Academics, Researchers & International Organisations

Lawrence Liang, Human Rights Activist, on academic legal research and co-founding Alternative Law Forum

Lawrence Liang graduated from National Law School of India University, Bangalore in 1998 and has been the co-founder of Alternative Law Forum. He is based out of Bangalore, and is widely known across the legal fraternity for his campaigns on issues of public concern, especially on conflicts of Intellectual Property and medical accessibility.

Soon after his graduation he received the Chevening Scholarship and did a Masters in Law and Development from the University of Warwick. He holds a Ph.D in Film Studies  from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a Post-graduate Diploma in Cultural Theory from Centre for Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore. Over the course of his career he has immersed himself in human right issues, media law and legal writing. He is currently a visiting faculty fellow at Yale.
In this interview he talks to us about:

  • His time at NLSIU and Warwick and his educational qualifications
  • His various experiences as a Fullbright Scholar, Henry Hart Visiting Faculty Fellow, and the Hughes Visiting Scholar.
  • Alternative Law Forum
  • His work with iCommons, the Sarai Institute and Public Access Digital Media Archive (Pad.ma) and Indiancine.ma.
  • How he combined media and law
  • His experience as a member of the Drafting Committee of the Colombo Declaration on Free Speech and Media in 2008
  • His views on human rights advocacy

 

What could be a short introduction of yourself?

Hi, my name is Lawrence Liang and I am a legal researcher and writer based in Bangalore. I was one of the co-founders of the Alternative Law Forum, a collective of lawyers working on public interest issues and I have been involved with ALF for around 15 years. I left ALF in 2015 and I am currently a visiting faculty fellow  at Yale.

 

You received an English Honours in English Literature from St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore before graduating with a law degree from NLSIU. What prompted the choice to study law?

An early fascination with law – possibly prompted by popular culture – drew me towards law, but more than a clear idea of wanting to do law, I was clear that I had no inclination towards the sciences and at that point of time pursuing my first love – literature – didn’t seem like a feasible career option. Also it was the time that the National law school had just been set up and we started encountering a number of the NLS students in the quizzing and debating circuit and they seemed like some of the brightest people we had met. On inquiring further we figured that the law school was an an incredible experiment to revamp legal education and appeared to be the most exciting place that one could be in. My English Honours was actually alongside my time at law school. This was at St. Josephs’ where the department used to offer English Honors programs open to all, and in many ways doing this alongside the law shaped many of my subsequent interests in inter disciplinary studies, and in law and literature. While we we were studying subjects like copyright in law school, we were also being exposed to critical theory at Josephs, and one could start seeing the connections between ideas of authorship which were so central to copyright but being differently interrogated by thinkers like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes. It convinced me of the need to have a wider approach to the law than just legal formalism.

 

What work did your masters in Law and Development involve in Warwick?

The Law in development program was attractive to those of us interested in a critical perspective mainly because Prof. Upendra Baxi taught there, and his scholarship had been very important to us. Warwick has a wonderful history of a engagement with law from a global south perspective and while there, my main learning was to develop a sharp ideological understanding of law and political economy especially in the way that it impacted questions of justice.

 

As a recipient of the British Chevening Scholarship, what opportunities did that open up for you? Was there a process for application for the scholarship?

The Chevening scholarship was literally the only way I could have afforded doing a Masters in the UK and we were lucky at that time that they had two scholarships for people interested in law and development. There was an application and interview process and the interview was a bit of a disaster, so I was rather lucky that I actually managed to get the scholarship. My time at Warwick helped shape an interest in activist lawyering and I started thinking about the need to set up a space after returning. I also took the opportunity to do courses that allowed me to dive into the continental philosophical tradition which significantly shaped my intellectual and political outlook.

 

You were the Best Outgoing Student at Warwick! What activities did you engage in there besides academics?

It is amazing that I got any work done there actually considering it was also a year of being passionately in love. But since cross border romances are best conducted under the shadows of culture I managed to watch many art house films and plays which I did not get to see in India, and the summer was one long cricket match rudely interrupted with thesis and course work breaks.

 

You have a Ph.D from the Jawaharlal Nehru University Film Studies Dept. and a PG Diploma in Cultural Theory from Centre for study of Culture and Society as well. How did you come to cultural studies? Did it have an impact on your approach to law?

Strangely enough while I turned to cultural studies and film studies from a boredom with law, they also enabled me to return to the law with renewed interest, but with a slightly modified perspective. My interest in cultural theory allowed me to read the law not merely from within its internal logic of rules and norms, but through a symbolic register where one could read law as culture. In recent times it is the discipline of anthropology which has been most exciting for me and the work of legal anthropologists like Pratiksha Baxi, Annelise Riles, Perveez Mody in domains as varied as rape law, international finance and the Special Marriages Act have been very exciting and inspiring for anyone interested in the workings of the law both in theory and practice.

 

As a Fullbright Visiting Scholar in Columbia University at the Anthropology Department, what did your work entail?

My time at Columebia offered me a chance to finish work on my doctoral thesis, and being at the anthropology department was to be a part of a fantastic intellectual community which allowed me to interact with many people whose work I have admired over the years. Brian Larkin who has worked on an ethnography of media piracy is a kindred spirit and he was my host while I was there. In some ways anthropology has emerged as the intellectual refuge for many disciplines and the number of law graduates who have becomes anthropologists is a good indication of what a fertile field it is especially in a country with as complex a legal system as India where numerous legal traditions and temporalities coexist and collide with each other.

 

Now you are the Henry Hart Visiting Faculty Fellow, at Yale Univ. for the academic year 2016-17. What do you focus your teaching on?

I am teaching two courses, one is a cinema course where I look at the social life of cinema in India moving beyond the cinematic text to focus on spatial and technological histories, fan clubs, labour histories etc. The second course I am teaching is on the Trial and its public effects in India where I look at key trials that captured the public imagination in India in the colonial and postcolonial context. I move between cases like the Tilak trial, the INA trials to the Nanavati case and the Arushi trial as a way of looking at the public life of law in India, and the way that trial becomes a critical event that recalibrates ideas of politics and public morality. It also becomes a story about the intersection between law and media since these very public trials become a theatre of justice constantly mediated by different technologies of mass media and legal trials become an effective site for the staging of dramaturgies of justice.

 

As the Hughes Visiting Scholar, Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Michigan University in 2014, were there any interesting conclusions to your work then, that you could share?

Michigan was a brief stint in which I got to test out some of the ideas that I had been working on at the time especially on ideas of forensic imagination and the rise of forensics in legal process. I was interested at that time in the idea of the doctored image, narco analysis etc and my friend Joyojeet Pal who teaches at Michigan is also interested in information politics so there was a superb synergy. I was there just after the Polar Vortex which meant that the extreme cold ensured that you just lock yourself up and do your work without any distraction. Ann Arbor represents the best and worst that a life in ideas could represent- the Ivory tower you are confined in because it is just too snowy to step outside but where you keep warm in good intellectual company.

 

You were a Co-founder of ALF. How did the idea develop to start that?

lawrence-liang-2ALF was both the result of many years of conversations with friends as well as strangers who were as excited about the possibility of the experiment. Most of us had done some time with human rights lawyers or organizations, and while we were inspired by the legacy of critical lawyering India, we also felt the lack of a space that brought together litigation, activism and academic research. ALF was born out of a belief that there was a need to bring together these in a way that broke the barrier between theory and practice, and to a certain extent we were successful even if this was not without its attendant difficulties. The temporal nature of litigation and activism is always about the immediate and the urgent while research has a longer durée, and sometimes these can be in conflict with each other. But at ALF I was lucky to be in the company of extremely passionate and committed people, and I learnt that one’s political stances are not just learnt from the outside world but equally in these small experiments at collective living and working. To believe in an abstract idea of the right to equality is one thing, to actualize it in your practice is much more difficult, but in trying to do so you learn more about the abstract value as well.

 

What work does ALF focus on? Is there a unique work culture that volunteers or employees are expected to adhere to or anything in particular that is expected from them?

ALF works in a variety of areas from access to the criminal justice system, the politics of intellectual property, sexuality, labour etc. From the start we were committed to the idea of a non hierarchical workspace which was organized on the basis of collective responsibility- again much easier in principle than in practice- but I think an informal ethos and a respect for each other’s work is what attracted people towards ALF. Given the relatively modest salaries that we were offering, what made ALF attractive for many people was that it offered a vibrant intellectual and political environment, a collegial space underwritten by friendship and the chance to do work which you could see had some impact at least  on the lives of people.

 

What impact has working at ALF had on your life outlook?

This one will probably need more space than I have, but one simple one is a recognition that while the law is often a leaky umbrella, often it is the only one we have. And the real challenge of an ideological critique of the law is not to disavow it, but to deploy as effectively as possible using its own logic to work for those whom it normally works against. Apart from the professional side, it has shown me via the words of Neil Gaiman that inside everyone are strange and surprising universes and to work together is to be invited to universes that one would not normally be a part of.

 

Tell us a bit about the Public Access Digital Media Archive (Pad.ma) and Indiancine.ma.

Pad.ma is an online archive of video and documentary footage. It seeks to create a visual archive of densely annotated clips and Indiancine.ma tries to do the same for Indian films. These are collaborations with a fantastic group in Berlin, Pirate Cinema and Camp in Mumbai. They arise from a simultaneous interest in visual culture as well as in the radical potential of open access.

 

You have shown remarkable commitment to a variety of causes over the years. What are the major causes you espouse? Did you always know what issues you wanted to work on or did that happen with time?

While one always has a vague sense of values that one is committed to, the commitment to specific issues often arises from a particular context. For instance while I was generally interested in media laws, it was through the process of working with Vikalp (A group of documentary film makers who came together to fight censorship) that you are then forced to dive into and in some sense try and master a particular field. Similarly with issues of access to knowledge, the specific context of the DU photocopy case both confirms the importance of a politics of knowledge even as it refines the political stance you had through the technical prism of law. To be simultaneously committed to things you believe in even as you remain open to contingent forces that change or alter your politics is both exhilarating and inspiring. There is a lovely saying that revolutions should be born out of joy not sorrow, and I think we often derive out vitality from the energy of those we see around us, who in the face of extreme injustice are still defiantly hopeful for a better world.

 

Tell us how you have managed to combine media and law?

We live in a mediatized world where it is difficult to imagine any aspect of our lives which are not touched by media. From cinema to the internet, media occupies and shapes our consciousness, so it no coincidence that the world of law becomes crucially enmeshed with that of media. In a narrow sense that would mean the regulation of media, but in a broader sense it also means the transformation of law itself where law also becomes mediatized. The emergence of sting operations, the prevalence of trial by media are crucially media effects even as they are legal events, and to think of the contemporary is to think of media. Ravi Sundaram whose work has been very influential for me has a book which theorizes India ‘after media’ and in a sense he posits that everything changes after media and as a legal scholar you are bound to account for what that means in the legal world.

 

What is you role in iCommons? What do you strive to achieve there?

The Creative commons movement was a very important moment that showed us the possibility of what an alternative imaginary to the closed world of copyright could be. It expressed a philosophy of sharing and the creative potential of it contrasted with the diminishing of the public domain by strong IP regimes. It was also beset by its own limitations being enshrined within the idea of liberal legality, and for someone coming from India, where you could see the democratizing potential of illicit practices such as piracy, my own role was to contextualize what something like the CC movement meant in the global south, but also to nuance the debate with an understanding of the social and cultural worlds of knowledge sharing beyond the law.

 

What work have you done in collaboration with Sarai?

Sarai was one of the most exciting and important media and cultural spaces that emerged in early 2000’s which opened up all kinds of possibilities in the public discourse around art, media and urban space. It was set up jointly by the Raqs media collective and faculty members of CSDS and they supported the most cutting edge work in theory and practice for many years. The range of fellowships they offered, the legacy of the work they supported (from artists to graphic novelists) has been phenomenal. I started collaborating with Sarai in 2002, and it was a combination of boldness and generosity on their part which also helped ALF in its formative years. They saw a bunch of passionate and smart lawyers who wanted to try something new and supported us (intellectually and financially) helping us set our foundations. In 2005 we organized a global conference on intellectual property called Contested Commons and Trespassing Publics which I think made a significant impact on the global discourse on IP. We also co organized an event called World Information City that brought together artists and theorists thinking about idea and politics knowledge era as they played out in the lives of cities. My conversations with Jeebesh Bagchi, Ravi Sundaram, Ravi Vasudevan, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and others opened up ways of thinking from the diverse worlds of art, cinema and technology. Sarai, I think, allowed for us to see the various expressive forms that thought can take, and the traditional academic form of scholarship was both something they showed the limits of even by pushing the boundaries of how scholarship could be creatively and energetically expanded.

 

You have several publications to your credit! How do you choose when to write about what? Do you think research and publishing is very important for a law student?

Sometimes you choose to write because you are following an intuition, a curiosity and an intellectual itch. Other times a specific areas chooses you by virtue of its immediacy. At any rate for academics to write is to think and even though the act of writing is often a painful process every once in a while in the midst of writing you realize you are expressing thoughts you didn’t even know you had. So yes writing is crucial for law students, and I am grateful for the endless projects that we had to do as law school. I don’t think law school really teaches you law, what it does teach you is how to think about the law, how to forage for research material and how to put together an argument. What I do think is important is to fight the very real possibilities of writing becoming a painful drudgery (often the case with academic writing) and to experiment with different forms which retain the joyfulness of writing. For me writing in a range of forums from art journals, newspapers and academic spaces has been the key to maintaining my sanity since the joy of writing can easily be assassinated by footnotes. But more than a writer I think of myself as a reader, and writing for me is often is an excuse to make sense of what I am reading and to have imaginary conversations.

 

Please tell us about your experience as a Member of the Drafting Committee of the Colombo Declaration on Free Speech and Media in 2008?

This was a considerably difficult period in Sri Lanka, the civil war was at its peak and one of the immediate casualties was free speech. Journalists and editors were being targeted – often killed by the state as well as the LTTE. It was humbling to learn of the incredibly difficult circumstances under which journalists were doing their work and as members of the drafting committee we were privy to a remarkable set of testimonies. It reminded me of Foucault’s idea of parhessia- an idea that preceded the idea of free speech and referred to fearless speech- reminding us of the high stakes involved in speaking truth to power, and the small role that lawyers can play in nurturing a safe home of fearless speech. The experience really shaped my understanding of free speech laws in India and to appreciate the relatively good jurisprudence that exists on free speech in India. All the more crucial in these days when sedition charges are thrown about like cheap change and when shrill blood hungry media anchors become the greatest dangers to free speech.

 

What changes do you hope to see in human rights advocacy in India over the next decade?

With the mushrooming of law schools all over India, I hope that we in addition to producing lawyers for law firms, we also produce a generation of lawyers who continue a critical tradition. The law students I meet today are remarkably bright- certainly smarter than we were- they are born digital and command an enviable ease with all kinds of online research skills, and what would be fantastic is to have more lawyers who are able to engage with human rights issues not just in a generic sense of political empathy, but to deploy their legal skills in understanding and critiquing mainstream areas of law. What the human rights movement needs are more lawyers who know corporate law, insurance, taxation etc. In other words we need lawyers who understand the belly of the beast but also understand that the beast preys upon those who are most vulnerable and to be an effective human rights lawyer means internalizing Part 3 of the constitution, but also understanding how corporate governance can affect the same Part 3.

 

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