Kriti Sharma is an alumnus of NALSAR, Hyderabad (2012). In 2011, she underwent an exchange programme with Redzyner School of Law, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel. Thereafter she worked as a research assistant to Justice Dalveer Bhandari and as a judicial clerk to Justice Khanna.
In this interview, we focus specially on her experience at Council for Social Development, and how she chose this career path in Human Rights. We also try to trace back her journey to NALSAR, her experience at IDC, and her job of a law clerk. At present, she is working as a research fellow at Council for Social Development.
Please introduce yourself to our readers. Please tell us a little bit about your childhood and your background?
Fairly simple background, artsy atmosphere as my father dabbled successfully with Hindi poetry, writing and theatre direction. I formed a companionship with books early on since my mother managed the Ramjas Foundation’s library. I grew up mostly in Delhi, except for a few years in London due to my father’s posting.
How did you gravitate towards law? Did you have someone who inspired you to study law?
It seemed a good option after studying humanities along with civil services and journalism. Having arrived from England I was not aware of competitive exams but a classmate prodded me on. I grew up sensitive to social conditions and always voiced my opinion against gender discrimination that I saw in practice. In hindsight, law provides a perfect platform to engage with such issues.
How was your experience at NALSAR, Hyderabad?
NALSAR undeniably opens a spectrum of opportunities for individuals and is arguably, the best law school in the country. I wasn’t so excited though, as overall the faculty and course options back then were not as impressive and diverse as they are increasingly becoming now. Discussions on raging issues were fodder to my mind, yet at the same time its location denied me the opportunity to pursue extra-curricular activities as much as I wanted to.
You underwent an academic exchange programme with Redzyner School of Law, IDC, Herzliya, Israel. What did you benefit from the student exchange programme?
Going on an exchange involves a considerable cost. Therefore I was only willing to take it up if I got my first choice- Israel. I was made aware by a visiting professor from Berkeley that IDC invites distinguished faculty from U.S.A and Europe for lectures, providing me an insight into graduate academic life abroad. I was also personally interested in understanding geo-political and historical situation of the region, for which I extensively travelled through Israeli-Palestine and Jordanian territories and engaged with the local people, apart from taking up academic courses on Arab-Israeli conflict and peace process.
Also tell us about your experience working as a Research Assistant of Dean Ron Harris, Law Faculty of Tel Aviv University during your Law school days.
I have had an interest in legal history and wanted to discover what kind of work really happens in this field. I happened to mention my interest to a professor who forwarded my CV to Professor Harris. Professor Harris had been writing a book for publication by Princeton on the ‘Organisation of Early modern Eurasian trade’ for which a Chapter on ‘Early 15th-17th Century Laws of Maritime Trade in India’ required primary and secondary research in Indian archives, museums and libraries. Upon return from the exchange, I researched on this topic- looking closely at the impact of society, family, women and slaves on indigenous trade which was thriving at the turn of 16th century, before the arrival of foreign powers.
You have interned under Justice Dalveer Bhandari of Supreme Court of India twice when you were at Law school. How did you obtain this golden opportunity to intern twice under him? What kind of work you came across?
Justice Dalveer Bhandari, who is presently a member of the International Court of Justice, took active interest in training and educating young lawyers. His office was very welcoming and encouraging to interns but also demanded high quality work, without exception. He gave us an opportunity to work on important cases such as Novartis, Bar Council exam case etc. and since I was interested in gender rights, I also worked on an international sexual trafficking case. Apart from this we were expected to brief him on fresh matters every evening, which really was a test because his legal acumen and experience were unmatchable. For internship, one had to simply send a CV to his office secretary and selected candidates were informed for each internship session. Drafting a good request letter is the key, I highlighted his judgments on right to education and caste violence and why I was keen to work with him.
Almost all your internships were focussed on non-profit and research work involving primarily matters of Human Rights Law. Were these all planned internships or did you just take them up as they came along?
I followed what interested me. The classroom teaching was mostly academic but field internships in slum areas of Delhi (with Parivartan) and southern tribal belt of Rajasthan (with Mazdor Kisan Shakti Sangathan) made me understand how the law actually affects daily lives of people. In my third and fourth year I carefully explored all options available to a law student – viz. interning at a law firm, a lawyer’s office, Law Commission of India and the Supreme Court, for me to make an informed choice after graduation.
How do you think the experience of being a clerk is now helping you in your career path?
(Kriti was engaged as a Law clerk-cum-Research Assistant in Delhi High Court under Justice Sanjiv Khanna specializing in Criminal and Writ Petitions Roster after her graduation.)
I wanted a right mix of advocacy and research for my career. I was inspired by Flavia Agnes’s work in the courts on gender rights and was interested in working in a Habeas Corpus roster, which in India mostly deals with family matters and elopement cases. Justice Khanna handled these cases with required sensitivity and often the mediation wing of the High Court was also involved. The criminal appellate roster also dealt with terrorism, juvenile justice and other life imprisonment cases which required regular case preparation and drafting. Evidence in each and every criminal case has to be very carefully evaluated as it is a question of an individual’s life and liberty. I also utilised the court exposure to compile an ethnographic report on hostile witnesses. The centuries old criminal system would do well with reforms and I have certain observations regarding this which can be discussed at length some other time. I also learnt that while working with litigants in gender cases, one cannot take an extremely idealised approach, as in practice things work out differently.
Is it difficult to get a judicial clerkship with a Delhi High Court Judge? What sort of people would you advise to do a judicial clerkship?
The Supreme Court follows an organised process of recruitment for which one has to apply through the university in the final year of studies. For High Courts, a few of them have a centralised process but individual efforts need to be made. Previous internship with the judge, networking with college seniors, lawyers and court staff and active pursuit helps and if one has good credentials, ways open out on their own. Students who desire to join litigation can gain from experiencing the other side of the courtroom. The academically oriented students of course find it opportune to engage with real time legal questions and gain practical exposure.
How did you start working as a Legal Researcher in Council for Social Development (CSD), Hyderabad?
At the end of the clerkship tenure, I decided I wanted to plunge into active advocacy and research on gender rights issues. I was aware of Professor Kannabiran’s work in this area alongside probes into colonial, constitutional and criminal questions relating to subalterns. This perfectly matched my interests and the Organisation also promised me a platform for interdisciplinary studies. I applied by sending an email detailing my motivations, works and aspirations and how I hoped to contribute to the objectives of CSD. I was called for an interview and thereafter received a confirmation.
What motivated you to write a book on Tribal Advocacy? Can you illustrate us on your book to our readers.
(Kriti has co-ordinated the “Training and Fellowship Programme for Tribal Advocates” which focuses on advocacy amongst Koya and Chenchun tribal people, training them in law and writing a book on Tribal Advocacy. Her forthcoming book on tribal advocacy is yet to publish.)
Council for Social Development has a long track record of working closely with adivasis of Koya, Chenchun and other PVTG communities. In 2012 CSD launched a yearlong training programme for tribal advocates from this community. Through this, I learnt about the ground realities in the tribal villages and their struggles in the face of an apathetic administration. Apart from seeking solutions to our local problems, we tried to relate to tribal situation at national and international level and expand our horizons. I particularly tried to sensitize them on other struggles e.g. situation of tribal women within these communities by teaching gender related laws, policies and cases. I even poked them on homosexuality and we had a refreshing debate. In the whole process, an important realization was that there was hardly any legal literature available to deal with tribal cases. Thus, the idea of writing on tribal advocacy based on street law concept for litigators and social activists. The tribal advocates, of course are now successfully fighting human rights cases and bringing awareness to their communities through para-legal courses.
What kind of response did you get after presenting a report on pending disability bills to the Parliament of India?
(Kriti has also drafted and presented a report addressing the Standing Committee, Parliament of India on pending disability bills, reflecting deliberations held during the ‘National Consultation on Disability Rights’.)
Parliament’s conduct rules prohibit discussion of the meeting outside but the Standing Committee has now forwarded its report to the Parliament and it is heartening to see that many of our suggestions have been included. We hope the Parliament will look at these suggestions closely and pass an effective Act. We had months of deliberation with various organisations before we submitted our findings. One key area of my concern was education. For instance, during my empirical study on minority schools I had observed that disabled children are not being admitted to schools in the first place and, therefore, I had recommended that surveys to identify disabled children should not be conducted only within schools but at community level. It was heartening to see that suggestions like these from civil society have been accepted and forwarded to the Parliament. Overall it was a good learning experience and I am grateful to CSD for giving me this opportunity at such a young age.
You have also conducted field study on impact of “Right to Education law on India’s backward minorities”. What inspired you to take this initiative?
I had been thinking of conducting this study since college but only the senior academic staff at CSD could provide me the guidance and support to go ahead with it. I am very inspired to work on education in India and it concerns me that certain sections are evidently lagging behind but not enough efforts are being made to bridge this gap. The study area is Kishabagh- an urban slum and a riot prone area at the outskirts of Hyderabad where Sikh-Muslim riots happened last year. I did not face any hindrance during the month that I spent in the field. The informers- school/madrasa staff, students and parents were very welcoming and involved with the whole interview process. The heart wrenching parts were when for e.g. girls revealed that due to impending marriage or economic situation they would not be able to continue education. Once we went to a junior class room and asked how many students worked after school and nearly the whole class put their hands up.
The most sensitive interview I conducted was with a girl whose young brother was a victim of the quarrel which started the riot. Suffering from fresh wounds, she narrated her family’s perspective on the situation. Overall, I feel students have aspirations but societal pressures and situations quell them and the right kind of guidance is unavailable as even schools/madrasas operate with particular economic/religious motives. It was discomforting to see sub-standard education being meted out to such bright and promising students. My paper is a work in progress but I hope to deal with various aspects and I am going as far as to argue for recognition of madrasas under the right to education legal movement, keeping in perspective each child’s right to education. I hope it will be well received.
Please share your experience working with CSD for 2 years till now. What is your workday like? Are there new challenges every day?
Council for Social Development is a unique place to explore interdisciplinary studies. It is an academic institution which houses international and national academicians from varied social science fields and this makes for interesting coffee conversations and discussion programs. We have a well disposed library on South Asian studies and I have tried to make a good use of it. The work day technically is 9.30- 5.30 P.M., five days a week but it is open till 8.00 P.M. I am most grateful for the freedom the institution provides to its writing staff to explore their creative ideas. The opportunity to work with Prof. Kannabiran has been exciting and insightful at many levels. We have interesting projects happening all around the year and in fact I constantly feel there are so many opportunities and such little time.
How can one apply to CSD for internships?
It depends on our project requirements. Please do check by writing to us at email@example.com. You can check out our website www.csdhyd.org for more information and opportunities.
It is a common belief that working in the areas of human rights and policy research doesn’t pay well. How much of a hindrance is it for people joining this area of work?
I wouldn’t tell you otherwise. One has to be mentally prepared for that sort of struggle and plunge into this only if there is genuine interest otherwise it is difficult to sustain. The plus side is there are many people to mentor and guide you through. I have had terrific bosses and encouraging seniors from NALSAR throughout. I cannot juxtapose this against law firms, as both jobs serve different purpose and carry different rewards.
What would be your message to law students who are research enthusiasts?
It doesn’t help to follow any ‘rules’ that one should do x,y and z things as a law student. I see many law students writing articles for enlarging their CV. Quality matters more than quantity, so no point cluttering space. People should engage in issues that really interest them and feel they will be able to bring out an interesting analysis. There is no set way to write but passion for your subject matters.