“I’m a great believer in deliberative democracy; where you speak, but you also listen. You come through the other side with differences intact, but you also come through together in important ways.”
Those are the words of Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer in India, speaking from her New Delhi office this month.
In recent years, Nundy, who specializes in human rights litigation, has battled in some of India's most divisive and challenging cases. She sought justice for the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, fought for online free speech and contributed to the drafting of India's so-called anti-rape laws that were enacted following the 2012 gang rape and death of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus.
After pursuing a law degree at Cambridge and then a fellowship at New York’s Columbia University, Nundy, who is also a commercial lawyer, worked at international tribunals and with the United Nations before eventually returning to India more than a decade ago.
Nundy, 39, recently spoke to The Huffington Post about her career in law, her biggest achievements to date and women's rights in India, among other issues. Below are edited excerpts of the conversation.
On her choice to become a Supreme Court advocate in India:
“It was very clear to me that my job had to be vocation; a purpose that comes from deep within. [As a student] I realized that what I really care about is making a direct impact on the world. I remember walking into my first law school class at Cambridge. I discovered I had a mind. It really was like coming home.
[As for coming back to India], there were a number of reasons for that decision. I did think quite carefully about acting as a barrister in England but ultimately, I felt that here is where I could make the biggest contribution -- not just in human rights work, but also as a general lawyer. I felt this is where the need was. I have a visceral understanding of these various layers [here], in terms of language, in terms of nuance and information.
The Indian Supreme Court has one of the widest jurisdictions of any court in the world. They can, under the Constitution, hear an order from any court at any stage. The Supreme Court can intervene directly; they can do complete justice. That was particularly attractive to me.
It is also a court of ideas, as much as it is a court of facts. It has been quite a leader when it comes to economic and social rights, for instance.”
On fighting injustice and her most rewarding cases:
[Editor's note: Earlier this year, the Indian Supreme Court struck down a controversial law that made posting “offensive” comments on social media a crime. The court ruled that the amendment was unconstitutional and a restriction on freedom of speech. Nundy was one of the attorneys who represented campaigners in the hearings.]
“A lot of people were being arrested and tried in the online free speech case. The law made speech that people found annoying or inconvenient criminal. Anyone with such a complaint could go to a local police officer and say, ‘I find this annoying.’ A police officer could then arrest you for that. But what ‘annoying’ is, wasn’t defined anywhere. It all seemed so silly. I didn’t think the law would be passed. But it was passed and it was used. It was used frequently.
[Getting that law struck down] was something that was very satisfying, with quite a direct impact.
The Bhopal cases have been slow and difficult work. It’s a poster child of injustice, a festering sore on the world’s conscience. We have recently reopened the deeply unfair settlement, and the Supreme Court will hear it at some point.
“I've learned to see the value of persistence in the face of very, very strong opposition.”
We’ve had two major victories so far. One was getting safe water to communities in the area, and cutting off the groundwater that had carcinogens and other chemicals in it that were making people very, very sick. The other victory was a comprehensive order for free and good health care to be given to the people there. When it comes to enforcement, though, there are still battles.
At my more discouraged stages, people from Bhopal tell me: ‘You’ve helped us keep this case alive.’ Engaging in these cases has also changed me. It’s helped me to see the value of something that doesn’t have that immediate impact. Instead, I’ve learned to see the value of persistence in the face of very, very strong opposition. What’s being challenged here is the governmental and corporate nexus at its most corrupt. It’s very difficult to break through.”
On the public response following the 2012 murder and gang rape of a New Delhi student:
“Men and women, young and old, there were so many people who came onto the streets. Delhi was the epicenter for the movement, but it was happening everywhere. People were saying ‘enough is enough; this is not OK for us as a society.’ It was incredibly moving.
As somebody who deals with constitutional rights, there’s this understanding that your own rights are intricately tied with the rights of others. You believe in that and you work on that every day. So when there’s a mass of people who say that ‘yes, we are part of this too. We stand up for this idea too whether it affects us personally or not.’ ... To me, that was quite huge.”
On the narrative of the “poor Indian woman”:
In the international media, there’s been one problematic trope. ‘Look at these poor women in India. We need to help rescue them.’
The protests [related to the 2012 death of the student] were particularly inspiring in that people were standing up in solidarity with India while also looking at patriarchy in their own communities and own nations. That response was really welcome.
It's important to recognize there’s patriarchy and rape across the world in every country, in every neighborhood.”
On the drafting of India’s new “anti-rape” laws, following this public outcry:
“When all these people came on the streets, a lot of exciting things happened. The Verma Committee [a government-appointed panel tasked with reforming India’s ‘anti-rape’ laws] was set up, and people who were involved in that committee all said they went through this incredible journey and had become feminists at the end of it.
The committee consulted a wide swath of people, including myself. They then came up with a report that included a bill of rights. That document is such a manifesto for freedom. It was all really inspiring.
But though this was all commissioned by the government, at the end of it they said, ‘Yes, thank you very much,’ and they put it in storage. You can just imagine the shock.
An ordinance was then issued, but it was very problematic. At that point, various people who had participated in the movement in 2012 involved some of us lawyers. We then drafted various bits of law, inspired by the Verma Committee and other places. [Editor's note: This work all eventually led to the passing of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, colloquially called the ‘anti-rape bill.’]
In all this, there have been some victories and some major defeats. In terms of victories, one of the wins was making sure that police officers would be held criminally accountable for the reporting of sexual violence. If an officer fails to report a sexual assault complaint, they themselves are now criminally liable. Violations such as stalking and voyeurism were also added [to the penal code].
In terms of the defeats -- well, there were many. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
On what needs to happen next:
One of the major things in the manifesto is the implementation of these laws that have been enacted.
What we really need is for each administrative governmental body to look at what they need to do in this fight. It’s not just addressing the problem of violence, but also other related issues. We need to be sending girls to school, keeping girls in school, ensuring that women have the same access to health care, etc.
Government bodies have to look at all of that, cost it and ask themselves: What do I need to do to make this happen? Do I need more tables and chairs? Do I need to change the guidelines of my organization? Do I need to hire more female officers? Do I need to add gender training? Government departments need to come together [to tackle this].
One priority should be the implementation of a very intense public education program to take down patriarchy. Patriarchy is a public health concern.
We also need to be teaching kids about consent and sexuality. Kids need to know that gender is a continuum and that sexuality is a continuum. ... These things can be done.
Criminalizing marital rape is another top priority. Doctrinally in my mind, it’s so clear: Rape is rape. But there has been so much opposition to making marital rape a crime. To me, this is a constitutional issue. Because it’s a constitutional issue, it’s something the courts should be acting on [though] they've refused to do so on various occasions.”
“Patriarchy is a public health concern.”
On the importance of “deliberative democracy”:
“I’m a great believer in deliberative democracy; where you speak, but you also listen. You come through the other side with differences intact, but you also come through together in important ways.
It’s through conversations that we can really find solutions. It’s through them that people’s ideas can change.
Around the world, there’s so much polarization in politics. Look at the right-wing politicians and the liberals here in India, or the Democrats and the Republicans in the U.S. -- people are shouting at each other so much, they’re not talking to each other.
I think it’s fundamental to engage and talk about these important issues, such as sexual assault.
People need to start seeing women as full citizens, full individuals, with the right to a taste in music, with a right to go to work, to express their own sexualities the way they wish. I think that’s something that can come through conversation, but will come also with power.”
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