Out of the courts and into the social process – the careers of Harish Narasappa and Amba Salelkar


As a fresh law graduate, Harish Narassappa went to court to be handed a file numbered 1 of 1956. He thought to himself that it must have been a mistake – it must be 1 of 1996, but no, the number was right. Such was the extent of delays in the judicial process, he learnt. In this post, we meet two lawyers who picked up their first legal instincts inside courts – Harish Narasappa and Amba Salelkar – both having taken law degrees at NLSIU, the former in the mid-nineties, the latter in the mid-2000s. They remind us of Ramanathan’s sustained engagement with the question of law and poverty in diverse theatres, but these two lawyers built institutional edifices in furtherance of their queries about law’s role in the social process.

Having completed two stints of corporate practice, in London and in Mumbai, Narasappa returned to his hometown of Bangalore in 2005 and rented a space where he would begin an office. At this point, his vision was to do policy-related work. Two of his friends, Siddharth Raja and Roopa Doraswamy, also alumni of the National Law School of India University, had also quit their jobs, and asked if they could use the space. Over time, this space emerged as a corporate law firm. Their emphasis was on cultivating a space where young lawyers would be recruited and nurtured, where there was gender equity, humane working hours, and so on. The firm, eventually named Samvad Partners, grew over time to have a presence in four Indian cities, but Narasappa’s earlier desire to engage in policy matters had remained unfulfilled.

He started Daksh India in 2006. An idea initially, it took a couple of years to be registered. As a defining question of Daksh, Narasappa and his colleagues were interested in testing the efficacy of ‘democratic institutions’.

“…lot of people do things which makes change visible – volunteer time for a school, give some computers. I wanted to intervene at an institutional level…”

In sheer numbers, India carries an arrogant epithet of the largest democracy, but it is a democracy where the citizen’s capacity is numbed in the five-year period between elections. Further, he may have some form of accountability from elected representatives, but he doesn’t have the same from bureaucrats or other government agencies who may affect his well-being. Often, there is no recourse or clarificatory procedure available unless there has been a violation of a legal right, for which he can go to the courts. He does not know what the stance of his MP or MLA is on important issues like the Lokpal Bill, how he is going to argue in the house, and what his representative’s performance in the house has been like.

Harish Narasappa

Daksh and Narassapa designed a survey, which initially ran in Karnataka, but in the past two years, in other states such as Rajasthan and Bihar as well. The survey results were reflected in ‘scorecards’ for MLAs. Before the 2013 Karnataka assembly elections, leading Kannada newspapers carried their surveys. The representatives who had performed well on the scorecards were happy, those who hadn’t, claimed that the right criteria had not been taken into account. There was great support from people who said that they appreciated knowing these things as they went in to vote. Daksh’s intervention was to make the electoral process more effective by making crucial information available in the public domain, in local languages, for citizens to be able to exercise the franchise effectively. Daksh’s new intervention – the Rule of Law project – addresses the issue of judicial delay. With it, Narasappa attempts to strengthen the bridge between the two legs of his practice – in law and in public policy.

Amba Salelkar moved from a litigating career in a Mumbai criminal law firm to working in disability law and policy, when she quit her Mumbai criminal law career and moved to Chennai to join the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy. Her work in this realm concerned large sections of the public who suffered physical disability themselves or were caregivers or associates of others who suffered disability, legislators, law implementers, non-legal NGOs, and disability professionals.

After the switch, she could no longer take for granted the literacy in legalese on the part of the large and diverse constituency who were now her colleagues and associates. The other thing she began to get used to was the slow and seemingly non-eventful nature of policy work, involving long hours of deskwork and academic research. Initially, Salelkar wasn’t particularly interested in disability issues. It was the conviction and energies of Rahul Cherian, another older alumnus of the National Law School of India University that drew her in. She started working with Cherian on a shadow report on mental health law in India, something that interested her as she had received treatment for mental health concerns in her own life.

Amba Salelkar

Amba Salelkar

Rahul Cherian envisaged the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy as an offshoot of sorts from discussions which were taking place on The latter was a social networking website which was accessible for persons with disabilities, and it was through this that Rahul was exposed to the gap in policy and legislative interventions on behalf of persons with disabilities. Rahul was heavily involved in the “right to read” movement, which was seeking an exception to copyright law to allow for published material to be converted into accessible formats, and found that there was a lot more to be achieved when it came to advocacy under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities….”

After Cherian’s death in February 2013, she came to lead the organisation. Apart from work in the legislative domain, trying to influence bureaucrats and legislators, Salelkar’s advocacy operations take her to teaching disability law to a series of concerned groups. Her objective is to breathe life into a legal imagination of a person with disability as a citizen, a professional, a worker, a consumer, and a service-receiver. She attempts to equip people like caregivers with tools from the Constitution (like fundamental rights) that can be used to their benefit. For instance, understanding the right to equality and the vast jurisprudence under Article 21 (right to life) and other constitutional law principles including the tradition of courts having used international conventions as the Supreme Court did in the Vishaka judgment, can be used for strategic litigation.

“Some people are fascinated by the law….Some people are jaded. They say the law promised us so much, especially with the 1995 Act, and it never delivered… My job is give them a realistic perspectives on the things that a legal avenue can offer. I don’t want to give people too much hope….My job is to tell them you may be right, but it doesn’t mean you will get a judgment in your favour….”

Salelkar sees her role as having live intersections with other rights-based movements – especially, queer and feminist movements, recognising the absence of support within the legal and judicial system for a category of person that does not match the standardised legal imagination of the ‘normal’ person. Disturbing the ‘normal’ is at the core of her long journey within and without the law.

We will continue talking about Narasappa and Salelkar as we look at their institutional energies in a larger ecosystem of policy reform.

(Atreyee Majumder is an anthropologist. She teaches at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.)

Human Rights Litigation

Arvind Narrain and Usha Ramanathan – an uncertain unfolding of professional destiny


Modern India has witnessed many public lives arranged around the vocation of a lawyer. We find repeatedly that many people with strong public voices within native debates about social reform and in striking conversation with imperial forces are lawyers.

The lawyering profession has had several new influences in the current socio-economic milieu in India, not least significant of which has been the opening of the economy in 1991, and the emergence of a range of collaborative lawyering firms and other institutions that assist that range of new private enterprises. A large number of young minds are directed to legal education and the lawyering profession to enter these channels of lawyering services to assist the expanding business arena.

Exploring the terms on which the vocation is practised, I reached out to four legal professionals who have run very different combinations of litigation, advocacy, research, and teaching in their professional lives. These were professionals who obtained their law degrees before and after the cusp of 1991. Harish Narasappa and Arvind Narrain got their degrees in the mid and late 90s, and Amba Salelkar got hers in the 2000s. The three of them got their degrees at the National Law School of India University, which led the trend in producing five-year-law graduates who penetrated the new avenues of the legal profession in the post-1991 era. Usha Ramanathan took her law degree in the late seventies in Chennai, followed it up with an LLM in Nagpur, and found herself visiting the Supreme Court and Indian Law Institute regularly, in the early eighties.

(Clockwise, from top) Amba Salelkar, Usha Ramanathan, Arvind Narrain, and Harish Narasappa

A most senior law researcher

I find it instructive to use Usha’s legal biography to sketch out the contours of what it might mean to be a lawyer by vocation, in India, across the last two decades. We know that a large number of professional channels are now open for people with law degrees to pursue in the shaping of a career – between corporate firms, tradition court practice, tribunal practice, NGOs, policy think tanks, and in-house legal work within companies. Having begun at a time where most of these institutions were absent or present in smaller scale, Ramanathan found herself hovering around a range of judicial spaces in Delhi in the eighties, waiting for her ‘impulse to settle’. She turns a combination of humility and curiosity into a toolkit.

Her first job is as a copy-editor at the Eastern Book Company in Lucknow. She edited Upendra Baxi’s books Indian Supreme Court and Politics and Crisis of the Indian Legal System. She interacted with Justices Krishna Iyer and Bhagwati and read indiscriminately at the Indian Law Institute. She joined a team brought together by Professor Chhatrapati Singh from the Indian Law Institute that travelled through Tamil Nadu collecting data on wastelands. As a by-stander in a child rights case, she helped put together a report on children of prostitutes which was submitted to the chair of the court-appointed committee. She went along with a group comprising different civil society actors to Uttarkashi after the earthquake of 1991 and helped put together a report. These were vastly different issues. Over time, the overarching question that came to inform her work was about the nature of poverty and impact of legal institutions on it. Thus, slowly acquainting herself with the skills of law-informed research, she shaped a profession that she has come to call ‘law researcher’ – someone who collected facts, reported back with data and insight to judicial and administrative bodies, and discussed these insights in the public domain. Along the way, she collected a Delhi University PhD, but still, does not consider herself an academic. Her colleagues joke with her saying at least she should call herself a ‘Senior Law Researcher’.

Ramanathan’s more recent writings and energies have been around the Unique Identification Number and reflections on the thirtieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. She is clearly one of the most energetic legal intellectuals of today’s India, someone whose thought and writing forms an important bridge between the theory and the practice of law. She remains steadfastly distant from institutional folds though, in an attempt to conserve her freedom.

Court work, public engagement, and fact-finding

We find the other legal professionals who start their careers a decade or more after Ramanathan, also making creative endeavours to juggle various institutional roles. Narrain came back from Warwick after a Masters, and got involved with founding the Alternative Law Forum in 2002, on the heels of the Gujarat riots. Initially an inchoate space where public interest law would be practiced and researched, an incident of two sex workers being picked up by the police in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve, propelled him and his colleagues to appear in court and argue a bail petition — quite a different route into courts from the usual ones taken by young lawyers to learn courtcraft. His work veered into the realm of sexuality rights and eventually the long drawn judicial battle over the constitutional legitimacy of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. A political stance, a legal skill, and the presence of a professional and intellectual space lent to the emergence of this wide public and judicial debate over sexuality rights. Narrain cites the example of Gandhi’s lawyering to show the main tenets of human rights law practice – courtwork, engagement with the wider public, and fact-finding activities.

I find it important to see Narrain’s and Ramanathan’s sensibilities in consonance – the attempt to create and retain an inchoateness in their early career. Both are convinced that they wish to intervene in the legal domain, in public interest, but the exact methods and content emerge over a set of serendipitious meetings and events (though in Narrain’s case the organisational initiative was an important milestone). It is their patience and ability to handle an uncertain unfolding of a professional destiny that should be valuable for young lawyers and law students to learn from, if not emulate. In a series of essays over the next few weeks, I will juxtapose these four legal personalities to show the different ways of crafting one’s presence and influence in legal arenas – in courts, in the public domain, in advocacy with governments, in academia.

(Atreyee Majumder is an anthropologist. She teaches at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.)