which I proceeded to do. Having lived in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as we have done, I have seen three generations of families of lawyers, from father to son to grandson – but never mother to daughter (or father to daughter) to grandmother. I have seen the transformation of law from being a profession to becoming a family business; what is more, I have seen members of the same family become judges, fathers to sons. It is almost as if I have seen the office of a judge become a hereditary one! I used to wonder how, in a democracy, such a phenomenon could exist. My good fortune (again related to the fact that I had no lawyers in my family) allowed me to escape that trap and look at the situation objectively and critically.

When I entered the profession it has a sense of stability about it. It looked for no change. Inherited legal practices from the British colonial regime seemed to be the only way to do law. The entire process of development in the legal profession was one which excelled in perfecting the tools, techniques and procedures left by the British. The prime purpose of the Advocates Act, for example, was to create one category of lawyers, doing away with all other types of indigenous practitioners. Unthinkingly, we accepted the oneness of the profession, without pausing to wonder whether it could serve the needs of the vast majority of people in the country in that static form. Those were days when the courts, particularly high courts and the Supreme Court, were unaware of their constitutional function and saw the judiciary as nothing more than a forum for resolving disputes. Those who were, chose to throw their weight behind a dying feudal order, striking down land reform legislation. Human rights did not figure in the debates or judgements of that era.

I struggled to find ways and means to make my work relevant, not only for myself but also for others. Fortunately, I was exposed to activist ways of achieving social goals, through a fellowship at theInstituteofAdvanced Legal StudiesinLondon, where I met several people who were engaged with law in a mission that was larger than them. This was in the mid-Sixties, a time of intense activism around the world.

It took an event as traumatic as the Emergency of 1975 to polarise Indian society and make all of us take a stand on which political side we stood. I chose to oppose the Emergency and worked with many others who resisted the suspension of all civil and political rights. This represented a turning point in my life and, I think, in the life of the judiciary as well.

(Excerpted from ‘Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India’, Edited by Ritu Menon; Published by: Women Unlimited, 2011; Pp: 386; Price (Softback): Rs 350)

(© Women’s Feature Service)


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