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Single Credit Seminar Course on Human Rights Lawyering: Principles and Practices National Law School of India, 16-20 March 2015

Single Credit Seminar Course on Human Rights Lawyering: Principles and Practices National Law School of India, 16-20 March 2015

Traditional teaching on human rights focuses on textual traditions such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Bill of Rights or the Constitution and jurisprudence related to the same. In another understanding, Prof. Upendra Baxi notes that human rights are authored by people in resistance and communities in struggle. This course aimed at arriving at an understanding of human rights through the work experiences and narratives of human rights lawyers, situated within a larger socio-political context.

In India’s tradition of human rights lawyering, the courtroom is one of the many forums through which human rights concerns are voiced, rights contested, accountability attributed and norms created. Human rights lawyers play a vital role in translating the experiences and demands of grassroots communities into law, thereby giving abstract notions such as dignity, rights and equality invaluable content.  This course attempted to shed some light on this alternative process by which the Constitution is brought to life for the marginalized sections of society.

The objectives of the course were:

  • To provide a grounded sense of human rights lawyering based on personal narratives;
  • To introduce students to multi-pronged strategies employed by human rights lawyers;
  • To provide insights on the creative use of law to further the struggle for justice; and
  • An analysis of the contributions of human rights lawyers to deepening Indian democracy.

The five day seminar course was organized by the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP), National Law School of India, and Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. It consisted of three hour sessions for five consecutive days, 16-20 March 2015. Teaching methods included lecture, group discussion and case studies with an ample use of audio-visual aids. The course was anchored by Saumya Uma – Asst. Professor and Asst. Director – Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, National Law School of India – and Arvind Narrain – an activist lawyer and founder member of Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. Both are alumni of the National Law School of India, who graduated in 1994 and 1997 respectively.  Other resource persons were Darshana Mitra, Gowthaman Ranganathan and Shantanu Chakraborty – lawyers associated with the Alternative Law Forum – a collective of lawyers committed to a political practice of the law.  Approximately 65 persons participated in the course, consisting of students, professionals and NGO representatives, out of which about 15-20 students were from the National Law School.

Session 1 started with an expectation check of the participants with regard to the course, identifying what areas of law they required information on, and what areas of law the seminar course would address.  The expectation check helped bridge the gap between the planned contents of the seminar with the expected contents of the participants.  It was made clear that the seminar is not primarily on human rights, in terms of learning the laws, but on human rights lawyering – use of the laws in an innovative manner by lawyers to further human rights.  Since a large number of participants had no law background, it was important for the resource persons to also clarify that the law content will be kept to a minimum, and clarifications made to legal provisions, terms and procedures used.

This was followed by a mapping of the human rights movement in India, through participatory and audio visual methods. This session, through inputs from participants, pieced together the contemporary political context, mapped interventions with deep national level impact (such as RTI, NREGA, RTE and Domestic Violence Act), traced the origins of contemporary civil liberties movement to the period of Emergency, issues that the civil liberty movement engages with, as well as strategies and approaches of the human rights movement in India. A power point presentation was used, with pictorial glimpses of aspects of the human rights movement in the last four decades.

Thereafter the concept of human rights lawyering was discussed, by answering the question as to what makes one a human rights lawyers.  Some differences between mainstream lawyering and human rights lawyering were highlighted, with regard to relationship with the client, association with the issue in the case concerned, strategies and case-handling techniques inside and outside the court.

Session 2 focussed on human rights lawyering strategies by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar – a hitherto unexplored aspect of the two great national leaders – as well as more contemporary lawyers such as K.G.Kannabiran, K.Balagopal and Mukul Sinha.  The session presented their work, strategies used by them within and outside the courts, their strategic use of Commissions of Inquiry, their ethical stand on the use of violence and engagement with laws that are patently undemocratic and unjust.  An audio visual clip of an interview with K. Balagopal, and an excerpt from the film ‘The Advocate’ with an interview with K.G.Kannabiran and his wife Vasanth Kannabiran, kept the audience in rapt attention.  This was followed by an animated discussion on the issues presented.


Session 3 was divided into two parts.  The first part focused on countering impunity for mass crimes, addressing issues such as the role of and strategies used by human rights lawyers in the context of justice and accountability for communal violence and caste-based atrocities.  Many anecdotes were shared with the participants, based on interviews done with human rights lawyers in this regard.  Mapping of communal and caste-based violence was a participatory activity undertaken, to help the participants understand the widespread and mass nature of such crimes, and the challenges to justice and accountability that exist.  The engagement of human rights lawyers with Special courts [such as those established under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act], Commissions of Inquiry, ordinary courts of law, the importance given to mass mobilization, linkage with mass movements, and the engagement with law reform initiatives (such as the campaign on the Communal Violence Bill) were illustrated with examples.  The concerted effort of several human rights lawyers and activists undertaken behind landmark judgments in Bilkis Bano’s case and the Naroda Patia case was also highlighted.


In the second part of Session 3, the resource person spoke on the topic of addressing state repression and the role of human rights lawyers, with a special reference to death penalty and anti-terror cases.  A large part of this session was spent on discussing the human rights perspective on death penalty, and reasons for the principled position taken by the human rights movement rejecting death penalty even for the most heinous offences.  Anti-terror cases and the challenges to justice were also discussed.  A video clip of a talk by Adv. Yug Choudhry – a passionate advocate and activist on abolition of death penalty – was shown, followed by questions and answers.  The work of human rights lawyers on the issues of death penalty and anti-terror cases was discussed, with a focus on strategies evolved by them, challenges they face within and outside courts, and personal motivations due to which they continue their work.

Session 4 focussed on human rights lawyering in conflict situations, with a special focus on Kashmir and Chhattisgarh.  Through interviews taken with human rights lawyers working in the two states, the socio-political and legal context were explained, and the strategies formulated by human rights lawyers towards justice and accountability were elaborated upon.  The motivations for involvement of such lawyers in the labour and civil liberties movements, and the challenges faced by them at present were also discussed.

In the final session (Session 5), participants undertook a group activity, wherein they discussed and presented on the strategies, challenges and motivations of human rights lawyers.  Each group’s presentation was followed by inputs from the team of resource persons.  This was followed by an Open Session as well as feedback to the seminar course by the participants. Possible follow-up strategies to the seminar course were also discussed, with participants giving suggestions such as creation of an exclusive facebook page and a closed group for discussion of human rights issues, a follow up seminar course with some basic contents on law, and replication of the seminar course for NGOs and in other avenues / platforms.  The seminar course ended with the participants thanking the team of resource persons for the expansive topics covered and the interesting teaching methods undertaken, while the resource persons thanked the participants for their attentiveness and enthusiasm throughout the course.


By. Ms. Saumya Uma, Asst. Professor & Asst. Director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, National Law School of India, Bangalore

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