Conversation with Prof. Nandini Sundar, Professor of Sociology at DU

NS1Prof. Nandini Sundar is a Professor of Sociology at the Delhi University. She was one of the lead petitioners in the well-known case of Nandini Sundar v. State of Chattisgarh (WP (C) 250 of 2007). She won the prestigious Infosys Prize in 2010 for her contributions to social sciences. She has several publications to her credit and writes regularly for the newspapers. She kindly agreed to have a chat with us [Vasujith Ram, Executive Editor and Shambo Nandy, Advocate and former Executive Editor] in Delhi. Following are the excerpts from the interview.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? What drove you towards taking up research and teaching, and more particularly why did you choose sociology?

A: I had taken up humanities in high school as I always knew I wanted to do something that required engagement and interaction with people. This is also the reason why I took up sociology. I did a year of sociology at Delhi University. My first year in college was in 1984, and I remember that the class spent most of the time visiting the relief camps that Prof. Khera took us to. I was also suffering from jaundice and couldn’t attend many classes. Following this, I went to England to do philosophy, politics and economics [PPE]. Thereafter, I completed my PhD in anthropology from Colombia. I liked philosophy and political theory but wanted to do a subject which enabled you to interact with and interview people.

I wish I had done law. Unfortunately, by the time I considered doing law, I was not in India. It was destined to be a missed opportunity I guess. My teaching trajectory commenced with JNU  and I moved to DU in 2005.

Q: Could you tell us more about your PhD research and the themes it touched upon?

A: My PhD research was on the history of rebellions against colonial land and forest policy in Bastar. This was later published as a book, Subalterns and Sovereigns, in 1997.

Q: Did your research have anything to do with you filing the Salwa Judum PIL?

A: I would say: Yes, it did. For me, Bastar is a place to which I have been a regular visitor for the last 20 years. It’s like home to me. I consider several people like my family there. Though I went to Gujarat in 2002 and witnessed it in a horrible condition, Bastar held a personal relevance for  me. On the point of the work and research that went into filing the PIL, I would agree that my PhD research aided me a lot in terms of familiarity with the area, knowing the local people etc. However, I had to observe, understand and learn the area from a whole new dimension this time.

Q: What made you take up activism based on your study? Would you suggest that activism and theory are necessarily complementary in nature?

A: Not necessarily – it’s perfectly possible and maybe even desirable to carry out research without engaging in any kind of activism. Sometimes you have to engage in activism not as a researcher, but as a citizen. But since we teach equality, liberty and democracy as social scientists, I think we also have a duty to try and examine our own practice in these spheres.

Q: Can you tell us about the PIL? How did the idea come about? How was the PIL plannedNS2 and how did you all come together? Also, which lawyers did you approach?

A: I went with the PUDR-PUCL team in November, 2005 for the first fact-finding exercise. Then, we carried out the second fact finding exercise with the Independent Citizens’ Initiative which involved BG Verghese, Ramachandra Guha, EAS Sarma, Harivansh and Farah Naqvi. The PIL was essentially the product of the second fact finding. For a while, I had been deliberating with PUCL-Chattisgarh regarding whether they wanted to file a PIL, but they expressed scepticism fearing that it might backfire. So, when we came back in May 2006, Ramachandra Guha and EAS Sarma agreed on the PIL. Farah had been  engaged in the Bilkis Bano case in Gujarat for a long time (first riot-related rape case conviction in Gujarat) which demanded lots of court visits. That’s why she couldn’t join us then. Therefore, three of us decided to independently file that PIL. Usha [Ramanathan] whose help I had sought for discussing our next step  knew the work of Ashish Chugh who was then a junior to Mr. Andhyarujina. She suggested that if Mr. Andhyarujina could be convinced and if he found potential in the case, then we had a good chance before the Courts. He was very sweet and agreed to our proposal. Also, it was Ashish’s friend named Pragya Singh, working at Karanjawala & Company, through whom the case was then filed by Karanjawala & Co., in April 2007. May 17 was the day of our first hearing. Mr. Andhyarujina argued and the court issued the notice but without giving any deadline. That was the first time that any State- body acknowledged the occurrences of violations bu the Judum. The fact that the event was also covered by the radio made us feel that the PIL was finally making some sort of difference. Then, in July I went to Bastar when the CPI had just came back from a rally across the border. This was the first large-scale public rally where people spoke openly about what was happening to them. Until that time people were scared to even raise the topic for discussion so much so that if you happened to visit the camps, people would try to dissociate themselves from the Judum: they would say that they came there voluntarily. Nobody was ready to talk about what had actually happened. The judum leaders  maintained constant vigilance regarding what people were saying. The rally found people forwarding letters to Manish Kunjam, CPI leader, explaining all that had happened in their village. So, this was the first time that we had some statements from villagers themselves as  till then we only had reports  from fact-finding exercises. Without corroboration by villagers in their own words, these could have been easily dismissed on the ground that those were the delusional opinions of “Maoist supporters” etc. Then, Rama Sodi one of the CPI activists suggested that we approach the court. We discussed it with the CPI in Delhi and they decided that three persons from Bastar who themselves had been affected, would file the petition. So, a companion petition was filed in August, 2007. The first hearing was in October 2007 and we had more than a 100 testimonies which we used in the petition.  Many of these testimonies were on little scraps of  paper explaining what had happened. Nitya Ramakrishnan drafted the petition and Mr. [Ashok] Desai argued. Mr. Desai and Nitya have been deeply involved throughout, working pro bono as have all the lawyers on this case. I learnt a lot throught this experience – becoming familiar with words like “Dasti” and “giving appearance”. The first case was only against the Government of Chhattisgarh, while the second case was against the Government of Chhattisgarh and Union of India. Both the cases were clubbed together. Things worked out really well because Mr. Desai and Mr. TR Andhyarujina knew each other. For example, it sometimes happened that both would come and argue while sometimes only one would come and argue on behalf of both. Sometimes we had embarrassing situations when both would give conference time at the same time, but we somehow managed and they were very kind. In October 2007 the court issued notice on the second petition and in March 2008 they asked the NHRC to inquire into it. The NHRC enquiry was conducted in the summer of 2008 and the resultant report was somehow an attempt to white-wash the happenings. They sent a team of 16 policemen. It was evident that NHRC was acting at the Home Ministry’s behest, from the fact that they leaked the report to leading newspapers before giving it to the Court or us. Fortunately, the PIL was heard by Justice Balakrishnan (who was the Chief Justice between 2007 and 2010) along with the Associate Judges as all the PILS were being heard by the Chief Justice during that time. Justice Balakrishnan analysed the report by reading  against the grain in a way and realised the enormity of the situation. He didn’t issue any firm directions but he made good noises. At that time I was disheartened and even considered giving up because the NHRC report had countered all our efforts, but Mr. Desai, Nitya, Menaka [Guruswamy] were against surrendering and urged me to use the report and use the points to build our own case. Following this, we filed the counter-arguments mentioning the points on which we agreed or disagreed with the NHRC observations. The situation was so bad that they could not really hide it and there were lots of discrepancies between what they actually found  – evidence of large scale burning – and their final conclusions.   Nothing eventful happened between October 2008 and 2010. In 2010, there was a discussion about having a monitoring committee Justice Balakrishnan asked us the names of people who would be a part of the monitoring committee – and asked us to show consent letters. We got consent letters from several eminent people.

In the summer of 2010, Justice Balakrishnan retired and the case went to Justice Reddy and Justice Nijjar who began to take much more interest in it. The fact that they were already dealing with the Gompad case filed by Himanshu Kumar in 2009 was the reason why our case was transferred to them. Thereafter, all the Chhattisgarh cases were clubbed together. Although we kept pushing the rehabilitation committee, they didn’t seem to be very keen on having it. There weren’t keen on having the Supreme Court monitor the registration of FIRs either.

In 2009, Operation Green-Hunt was launched. When operation Green-Hunt started in 2009, some of the newspapers, (until then few of the major newspapers had any correspondents in Chhattisgarh) namely, The Indian Express and The Hindu published about it. So, for the first time, we were getting a lot of coverage of what was happening.  In March, 2011, there were reports about 3 villages being burnt. For the first time, an immediate detailed report was prepared on the matter (by Aman Sethi). So, all the attention shifted to the SPOs. Finally, it was seen that the 2011 judgment was mostly focussed on the SPOs, whereas we had been hoping that the judgement  would also include a monitoring committee. However, the 2011 judgement delivered pretty much all that we wanted except the monitoring committee; the absence of which obstructed the implementation of the directions touched upon by the judgement.

Q: The Judgment has brought to the fore one core Preambular value, which was lying dormant in our Constitutional discourse – the value of fraternity. While liberty and equality are oft-discussed themes and consistent aids in constitutional interpretation, the judgment has probably for the first time used fraternity as a value and linked it to fundamental rights and directive principles. Your thoughts?

A: The glory of the judgement can entirely be accrued to Justice Sudershan Reddy and Justice S.S. Nijjar (more so by Justice Reddy). In fact, he didn’t use much of our petition, because it was mainly based on human rights violation, field-work, etc. but he focussed on Constitutional aspects of equality, fraternity and the whole of the preamble. Also, he had done a lot of his own research on the causes of Naxalism and its background. Moreover, he comes from Andhra Pradesh and that’s why he had a good sense of what the issue regarding the Maoist activities actually was. I would say that the judgment was an embodiment of his constitutional ideas. It is also reflected in the ‘Black Money’ judgment which was pronounced at the same time.

Q: Is there any other litigation you are part of? Are there any more PILs you are planning to file in the near future?

A: No, thank god! [Laughs]. Actually – yes, I am part of another case dealing with copyright law in the DU Photocopying Case as a part of SPEAK, an association of teachers and Scholars” defending the right to photocopy but I am not actively involved in it and have not done any work for it.

Q: You have said that you are disappointed on how the order was implemented. Have you filed any contempt petition?

A: Yes, we filed a contempt petition in the year 2012. In 2011, we got this wonderful judgment. As soon as it came, the Chhattisgarh government renamed SPOs as ‘Armed Auxiliary Force’ and provided them with better guns and salaries while the judgment said ‘disband all the SPOs’, ‘punish all those who are guilty, including the SPOs’, ‘use them only for traffic management’ etc. So, earlier they were harassing people with normal guns .303 but now they were doing that with AK-47s. The judgment also dealt with how they were not educated enough to be able to understand the professional obligations that you have during armed insurgencies, the requirement of policing. So, many people started producing fake 5th grade certificates. It was a complete slap in the face of the Court. It was really contempt of court. In July 2011, the Court also directed the CBI to investigate the burning of these three villages. The CBI was supposed to submit the report in 6 weeks but they did nothing during that time. The first time they went to investigate was after 6 months in January, 2012. When they again went in February, they were attacked by the SPOs and were locked up in a room. There was so much firing outside the room that they had to barricade themselves. After that, we filed a contempt case, since these are. the same bunch of SPOs who were supposed to be disbanded. CBI has still not submitted its report four years later. Since 2012, we have not had any proper hearing on contempt; there were a couple of hearings in between where the other party was asked to respond and as usual they gave silly responses. The Chattisgarh Government has filed an affidavit saying that not even one of the erstwhile SPOs was in possession of arms which is completely false. The Chhattisgarh government doesn’t’ even care about lying to the court – they are confident that nothing will happen to them. They do not show  any intention of coming to the court and each time provide petty excuses.

13-dr-nandini-sundar-infosys-prize-winner-1Q: You have played an active role in voicing the causes of the tribal people. You have travelled yourself to these areas. What do you think are the difficulties and roadblocks faced by these regions with regard to educating children and setting up other necessary institutions?

A: Education in these areas is seriously messed-up for a variety of reasons; one is that even during non-conflict times there is very little scope for education in the adivasi areas; teachers don’t come, schools are in terrible conditions, you have one teacher for hundreds of kids, schools don’t have basic facilities. So, all the possible problems faced in the arena of schooling across the country are unveiled in a magnified manner here. There have been several reports in the past 2 years about discrimination in the way teachers teach adivasi or dalit children. The other problem is that teachers are usually from non-tribal areas, so there is a language problem and the third and the biggest problem is that education in tribal areas is often used as a way of converting children. The VHP, the RSS and the Christian missionaries set up large networks of paid education. In the case of educating the adivasi children, it’s not really about giving them critical education that helps them to cope with getting jobs or opens up their mind or exposes them to new ideas but it is more about making them ‘civilised people’; forcing them to forget about their own adivasi customs and become urban and practise Hindu festivals. It is really a project of cultural transformation rather than education. When the Salwa-Judum happened, all the teachers were ordered to come and live in camps.  Even the school that had been working in the villages stopped working and now after so many years, the teachers are not willing to go back as they are getting paid without doing any work. Government has handed over these areas to the Maoists and hence, nobody wants to go there. Maoists having blasted a school is another reason not to go there. Therefore, there is an entire generation of people there who have had no schooling at all. And now, whenever people do want their children to go to school they have to put them in the 1000 seater ashrams which the government is building. The children feel completely lost as they are far away from their parents – and again there is huge “civilizing” stuff going on. One thing we had been asking from the beginning is to make the security forces leave the schools and let the teachers come  back because that’s the only way to bring about normalcy and peace. A lot of the schools did get vacated after a Supreme Court order. However, what the CRPF has done is to set up their camp in the school compound.  Thus, there are lots of villages where the CRPF camps are right next to the schools and have created special problems for girls because there are girl’s hostels where all these men bathe under the hand-pumps and roam around and it is not the kind of atmosphere young girls can study in.

Q: What kind of injustice did you see there?

A: All kinds! There is this young group of lawyers who have started the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group. They’ve been working there – three-four people from DU law faculty – their reports on undertrials show that there is no judicial machinery. They don’t get produced for months on end, lawyers don’t talk to them, their families don’t know where they are, somebody could be held even if the name on the  accused list is somebody else. There is a complete travesty of justice. That’s the situation of undertrials especially in areas with conflict. People are locked up for months and years on end. The judicial system is extremely difficult for adivasis. Even for us when we conceived the PIL, we were lucky that the lawyers argued pro bono. But if you are just a regular litigant, it is quite hard. People don’t understand the language of the courts and the system. People sell everything to pay for lawyers fees – yet they don’t get any redress. One must read a book by Vasudha Dhagamvar – Role and Image of Law: The Tribal Experience. There is this chapter – `Prisoner at the Bar, Are You Rich or Poor?’, which eloquently describes the situation.

Q: You have written regarding some of the difficulties with our electoral system. How do you think our electoral law and democratic process should evolve and change, especially in the light of blunt populism, criminalization of politics as well as lack of representativeness plaguing our system?

A: One of the big reforms which is needed is that there should be a cap on spending by political parties and not just by the candidates. On that point obviously, the parties like AAP or any left party can’t compete with that kind of money that bigger parties may spend. Therefore, there is no level-playing field and unless you cap party expenditure you won’t be able to have that. Ideally, you should have state funding of elections and if you can’t  then you have to think of something else – because clearly money is playing a big role in determining who gets voted. This is evident by the increasing numbers of millionaires in the parliament and the dynastic rule and all of those things which are indicative of lots of money. Then, the other thing that I think is a big problem is the first-past-the-post system which means that people who get elected are not necessarily representative of the constituency. It may be desirable to get a candidate who may be not your first choice but is at-least your second best choice. You should be able to vote not just to have somebody in but also to keep somebody out. So, if you had a single transferable vote, say, for instance, I vote for BSP (first choice) and SP is my second choice in UP, I should be allowed to transfer my vote to SP if my first choice doesn’t win.

Q: You have studied and taught both in India and abroad. What are the differences that you see?

A: The US has very varied systems from Ivy League universities to community colleges. In places like Delhi University we often combine both, so students come from very varied backgrounds with different capacities. But what bugs me is when students who can, don’t attend their lectures, don’t do their work in time, and don’t do the readings given to them. They study only around the exam time. They should read and come to class so that we have a proper discussion. In the good universities abroad, students read and come to class as a matter of routine.

Q: What courses do you teach? Do you think the curriculum plays a vital role in shaping the outlook of a student?

A: I teach ‘sociology of law’, ‘sociology of media’, stratification, industry etc. to M.A. students and apart from this, I take MPhil courses. In the last few years, these have been on civil war, law and violence but the courses change.

Q: What do you think is the state of sociology of law scholarship in India today? Do you25infy5 think students pursuing social sciences should be taught the basics of law?

A: There certainly has been a huge revival in law and society scholarship and if we look at the number of people who are members of LASSNET, it is a big indication of the growing interest in the field. So, that is very encouraging and sociology of law courses are also being taught in more places.  For a long time, Professor Baxi and a few other people like Vasudha Dhagamvar or Lotika Sarkar were the only ones, and now you have people working on a huge variety of fields. It was also nice to see that Mr. Desai, Mr. Andhyarujina or Nitya Ramakrishnan do not restrict their arguments to just law in Court but also refer to literature or philosophy. I also teach Mr. Andhyarujina’s book on Kesavananda Bharati in my course. I think its good for lawyers to have a base in other disciplines.

However, I am unsure whether all social science students should be taught law. Of course everyone, including science students, must know some legal basics, but when we teach the sociology of law, we are not teaching people how to deal with crime once committed or what the crime is, we are just talking about how it constructs ideas of crime and normality and all of that.

For instance if we were to study 377, we would look at the social attitude towards gay rights, how a case comes to the court in this kind of situation, the kind of prior mobilization etc. Along with a legal perspective on the judgment, there is also lots of other stuff going on behind the case. So, this is what we examine and establish a relationship between these two.

Q: If you were to teach in law school one day, what course would it be, and why?

A: I am not sure.  It also depends upon who your colleagues are – sometimes you might want to each a collaborative course with them and it also depends on what else is being taught in the university at any given time, and what your own interests are at that time.

(Special thanks to Shambo Nandy, and all the internal members of the Journal for the assistance in conducting and transcribing this interview)

Image courtesy: here, here, here and here.

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