• With the fearless voice of integrity gagged, who will speak for you and me?

    LC has restored to the impoverished and marginalised her locus standi as a citizen

    Kalpish Ratna

    June 29, 2019

    How does one publicly acknowledge a very private debt? Often that’s a sign of mourning. This isn’t such an occasion. It is, contrariwise, a time to energize and shore up resources for resistance. Nonetheless, at the brutal gagging of the Lawyers Collective, I feel the anguish one reserves only for the passing of a dear and trusted friend.

    The law and I have not always been the polite strangers we are today. We were taught the Constitution in school, and not in the highly selective version children are now offered today. The entire document was planted on the desk and the teacher, a spirited young woman called Nanda Chatterjee, let loose a gaggle of eight and nine-year-olds on it. I went home bursting with rights and privileges, impatient to educate my father.

    Our thirty-year difference never showed on our Socratic rambles, and when I had astonished him with the Constitution, he remarked, ‘It is our greatest epic.’

    Epic? He’d got it so wrong.

    There were no stories, I protested, unlike the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. And where were the heroes?

    “You and me. And the rest of the family,” he said, in an unusually grave tone. “This epic is about us, and the distant family we must look out for so that they get their rights and privileges too. The Constitution is the only epic that matters because all its heroes are real. It belongs to each one of us Indians, and we can rely on it absolutely.”

    Perhaps it was that faith which kept my father going. Between Mr Micawber and Babasaheb Ambedkar, he struck a happy balance. Despite a hard, and often unjust life, his trust in human goodness remained unshaken.

    Mine had been severely tested by the time I met the Lawyer’s Collective, exactly twenty years after I was introduced to my distant family by the Constitution. It was 1985. By then, my distant family included pavement dwellers, many of them were Bangladeshi refugees who had built some sort of stability on the footpaths of Bombay, circumjacent to hospitals I worked in as a surgical resident. And, suddenly, that stability was threatened. Sweeping evictions since 1981 had robbed them of home, livelihood, family, and inevitably, life. I watched their children blink out like sparks, life barely kindled, only to be extinguished. I faced their grief with bewilderment. Apart from a few therapies, basically useless in the face of starvation and misery, I had nothing to offer them.

    Within the hospital, I existed in a surreal space. We were purportedly saving lives, but none of those lives was conceded, human. I heard my colleagues arbitrate on their patients’ right to exist with a cold detachment Josef Mengele would have envied. I watched women die of burns, and with their last breath exonerate their murderers. I witnessed female colleagues join male residents in making salacious comments at the bedside of a raped five-year-old still haemorrhaging from her horrific injuries. Human depravity was a black hole.

    The Constitution was, by now, on par with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. A literary composition to be cherished, but no longer as my father saw it, a vade mecumto life.

    There seemed little to choose between despair and cynicism.

    A chance encounter led me to Indira Jaising.

    I was aware of her work through Anwar, one of the evicted pavement dwellers I knew. His plight had in no way improved. He was still homeless, but he no longer looked so beaten.

    ‘What’s changed?’ I asked him.

    Anwar’s answer was entirely devoid of reproach or irony. ‘The court has acknowledged me as human, mujhe insaan samjha gaya.’

    Over the next months, I watched the Lawyer’s Collective take on matters that seemed abysmal in their hopelessness. It didn’t seem to me that they were defending human rights—they were defending something more visceral. They were defending the people’s first demand: to be acknowledged as human. And nowhere is this better seen than in Anand Grover’s work for the HIV positive.

    AIDS had just made itself felt, and the public reaction was medieval in its barbarity. Doctors reacted with horror, not compassion. Science went out of the window, hospitals reeked of sanctimony.

    Anand Grover’s work went far beyond organizing the legal framework to protect the rights of HIV positive. Long before the Naz Foundation’s historic court case, his work had sensitized many more than the people he trained. Ripples spread, and a subtle spirit of enquiry diffused through the rejection of friends, family, care-givers. People who couldn’t bring themselves to utter the word homosexual except as insult began at least to credit it as a state of being, even if it was with othering condescension, as in, they too are human. That too made the grudging statement possible. Inhe bhi insaan samjho, as Anwar might have put it.

    Section 377 was more than a law. It was a weapon of hate, an excuse for personal or state brutality. Its vexed history can be read in courtroom records, but its devastating human cost is all around us. Hardly as covert and clandestine as people would like to believe—simply unacknowledged.

    Nothing is as cruel as the rejection of a child by its parents, and no story is more common among the LBGTQ+ community.

    (Somehow every issue the Lawyers Collective has taken up leads on to the one I’m always urging them to address: the personhood of the Indian child.)

    I trained in paediatric surgery at a time when the surgical decisions made for children with sexual ambiguity were nothing short of savage. If medicine today is more compassionate towards these children, the credit must go to Anand Grover. Change is often perceived as pixels before it can be integrated as a vision. On both my jobs, my eye is trained for those pixels.

    Indira Jaising’s war against misogyny has been so unrelenting and so diverse that it already forms an integrated vision of Indian womanhood. Yet I worry that her work has just begun. True, through her efforts, the brief has gone from resist, resist till you drop dead resisting, very nearly to resist, for the law is on your side. And as long as there is something left to resist, women are a threatened species.

    When I consider all that has been achieved through her endeavours, the change is unbelievable. The worries are still there, misogyny is still a strangling force, but now we have the weapons of combat. And, most importantly, its sordid and shameful secrets are out in full public view. Aye, there’s the rub. Patriarchy’s worst crimes all too often wear a female face. Indira Jaising’s work has ensured that we can no longer retreat behind the cant of ‘societal pressures.’ These pressures are now crimes, and there are laws to redress them.

    Despite this, women continue to abet and support and inflict cruelty and injustice towards other women. I see this as part of our cult of violence which is almost an automatism with Indian society, caste and creed no bar.

    If you list the forms of violence towards women which are considered normativeit begins with a denial of personhood. I’m not talking with the obvious violence of denial of existence by way of genetic preselection, feticide, infanticide, dowry murder, sati. I’m talking of something far more insidious; I’m talking of erasure. It is this, even more than the physical violence of murder or rape that ensures the silent and relentless propagation of misogyny. Erasure is the state’s refusal to countenance women as autonomous entities. She is always either d/o or w/o on a government form.

    Indira Jaising took on erasure when she defended Githa Hariharan’s right to guardianship and Mary Roy’s right to inherit property. Why have these victories not yet done away with d/o and w/o on official documents?

    Domestic violence is the world’s best kept secret, and the Lawyer’s Collective has, time and again, torn the gag off. But Jaising’s signal contribution has accomplished more than that: we now have a primer against domestic violence, a plan of action. Very often, that is all that’s needed to energize a woman to resist. Jaising has cannily relied on her clients’ grit and stamina, but I have, many more times, witnessed her compassion when these strengths cannot be sustained. And that, above all, defines her attitude towards victims of domestic violence.

    As a writer, I envy Indira Jaising’s ability to rationally counter the irrational. As a surgeon, I enjoy her incisive arguments that clear obfuscations and cut cleanly down to the bone. Above all, I treasure her intellectual ability to lateralize thought.

    Somewhere along these last thirty years of knowing the Lawyer’s Collective, the Constitution became once more the epic it had been in my childhood, the heroes now living in real time. My extended family grew, no longer so distant. I felt some of my father’s faith in the laws that set us free, sovereign in our rights and expectations to lead meaningful lives.

    In recent days, the Constitution has been ignored and abused. There is a systematic breaking down of the machinery of law and order and a malevolent effort to discredit and destroy dissent. Thirty years before #MeToo, I watched Indira Jaising help a friend who was sexually harassed by her PhD guide. I witnessed the University’s reaction—the Vice Chancellor then was a woman who shrugged and said, ‘But he is such a distinguished man!’

    In disgust, I rescinded my PhD too, for what enlightenment could I expect from so ignorant a source?

    A similar complaint against another distinguished man seems to have provoked the same flurry of denial. When Jaising, in the best traditions of the law, demanded accountability, it is she who has been pilloried.

    When the recently elected members began the parliament session with cries of Jai Shri Ram, it was not in greeting, but as a taunt. The Opposition responded with Allahhu Akbar and Jai Bheem.

    Can there be a greater desecration to the Constitution than this open declaration of war on religious lines?

    With such an example, is it any surprise to see a mob beat a young man to death, all the while exhorting him to utter Jai Shri Ram?

    This calls for a rational opposition to the irrational.

    Religious texts and slogans have no standing in the temple of law, where every citizen may only be guided by the Constitution which enshrines faith as a citizen’s private concern.

    The Lawyer’s Collective has accomplished much to restore the Constitution to the people. It has restored to the impoverished and marginalized Indian her locus standi as a citizen. She is one of us. So is the soldier who put his life on the line for the nation only to be interned as a ‘foreign infiltrator.’ So is Bilkis Banu whose strength and dignity put her rapists to shame. So was the young man was beaten to death, making the holy name of Ram the instrument of an abhorrent evil. The Constitution makes them all, to each one of us, family.

    With the fearless voice of integrity gagged, who will speak for my son Tabrez? Who will speak for you and me?


    Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together as Kalpish Ratna.

    First published in The Leaflet.

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