Colin, you run the Human Rights Law Network in India?
Yes. We started back in 1989 with just three people, in a small office in Mumbai. From there, we have grown to become India’s largest human rights law network with 21 offices and 250 full-time staff. 110 are lawyers, the rest are social activists and support staff. Our main office is in Delhi, as our work often involves litigation at the Supreme Court.
What kind of work do you do?
We spend half our time litigating and the other half campaigning on behalf of the poor. Our ethos has remained the same from day one: we never turn a needy person away. We are a bit superstitious about it. We think that turning people away brings bad luck! There are just two types of case that we will not do, however meritorious they may be: cases of men against women, and cases of employers against their employees. We don’t just sit here waiting to be found. We go out and give free legal advice and representation to people in prisons, beggars’ homes and juvenile homes.
Has the nature of the human rights work that you do changed over the years?
Yes. Back in 1989, we focused on labour law. I have a background in engineering and I worked with a trade union before I qualified as a lawyer. As the organisation spread throughout the country, we took on criminal law cases. Disability cases followed, and recently HIV work has become an important element of our work. Our original policy of not turning away people in need has naturally resulted in a huge variety of work. Our clients are most often women, children, Dalits (the lowest caste) and tribals (those living in forested areas). We have a website for those who would like to know more: http://www.hrln.org/. You’ll see that it is hard to find a social issue affecting the poor in India that the HRLN doesn’t already actively address.
You have also done some major terrorism cases.
Yes. Following the disappearance of 2000 people in the Punjab, we managed to obtain compensation from the government for their parents. All were alleged to have died in police custody but we could prove that at least 200 were cremated without written notification to their families. Disappearances like this are a problem. For example, the state of Andhra Pradesh officially acknowledges the deaths of around 200 ‘unarmed combatants’a year – journalists, academics, lawyers, and ordinary people. This is routine in at least 10 of India’s states. It works like this: The police catch someone, interrogate them, and then shoot them, claiming that an ‘encounter’with terrorists took place. In the Punjab and Kashmir we have lost about 20 lawyers just because they acted in terrorist cases. Their bodies are found floating in the river.
So the police act illegally on a routine basis?
Yes. And no policeman is ever punished for misconduct. In 1992, some 2,000 Muslims were killed in the Bombay communal riots. A committee of enquiry named 31 police officers and recommended that they be indicted for their direct participation in the riots. Since then, every single officer involved has been promoted.
You have also worked on some major social and economic cases?
That’s right. One of the most well known cases was on the right to food. We argued that this should be recognised as an extension to the ‘right to life’, as protected by the Indian Constitution. We brought the case on behalf of the People’s Union for Civil Liberty. The Supreme Court began hearing the case and making a series of orders from 2001. It probably has a further three years to run. The case brought mid-day meals to millions of children and food benefits to poor men, women and children throughout India. It also brought about the introduction of an employment programme, designed to give the poor the means with which to buy food. Sadly, overall malnutrition levels remain the same. But, the most important result of the Supreme Court orders has been their effect in halting the planned abolition of the mechanisms for public distribution of food to the poor.
Some would say that Indian judges have been rather creative in their interpretation of the right to life in your constitution.
That’s true. The right to life has been used to establish civil, political, and economic and social rights, such as the right to food, education, environment, health care and even legal aid and a speedy trial. The Indian judges acknowledge that this has involved a significant degree of judicial law-making.
Your Supreme Court has been very active.
I would agree that they were very active in the 1980s and 1990s. Things have changed since. The Supreme Court is becoming very regressive in some key areas. For example, it has privatised education, equated slum-dwellers with pickpockets, and reduced the rights of criminal defendants.
Why was it so creative in the 1980s?
It was probably a reaction to the emergency of 1975 when the government suspended the constitution and the Supreme Court did not interfere. That was a dark period. Judicial activism thereafter seemed to be an attempt by the judges to regain their hegemony. Alas, having regained their authority, they now seem anxious to lose it again! The Supreme Court is earning a very poor reputation and people are losing confidence in it. The poor no longer have access to the court system. The 1980s saw a very assertive Supreme Court that assumed jurisdiction when a poor person merely sent them a postcard. Nowadays, the Supreme Court is less bold and less likely to act.
How would you summarise the current position [of India?]
Abysmal. We have probably one of the worst records on human rights after China. The worst thing is that it is camouflaged by our democracy. Our government says to foreign diplomats that you can do business with India or talk about human rights, but not both.
Do you still find a commitment among lawyers and students to improving the situation?
In the cities, most law students are attracted by the commercial firms. In the colleges of poorer and rural areas you can still find young people who are interested. We get students to help us where we can and we accept that the low wages probably prevent them from working here for long. Only the most dedicated come. They are the hope for the future.
How do you keep a reasonable balance and stop the casework from overwhelming you?
It is difficult at times. We work very hard. We all come in on Saturdays and many of us work on Sundays too. We have a fantastically talented and committed staff.
You perform all roles yourself?
That’s right. Campaigning, advocacy, lecturing. I travel and speak most weekends.
How is the Human Rights Law Network structured?
This is actually currently under review. So far it has been pretty informal. We are considering introducing a formal membership structure that could generate some income in membership fees. It wouldn’t earn much. The government and Indian corporate interests won’t help us, as we take on very controversial cases. We are always in the news and always prepared to speak out when many voices are silenced. Our strong stance has earned significant respect from the public. We speak out in the media and we publish a magazine called Combat Law (http://www.combatlaw.org/), consisting of articles written by lawyers, journalists, academics and social activists.
Where does your funding come from?
Our main source of funding is the Swedish International Development Agency. The Germans and the Dutch, among others, are also significant contributors. However, the future is rather uncertain.
There is a trend amongst donors of phasing out their funds for India. They see India as a country with increasing economic wealth and therefore the means to fund its own legal services. I am glad to say that some donors understand how India really works and understand the vital importance of the work we do.