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Meet the law students who are fighting for change

  • In recent months, law students have been front and centre in the fight for civil liberties in India—whether through legal assistance or campus protests
  • From Aarey to NRC, they are actively working to question the powers that be and create a new order

Students who work on mental health in prisons and forensics as part of Project 39A at NLU, Delhi.
Students who work on mental health in prisons and forensics as part of Project 39A at NLU, Delhi. (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

In the lead-up to the 17th Lok Sabha election earlier this year, as political parties went into campaigning overdrive, run-of-the-mill barbs were interspersed with minsters across party lines hurling expletives at their opponents, even resorting to communal rhetoric. Yet even as social media was abuzz with comments about the country’s failing institutions, a network of lawyers and law students was keeping a close eye on election campaigns, trying to ensure politicians were adhering to the model code of conduct (MCC).

For instance, on 2 April, at an election rally in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Jayakaran Gupta was reported to have referred to Congress general secretary (east) Priyanka Gandhi, as “skirt wali bai". On 3 April, the Indian Civil Liberties Union (Iclu) promptly filed a complaint with the Election Commission (EC) alleging violation of Clause (2) of the MCC. Inspired by an initiative of the same name set up in 1936 by Jawaharlal Nehru, Iclu was started by Delhi-based Supreme Court advocate Anas Tanvir and supported by law students across the country. #WeAreWatching was the hashtag that they used through the election season.

Later that month, in the same constituency, chief minister Yogi Adityanath compared the election to a contest between “Ali" and “Bajrang Bali". The Iclu sprung into action. Adityanath was barred from campaigning by the EC for 72 hours.

On 31 August, the country was faced with another legal crisis. Nearly 1.9 million people found themselves excluded from the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) list in Assam. Five law schools, including the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, and National Law University (NLU), Delhi, jumped into the fray. In October, they launched a collaborative legal clinic to aid lawyers filing appeals before the foreigners’ tribunals for those left out of the list.

Called Parichay, the Guwahati-based clinic aims to function as a “clearing house of litigation and research assistance for lawyers filing appeals against exclusion", and is crucial as “not only may appellants lose their citizenship, but they may also be incarcerated in detention centres". Today, law students are at the heart of this initiative, which is still in its formative stage—some are already engaged in field research, while others are helping research broader constitutional questions and working with lawyers to identify areas of intervention.

Of late, law students have been at the forefront in the fight for civil liberties in India—whether it is in terms of offering legal assistance, advocacy work, campus or individual protests.

Historically, student activism is hardly a new phenomenon. It has played a crucial part from the days of the freedom movement to post independent India. Whether it was the students’ role in protesting the Emergency between 1975-77, or an assertion of rights by Dalit students in renaming Marathawada University after social reformer B.R. Ambedkar, campus politics has always helped in shaping sociopolitical realities. So influential was it that it even resulted in the renaming of Bombay, one of India’s most prosperous cities, to Mumbai in 1995.

In more recent memory, the four-month-long protest at Jadavpur University in 2014, demanding an investigation into the molestation of a female student on campus, snowballed into a nationwide agitation, allegedly owing to police brutality on students. In 2016, then Jawaharlal Nehru University students union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar and nine others were charged under sections 124A (sedition) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code for allegedly organizing an event to protest against the capital punishment meted out to the Parliament attack convicts Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat on 9 February that year.

Through all this, law students were missing from this simmering cauldron of student activism.

Student body-led protest on the campus of he National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru in September.
Student body-led protest on the campus of he National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru in September. (Photo Courtesy: Hamza Tariq)

Creating history

With barely two days to Diwali, the NLU, Delhi campus bears a deserted look. A lean bunch of hostellers, with textbooks and bare acts, scurries out of the library to catch up on lessons. Some are busy alternating between public service projects on death penalty, the mental health of prisoners and the state of forensics in India, and individual paper submissions. We meet Anup Surendranath, assistant professor of law, NLU, Delhi, to understand the reason behind the absence of law students from a wider discourse on activism. He says it may have something to do with the structure of law schools. “These are expensive places to study. Most students come in with a single-minded focus on building financially lucrative careers. Elections here are of a sanitized nature. National law universities are not the mass politics spaces that JNU or Jadavpur are."

So what has changed? In September, the Students Bar Association president of National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, Hamza Tariq says the institution had its first student body-led protest on campus regarding the delay in appointment of a vice-chancellor. According to Tariq, this is a result of the changing demographics of law colleges—particularly the NLSIU—over the last 10 years. “With an influx of students from smaller cities, there is less of a concern for corporate law, making them less risk-averse," he says.

Shivangi Sharma, fifth-year law student at Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Raipur.
Shivangi Sharma, fifth-year law student at Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Raipur. (Photo: Mint)

Around the same time, over 400 students of Himachal Pradesh National Law University staged a protest regarding hike in collegefees. In September last year, Shivangi Sharma, 22, a fifth-year student of Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Raipur, who also manages content and public relations for Iclu, was part of a protest against inaction regarding sexual harassment, financial mismanagement and restrictions imposed by the hostel authorities at the HNLU campus.

Like their counterparts in universities such as Delhi University and JNU, law students are now going beyond social media activism to raise their voices on issues micro and macro—on campus issues or sociopolitical events such as the NRC, the #MeToo movement, and felling of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony.

“I think it is very important. The law is one of the most important instruments that structures power relations in society, and lawyers wield outsize influence because of their familiarity with its vocabulary and its systems," says NLSIU alumnus and advocate, Gautam Bhatia. “Law school is where the law is first taught—and it is often taught in an apolitical way, in a way that masks its role in society. Activism and advocacy fill that gap."

And that’s what Tariq and Divyanshu Badole (vice president, SBA) of NLSIU did. They went against the NLS way of “sending long emails or writing blog posts" and rallied the students—conducting democratized discussions and assimilating support from various cultural societies and the alumni. “On ground social activism is something you can’t do without. Especially law students who are fighting for the rights of others," he says.

An immediate example could be seen in Mumbai, when, on 4 October, the city protested the decision to fell over 2,000 trees in Aarey to make way for a car shed for the Mumbai Metro. Matters came to a head when the Bombay high court refused to declare Aarey a forest and declined to quash the Brihannmumbai municipal corporation’s decision to allow the tree-cutting. Citizens and activists took to the streets.

Rishav Ranjan, a fourth-year-student from Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida
Rishav Ranjan, a fourth-year-student from Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Over 1,000km away, in Greater Noida, Rishav Ranjan, a fourth-year student from Lloyd Law College, was following the sequence of events. When he heard of his friends Kapil Agarwal and Shruti Madhavan Nair being rounded up by the police along with other protesters, he addressed a letter dated 6 October to the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, requesting the top court “to exercise its epistolary jurisdiction to protect Aarey". On 7 October, the apex court took cognisance of the letter, treated it as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), and ordered a stay on the felling of trees.

While Bhatia believes it is inspiring to see law students across the country stand up to the powers that be, he also alerts us to the flip-side of an overzealous use of the PIL system. “When you are filing a PIL, it’s not about you—you are actually claiming to represent an entire class of people whose rights have been infringed or denied," he says.

In the Aarey case, the high court order itself stated: “petitioners should file an application before the Supreme Court, and concerning the eco-sensitive zone notification dated 5th December 2016, an application should be filed before the National Green Tribunal." Critics maintained Ranjan’s PIL diluted the authority of the high court and also “raises the potential of floodgate litigation".

That is a very heavy responsibility because the lives of thousands of people depend on the outcome of the PIL. “I think law students need to understand that these are very very choppy waters—it’s easy to file a PIL and get it heard—but if/when it gets dismissed or you get a bad order, it’s not the PIL petitioner who suffers—but other people do," Bhatia adds.

Ranjan’s move too came under scrutiny. As we meet at the Jahanpanah City Forest, a lush haven in south Delhi, Ranjan maintains that though he would have ideally preferred to file an urgent application in the matter, there was simply no time for that. “Hence I wrote that letter to the CJI urging the Supreme Court to look beyond conventions."

At the next hearing, he is hoping that the apex court will order an absolute stay on the construction and the project. “The government had also been asked to give a status report on the trees that have been felled and the number of saplings which have been planted as part of the compensatory afforestation. That is yet to happen," says Ranjan, who believes that an intersection between legal activism and public movement will be the way forward. “Aarey has been portrayed as an activist-centric movement. It is not. Those who were arrested on 4 October were stock traders, teachers, designers and entrepreneurs. This is a citizens’ movement and it will continue to grow organically," he adds.

When we ask Ranjan what prompted him to take up a cause in a city far removed from his immediate reality, he says: “In the times we live in, that’s not a valid question. Why Aarey? Why Amazon? Environmental catastrophes will affect all of us equally. Unlike the government, which gets into technicalities and destructs habitats, we should do something about it."

Law students step up

It is a similar motivation that drives other law students, who believe that to ignore the issues that confront citizens today goes against the ethos of constitutional morality.

“We often underestimate the sheer energy and idealism, and just how driven students can be. Much is lamented about the youth today. But we also need to recognize the potential, the passion and fire, which is a beautiful thing about working with young adults, ages 19-23," says Surendranath. He says it’s an immense sacrifice for students to give up internships with top law firms to dedicate a sizeable chunk of their time to collectives and groups that take up causes close to their heart.

Growing up in a Kashmiri Pandit family in Delhi, Vasundhra Kaul, 22, a fifth-year student of NLU, Delhi, who has volunteered to help with Parichay, has witnessed the impact of violence on those living away from the Valley or within it at close quarters, so much so, that some relatives have now become immune to the news of conflict. “At a time when the country is facing this mammoth humanitarian crisis, in the form of the NRC, it’s important for law schools and students to step up," she adds.

Although she is now based in Gurugram, an hour’s drive from campus, she has decided to stay back at the hostel during holidays to manage her curriculum with work for the legal aid clinic and Project 39A. The latter is a research and litigation initiative led by Surendranath, which re-examines practices and policies in the criminal justice system. It aims to start new conversations on legal aid, torture, mental health in prisons and death penalty.

Another volunteer who is staying put at the hostel is Prayagraj-based Yoshita Srivastava, Kaul’s colleague at Project 39A. The third-year student is working on the forensics project, which looks at the increasing reliance on forensic evidence, especially DNA profiling, in criminal proceedings and whether the labs are adequately equipped to sustain the increasing caseload. “I am interested in this interaction of science and law," says Srivastava, who has been visiting various government forensic laboratories across the country. “The perception I had and the on-ground reality of the laboratories is vastly different. The scientists are heavily burdened without adequate incentives and lack the proper infrastructure for examining the continuous barrage of cases. There needs to be better understanding of the role of forensic science in the criminal justice system to facilitate proper utilization of these facilities," says the 20-year-old.

Kaul concurs and believes that one shouldn’t approach any of these projects as charity. Whether it is volunteering at P39A or Parichay, the minute students start seeing this work as sacrifice, the cause is lost. “After all, legal aid is at the very heart of what a law school does. Parichay is going to be a massive coordination exercise, but it will be worth it," adds Kaul, dressed in a crisp white shirt and beige trousers, at the NLU, Delhi library.

Parichay has already received 600 volunteer applications from law students across the country—it plans to select 100 and have a core team of 10 students. Project 39A too receives nearly 400-500 applications from law students across the country during periods of high activity—phases in the project when students need to track families of prisoners and undertake other field research—in addition to students from NLU, Delhi.

The preliminary findings of Parichay’s volunteers are quite startling. Not many are aware of the legal process. “Lot of people also wonder if it is even necessary to file an appeal. If the state government continues to give assurance that you can continue to vote even if you have been left out of the NRC, why file an appeal at all?" says Darshana Mitra, a faculty member at NUJS who is leading Parichay’s efforts. What people don’t realize is that if you don’t file an appeal, a reference will be made against your name by the foreigners’ tribunal—there is no escaping the consequences.

Help for those excluded from the NRC is coming from Iclu as well. The organization, started earlier this year, comprises lawyers and academicians, but most of the legwork is coordinated by law students from HNLU, Raipur, NUJS, Kolkata, and Gujarat National Law University (GNLU), Gandhinagar, as well as student volunteers who help out with individual projects. The network usually chooses issues that its core team of lawyers has worked on—such as tracking mob lynching cases, against which Tanvir helped draft a law, that has been presented to a parliamentary panel—or those that demand urgent attention and legal support, such as NRC.

“These efforts are mostly coordinated on our WhatsApp group and Google Drive, since we communicate across the country," says Sharma. For the NRC, she puts out posts and primers on their official Twitter account, offering pro bono legal counsel. “We have provided a helpline number. And people send us direct messages on Twitter," she says. “We analyse the documents they submit and then connect them to lawyers, who would then be able to provide the required legal assistance."

These protests and advocacy initiatives have had a visible impact. Several Iclu election complaints led to censure on communal or casteist speeches by politicians, and they have been following up on mob lynching cases through RTIs (right to information applications) in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.

“The next thing we are starting is a paralegal course across NLUs. We will be training people about the Citizenship Amendment Bill, and sensitize them about how they can help," says Sharma. The Bill, if passed, will make immigrants from the Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Sikh and Hindu communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. “It basically excludes the Muslim community and has created a lot of fear. The students will help us in drafting appeal petitions," she says.

Additionally, Sharma, who is passionate about gender rights, applied her knowledge of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (Posco) and set out on an independent project aside from her efforts at Iclu. She prepared a document on child sexual abuse laws and spent two weeks during her summer vacations sensitizing teachers across five schools in Bhopal. “Every single girl I know has in some way or the other faced sexual harassment. It’s not a crime which happens rarely. It’s so frequent and so less talked about because of how conservative our society is, especially in a city like Bhopal," she says. “A lot of teachers were hesitant to talk about this, but they had a few instances of children coming to talk to them about cases of abuse and they didn’t know what to do. I broke the barrier of hesitation to talk about it."

The way forward

According to Surendranath, working on such projects consistently—learning to read a criminal law file, looking at evidence and seeing the way arguments are crafted—leaves a deep impression on young minds. “The 90 students who were part of the Death Penalty India Report (a student-led project at NLU, Delhi between 2013-16 concerning the socioeconomic profile of prisoners sentenced to death in India, and the manner in which they are sentenced to death), especially the 12 at the core, have critically reflected on what they should do as lawyers," he says. Surendranath cites Maulshree Pathak as an example. Part of the core team, Pathak, at the age of 19-20, revealed an incredible ability for handling difficult conversations with the families of death row prisoners, after which she would write a clear and incisive analysis. It made her realize that criminal law was her calling—she wanted to take up litigation in the lower courts.

Working on such projects can often lead to frustration as well, since most students, fired by passion, would like to see results. When they witness the harsh realities of prisons, and the slow pace at which the law works, they wonder if their voice will make any difference. “Learning that change is slow and these entrenched systems take time to reform can often be a hard lesson to accept. This learning goes a long way, especially when they step into the formal legal world," adds Surendranath.

Not everyone, of course, has opted to practise criminal law. Many have entered the fields of urban planning, academics, corporate law, but they have started their careers with the critical learning of how to use education to impact the lives of others. “Not that everyone has to do a version of saving the world, but everyone needs to be socially aware," says Surendranath.

Some, like Ranjan, are looking at a political career. He is at present coordinating activities for Yuva Halla Bol (YHB), a non-partisan campaign which raises issues of paper leaks in the government jobs sector and fights for the youth, who might be unaware of “systemic behaviour", but are aspiring for fair job opportunities and recruitment processes. He has also drafted an MCC, along with other YHB members, to deal with delay in recruitments, and is currently working on a form of legislation to guarantee “right of employment". Ranjan is also associated with psephologist and activist Yogendra Yadav’s political party Swaraj India and hopes to strive for an alternative kind of politics.

Sharma of Iclu perhaps summarizes it best. Driven by the ambition to succeed as litigators, while fiercely upholding constitutional freedoms both for themselves and others, these students are balancing lectures with litigation, Acts with activism and course work with counsel. “We are law students and we are inherently revolutionary. We have chosen this career. We prepare ourselves to fight for other people’s rights. We study our Constitution as a story and we need to fight for it to be implemented," says Sharma. “There is a wave among students because we understand the value of our rights and the value of our voice."

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