ALF 10th Anniversary - Introduction by Lawrence Liang
Duration: 00:17:56; Aspect Ratio: 1.738:1; Hue: 14.923; Saturation: 0.118; Lightness: 0.317; Volume: 0.291; Cuts per Minute: 1.783; Words per Minute: 164.303
Summary: Talk titled : Courage, Craft and Contention: Human Rights and the Judicial Imagination
Lawrence, a graduate form National Law School subsequently pursued his Masters degree in Warwick, England on a Chevening Scholarship. His key areas of interest are law, technology and culture, the politics of copyright and he has been working closely with Sarai, New Delhi on a joint research project Intellectual Property and the Knowledge/Culture Commons. A keen follower of the open source movement in software, Lawrence has been working on ways of translating the open source ideas into the cultural domain.
LL: I'd like to begin -Honorable Chief Justice AP Shah, Prof. Upendra Baxi, members of the judiciary and friends. Good evening, and welcome to ALF's tenth anniversary lecture.
It is an honor to see so many of you - friends and well-wishers- who have been a part of ALF's journey over the past ten years, and its also a privilege to introduce our two distinguished speakers for today.
LL: But before introducing our speakers, I would like to spend a few minutes on behalf of all my colleagues at Alternative Law Forum, reflecting a little bit on what our journey has been -and what the entire journer has been like so far. I know that its rather unfashionable now a days to be sentimental - particularly, to be sentimental in public - but hopefully it's not yet unfashionable to be honest, because in all honesty, I am sure that I speak on behalf of my colleagues - we've really been overwhelmed over the last week to 10 days- with all the responses that we have been receiving, as well as all the wishes, from a large number of people, from all walks of life- through emails, and also through all of you being present here.
LL: So how does one measure ten years? For those of you who are soccer fans like me, and keenly anticipating Brazil's win yet again, ten years could be measured as two and a half world cups.
LL: But in a more serious vein, ten years can also be seen as the time it has taken for numbers like 9/11 and 26/11 to be transformed from being just dates to becoming a part of our vocabulary, and challenging our very imagination of law, justice and human rights.
LL: At the same time, if ten years ago you asked any of us when we thought homosexuality would be legalized in India, we would have said, perhaps in another fifty years. At a much more experiential level, we at ALF have moved very subtly from describing ourselves as a collective of young lawyers to now merely saying 'a collective of lawyers'.
LL: Though ten years feels like a long time, some of our older friends remind us that as institutions go, we are not even a teenager yet. So in a way, one could think of a milestone, both as a measurement of the distance that one has traveled, as well as the signpost of just how much further one has to go in the journey. We can also think of milestones as opportunities to take a break, to pause, and to remind ourselves of why we began the journey in the first place, and to acknowledge fellow travelers without whom the journey would not only have been impossible but also a lot less fun and exciting.
LL: It would be impossible for me to, in a way, capture the exact texture of ten years of work in ten minutes so I won't even try it. Instead, I would like to share a few thoughts on behalf of my colleagues at ALF on the experience of working as a collective.
LL: When an organization has been around for ten years, there are some things that you can more or less take for granted, most of all its name: But every name is also the history of what it didn't become or almost became. In our case, our name has been the cause of a number of questions, assumptions... In the courts where it is often assumed that we do alternative dispute resolution.
LL: We also get asked the question very often, 'alternative to what?' One of the options that we had when we started out, and some of us were very keen on that was actually another name, which was: Law, Society and Democracy- until someone reminded us that with an acronym like LSD, we might not be taken very seriously. And what with the Hindi film, Love, Sex Aur Dhoka being a hit, I am kind of glad that we chose the alternative name. But of course if the director decides to make a sequel "Aashiq, Love Aur Failure" then we are in serious trouble.
LL: In the era of neo liberalism, where the rights of armies and corporations take precedence over human rights and socio-economic rights, and when we are constantly told that there is no alternative, it is perhaps not such a bad thing to aspire for an alternative.
LL: At the outset I must say that while origin myths are useful up to a point, the core values and aspirations that have really driven our work were not necessarily things that we were completely clear on when we began, and it is only through debates, disagreements and dialogue that we finally arrived at some clarity over what defines our motivations and aspirations as a collective. I stress on the word aspiration, because I think we are all very clear that we are far far away from achieving all that we have set out for ourselves.
LL: Also while this is seemingly a moment in which we celebrate ten years of an organization, in reality, the only way in which we can measure the ten years is to see it as ten years of working and learning from different people: from different social movements, from activists, from academics, from media practitioners, cultural theorists, etc.
LL: There is a story which Eduardo Galeano narrates about a painter who after many years of observation and practice decides to paint something which includes everything he has seen, heard, etc. So he mounts a canvas and fills it with trees, rivers, mountains, people, places and after he has finished, he looks at the painting only to recognize that the lines in the painting correspond to the lines in his own face.
LL: So if we were asked to identify a few of the things that have been important to us, then the first would be the creation of a space which sees the practice of law as one that responds to the struggles of various people for a more just and equitable society. As straightforward as this sounds, this gets really complicated when you locate it within the logic of the profession.
LL: As professionals enmeshed in a profession where authority and power are exercised through the language of knowledge and expertise, it has been a challenge for us to constantly remind ourselves that our ideas of rights and justice do not really emerge from our knowledge of the law or of precedents alone, but through an engagement with the people who we have been privileged to represent in courts.
LL: Another challenge for us has really been to create a space which does not distinguish between theory and practice on the one hand, and activism and research. And sometimes this is easier said than done: Academic Research, activism and legal practice- all have their own temporal rhythm, and the conversation between the urgent, the important and the interesting are not necessarily conversations that take place in any smooth fashion.
LL: And yet at the same time, there is a certain kind of openness and fluidity has been critical to the way that we function. We have had engineers and social workers who joined the Alternative Law Forum and then become lawyers. We've had lawyers who have joined the Alternative Law Forum and have gone on to become media practitioners.
LL: The decision to work as a collective has been both the most enriching and the most challenging experience of ALF in the last ten years. Speaking about his collaboration with the psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, the French philosopher Giles Deleuze says "I used to work alone, and even that was too many people, and then came Guatarri".
What then does it mean to speak of a collective? What does it mean to believe in a shared ideal, or to make a common commitment?
LL: When we speak of collectives, there is often an assumption of a shared vision or a collective ideal that binds a group together. But I think in our experience, it is not been just sameness but also difference that has marked the idea of being a collective. These differences are sometimes extremely difficult to negotiate, and there have been a number of occasions where our very survival as a group has been under question. We have had people who have left us over sharp differences, and yet strangely it seems to us, that its difference and diversity remains the basis of an intensity of experience, and excitement that still remains even after ten years.
LL: Every member of ALF is a part of a much wider world, and their engagement with different issues and movements has opened our individual worlds out to a different sensibility which we would never have been able to access had we been working on our own. These sensibilities expand our ideas of the world, of justice, of law and of politics. The greatest perk that we have received from ALF, (and this is important because we are not good on the Diwali bonus side of things) - The greatest perk has really been an opportunity to work with colleagues who bring an inspiring sense of passion and commitment to whatever they do.
LL: From the sexuality movement, we learnt to see issues of law and justice as questions of eros, corporeality and desire- not as being outside of law, but as being intertwined within the reason of law. From the sex workers and domestic workers collective we have learnt that shared solidarities are created not just out of an experience of violence, but equally through a sharing of songs, jokes and compassion. And from cultural theorists and artists, we have learnt that even the driest legal text can sometimes become the most fascinating cultural document. This has helped us understand the abstract world of law as one that is simultaneously political, personal, cultural and legal.
LL: In some ways, one could say the question of what it means to work as a collective goes into the heart of the question of what it means to inhabit the world with others: It is said that "that concrete relations that we establish in living with others are like shadows of the more abstract questions-that is, we learn about the nature of the world in the process of such living".
LL: So ideas of respect, justice, and equality are not just abstract ideals but things that we have to learn in a very lived and visceral manner, in the process of being a part of various struggles, and working with other individuals and organizations, but equally through the process of inhabiting a space and working together despite our differences. This demands what Ashish Nandy once described as the element of "ethical inventiveness" in our lives.
LL: It is no surprise that the root word for the word 'Fond' comes from the word 'ground', and there is no common ground on which we can stand, or no collective ideal that we can imagine if its not founded on some idea of affection. In the larger history of politics, there is often little space for the relationship between the little communities that we inhabit, and the manner in which they allow us to imagine the utopian possibilities of a better world.
LL: When we began exactly ten years, we organized a small workshop which was actually on the history of alternative and radical lawyering in India, as a way to both acknowledge the rich history of radical lawyering that inspired us, but also as a way of setting out for ourselves, some kind of a guide...a road map... or a moral compass.
LL: Prof. Baxi prepared a keynote address for that workshop, in which he began with a quote from Daniel Cohn-Bendit which suggested that 'revolutions must be born out of joy, not sacrifice'.
LL: The past ten years has been an incredible mixture of exhilarating victories, disappointing losses and exciting collaborations. We thank you all once again for being here and sharing in our joy, and hope that we continue on the many adventures ahead.
LL: Now its my privilege to introduce our two speakers for today. Prof. Baxi is fond of saying that one of the great Indian traditions is that the person introducing someone says the speaker needs no introduction, and then proceeds to take up half the speaker's time in introducing that person. So instead of repeating what you already know of the Justice Shah and Prof. Baxi, I shall try to introduce them slightly differently.
LL: To our mind, Justice Shah and Prof. Baxi represent the best of the two worlds that ALF has strived for, and they have both been a source of immense inspiration to us in our work. Both our speakers have in the course of their careers displayed immense courage and craft in the issues they have addressed.
LL: In response to a list brought out by the Guardian of the 100 best novels in English, Anthony Burgess, who was a little miffed by his own exclusion, brought out a list of the 99 greatest novels, leaving it apparent what was missing in the list. While Justice Shah's modesty would be a contrast to Burgess, if we were asked to bring out a list of the hundred greatest supreme court judges, we would bring out a list of 99.
LL: I had the opportunity of sitting in on the Naz Foundation hearings, and was struck by the incredible empathy that Justice Shah displayed during the hearings. Judges are often remembered by the legacy that they leave behind in the form of the cases they decide, and on that count Justice Shah has left behind a rich legacy of cases related to the right of freedom of speech and expression, socio economic rights and ofcourse the decriminalizing of homosexuality in India.
LL: But what gets left out of reported cases is the manner in which a judge conducts himself in a court room. Judicial power can often manifest itself in the form of a smirk or a yawn, and judicial empathy can manifest itself in the form or in the care with which a judge listens to the cases, specially of the poorest and the weakest who appear before the courts.
LL: In his judgment, Manushi Sangathan vs Govt of Delhi (which was also known as rickshaw pullers judgment), responding to a statement that rikshaw pullers were adding to the problems of the city, Justice Shah places in his record, his disapproval for the lack of sensitivity with which the urban poor are spoken of.
LL: In Sudama Singh vs Govt of Delhi ( Slum dwellers judgment ) - I quote, he says, "It is not uncommon to find a jhuggi dweller, with a bulldozer at the doorstep, desperately trying to save whatever precious little belongings and documents they have, which could perhaps testify to the fact that the jhuggi dweller resided at that place. These documents are literally a matter of life for a jhuggi dweller, since most relocation schemes require proof of residence before a "cut-off date". If these documents are either forcefully snatched away or destroyed (and very often they are) then the jhuggi dweller is unable to establish entitlement to resettlement. Therefore, the exercise of conducting a survey has to be very carefully undertaken and with great deal of responsibility, keeping in view the desperate need of the jhuggi dweller for an alternative accommodation."
LL: Thank you, Justice Shah for accepting our invitation.
LL: Prof. Upendra Baxi, or Upen- Friend, Philosopher, Guide, Teacher: A man whose voracious appetite for learning is matched only by his equally voracious appetite for green chillis.
LL: While everyone knows about Prof. Baxi the teacher, the jurist, the activist who started social action litigation, everyone is always a little surprised when they first meet Prof. Baxi because no one is quite prepared for the way in which he disarms you with his charm. It is said that when you are in the presence of someone who dazzles you, your only self defense is love.
LL: A few of us were fortunate enough to interview Prof Baxi for two weeks, and in the course of our conversations, he once remarked that he was keeping us hostage. What he didn't realize that we were willing hostages suffering from the Stockholm syndrome, when the kidnapped falls in love with their kidnapper.
LL: In the early days of the Narmada movement, when the government was offering cash compensation of Rupees five thousand, Prof. Baxi approached the MP high court, in which he made an argument that the right to life in Art. 21 entailed not just land for land, but a running brook for a running brook, a sunset for a sunset, and a grove of trees with shade for a grove of trees with shade. It is this alertness to forms of life and forms of suffering that Prof. Baxi's work has been speaking to for decades.
LL: Armed with his two long term companions, Uncle Marx and Mohandas, Prof. Baxi has opened out different ways of understanding postcolonial constitutions as transformative and insurgent texts to generations of lawyers and activists. When I had just graduated from law school and we were sitting for a scholarship interview, I was asked why I had chosen Warwick University, and I answered "Because Prof. Baxi is there, and if he was at the National Law School I wouldn't not need to go to Warwick". And this is even before I had been disarmed by the charm offensive, Upen, you were clearly our moral compass then, and you continue to be ours' now.
LL: Ladies and gentlemen thank you again, and - Justice A P Shah and Prof. Upendra Baxi.