A recent graduate from NLSIU, Bangalore, it has taken me five years and many experiences to shape me into a “political person”. While peoples’ movements throw up lawyers, often times, lawyers get involved in activism through their association with the many people who redefine engagement with the law. I am far from claiming the right to be called an activist, but I can say that my work has introduced me to the rich world of activism and dissent. A world that I wish to share with you.
I also want to share with you my excitement and frustrations with the law, given how alive it is at any given point in time. And while this post is bound to be anecdotal, the effort is to offer my perspective on the close link between law, politics and peoples’ movements in India today.
Lastly, I want to introduce you to Kranti. Kranti is a festival, a festival to reclaim the culture of dissent. It is partly an outcome of my experiences with the law this far, and is an experiment that might interest some of you.
One of the ways in which I have engaged with the law has been in the form of sending recommendations on draft legislations. Bills are often published, and the public is invited to send their suggestions to standing committees or departments which are involved in fine-tuning them. This is an important but under-used manner of engaging with the law, either as a lobby or individually. It requires one to envision how the law can or cannot empower/regulate/curb socio-economic realities, a process which has the potential of saving energy that might have to be spent after the bill becomes law. Torture, manual scavenging, sexual violence, land acquisition are some of the issues I understood while working on making recommendations.
But not all concerns have even been regarded as being worthy of legal attention. Domestic workers and their demands of recognition as labour with the accompanying rights is one such. Organisations such as the Stree Jagriti Samiti in Bangalore are organising this otherwise unorganised sector. Work with them has sensitised me to see labour and injustice in shadows we barely care to look. Migrant workers, for instance, or security guards who belong to the growing tribe of contract workers, are other such categories which largely remain ignored. Efforts to gain recognition for such groups are political processes which will require many sacrifices and time. And struggles to bring such workers out of the shadow continue, despite this difficult realisation.
And what about when there has been legal recognition through an empowering law? Implementing the law is a gargantuan task in a nation like ours. Legal awareness and politicising people enough to enable them to seek legal recourse is thus terribly important. I used to do this on a small scale through the Legal Services Clinic back in college. The Legal Services Clinic spreads awareness about Domestic Violence Act, Right to Information Act and several such empowering legislations through skits, newsletters, posters and street plays.
My internships in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh however required me to engage in legal awareness on a larger, more political scale. Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan was my initial entry into this world through the projects they champion, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act. But since I was just in my first year of law school at the time, I did not understand the significance of their organisational efforts until five years later, when I went to Chhattisgarh to intern with the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha.
The implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act can go a long way in empowering the many tribals who are being displaced from their traditional ways of life in the forests which have been their homes. These laws recognise the power of the local gram sabhas in determining the fate of these villages. They are however observed more in the breach than in practice. And the only way to rectify this is through raising awareness among tribals, and urging them to take charge of their lands. I spent five weeks in Chhattisgarh, one of India’s most conflict ridden areas, where I saw efforts of this very nature. The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha and the larger umbrella organisation of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan are trying their might to spread awareness among the adivasis in the region. Teams of people trained in the working of the Forest Rights Act and Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, travel in cars and trucks and by foot from village to village, spreading word about the revolutionary potentials these laws offer them. These are organisational efforts that are always under a resource crunch, face violent threat from the State and corporations and come at the cost of heavy personal sacrifices. And yet, this is the life of many activists in India today. Efforts that we may never be able or willing to replicate, but efforts we can enable and support nonetheless.
My more “legal” internships were spent in the chambers of lawyers who redefine what it means to be a lawyer. Jawahar Raja, Mihir Desai and Sudha Bharadwaj, have each carved out their own spaces in the courts where they defend the rights of women and workers and “terrorists” and tribals and several other marginalised groups. Their efforts are not only to defend their clients in the cases they pick, but to change the manner in which courts interpret and thus define the law. “Sadak ki ladai aur kagaz ki ladai, saath saath” as the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha so aptly puts it; the combined effort of people on the ground and in courts to orchestrate change has revolutionary potential.
And while each of us perhaps has to go through our own, long personal evolution to become aware and “political” if we so choose, it can be precipitated through exposure to others’ experiences. And this post is an effort to do that. In fact, this post is part of a larger campaign that some of us are working on in order to raise solidarity for the many brave political dissidents in India today. Dissidents whose politics pose questions and offer solutions that deserves to be considered in this vastly iniquitous time.
A section of every generation feels it is at the cusp of something that will go diabolically wrong. And perhaps every generation is right. It is this fear, of something terribly wrong about India’s marginalised, which has led a few of us to reclaim the culture of dissent. In a national campaign we’re calling “Kranti – Reclaiming Dissent”, some of us want to discover and celebrate the rich and political culture of dissent in India. “We”, were originally law students from NLSIU, Bangalore. Over time, “we” have spread to other streams in other colleges in different cities.
And what is this culture of dissent? It is the culture that threw up a political street theatre artist like Safdar Hashmi who was killed while he was performing a play, by a goon. It is the culture that throws up a film maker like Anand Patwardhan who makes and screens his “controversial” documentaries, despite bans on them. It is the culture that throws up singers like Bant Singh who sings political songs despite being maimed by those from a “higher” caste. It is the culture that throws up young students of the Kabir Kala Manch, who court arrest for singing the songs they believe in – against caste atrocities and gender oppression. It is the culture that resulted in the spontaneous outburst in the streets of Delhi late last year.
Kranti is an effort to understand the many stories of marginalisation in India and the ways in which brave dissidents are fighting for them – through their art, through their words, though their politics. Displacement, womens’ rights, workers’ demands and caste atrocities are some of the spaces we have chosen to trace dissent. We do this through documentary screenings, songs of protest, photo exhibitions, street plays and political conversations. As of now, we are present in Bangalore, Pune, Bombay, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Mysore and Delhi.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll tell you more about the journeys that have led to the birth and growth of Kranti and share with you the many incredible pit stops we have made along the way. But if you wish to join us in our journey right away, write in to us at email@example.com or visit us here.
Sahana is a graduate of NLSIU, Class of '13. She will soon be joining the chambers of Jawahar Raja and Rajat Kumar to practice in Delhi. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.