Human Rights

Locking up adolescents who commit heinous crimes will not help anyone

Kalpana_PurushothamanI am a counsellor working with juveniles in conflict with law. Most of them are boys and some have committed crimes like rape and murder. These are crimes that the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, which was recently passed by the Lok Sabha, considers ‘heinous’ crimes.

Mohan*, a 17-year-old charged with rape, told me about recurring nightmares of a gang rape he had witnessed. He had been the ‘lookout’ outside the door as four “rowdies” raped a middle-aged woman whose husband owed them money. He had desperately wanted to prove them wrong. Asked to clean up after them, he offered the woman a glass of water. Later, she identified him in the line-up.

Mohan was guilty and he should be punished. But should he be punished with imprisonment that will inevitably expose him to brutal violence and sexual abuse and trigger further anger? Will Mohan reform if he is sent to jail where adult convicts and offenders are most likely to groom him for further crime? Are there alternate and developmentally appropriate correctional methods that actually lead to changes in his behavior and enable solace and a sense of justice to the victim?

Mohan repeatedly told me and demonstrated through his behaviour that he was remorseful and willing to do whatever it took to do this. But we do not have such programs for juveniles in India.

Then there was Joseph*, a 17-year-old with floppy hair and sad eyes. He would sit quietly in a corner and burst into tears when I first met him at an observation home where he was being held. He was charged with the rape of Leena*, a 16-year-old Hindu girl. Medical reports had showed that she was a few weeks pregnant. Joseph had been apprehended while trying to board an inter-state bus with her, two days after she had gone missing from her house. After working with Joseph, a different story emerged.

Joseph had known Leena for the two years and they were in love with each other. A year previously, Leena’s father, who had seen them together on Joseph’s bike, had warned Joseph to stay away from his daughter. A few months later, Leena told Joseph that she was seeing another boy and broke up with him.

They had not met each other since then till three days before his apprehension when Leena turned up at Joseph’s house and told him that she had decided to commit suicide as she was being harassed by her parents. She also told him that she was pregnant by her boyfriend (who was related to her father’s family) and that her parents would kill her if they came to know of it. She asked for his help in aborting the child. Joseph stole money from his elder sister and decided to take her to a nearby city, where he was apprehended by the police. Leena’s parents filed a case of rape and kidnapping against Joseph.

In many of the cases of ‘rape’ against juveniles, there has either been consensual sex between the accused and the ‘victim’, or a false case has been filed against the boy (usually by the girl’s parents), especially where the boy and the girl belong to different castes, religions, or strata of society.

16-year-old Sathish* was charged with killing his father in a fit of rage. A chronic alcoholic, his father used to regularly beat his mother, his younger sister, and him. Sathish, despite being academically bright, dropped out of school to work at a local hotel washing dishes. His father’s bouts of drinking and violence continued unabated. One day, Sathish had enough. When his father attacked him, he hit back and slashed his father’s throat with a razor. He was found guilty of murdering his father. Although she had no role in it, his mother was also sent to jail as an accomplice.

Unlike other juveniles who simply languish in the system without intervention or rehabilitative services, Sathish received intensive counseling from me and psychiatric treatment from the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the National Institutte of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences during his time in the juvenile justice system. With help from an NGO willing to take him in and support his education, he went on to write his 10th Standard exams. Later, he enrolled in an evening college and is slowly but surely trying to reclaim his life. His mother and sister are also receiving counselling and support in piecing their lives together.

While these are examples of some juveniles charged with having committed heinous offences and subsequently found guilty by the Juvenile Justice Board, not every juvenile charged with a heinous offence is actually found guilty. If the JJ Bill 2014 were to become law however, the Juvenile Justice Board would have to make a very arbitrary assessment of the child’s ‘mental and ‘physical capacity to commit the crime’ and decide whether they should be tried under the juvenile justice system or the adult criminal justice system. At present, there is simply no way psychologists or psychiatrists or other experts can make a scientifically sound determination of whether the crime was committed in an ‘adult frame of mind’ or a ‘childish frame of mind’.

Crime and the juvenile mind

Juveniles are certainly capable of committing heinous crimes like rape or murder. What they are often incapable of however, is to resist the peer pressure to indulge in risky behaviour that creates or leads to such situations. Research by neuroscientists and psychologists show that adolescents – especially between the ages of 16 and 18, are highly susceptible to peer influences, have poor impulse control, and their decision-making abilities often fail them in high pressure situations. This is because the part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for controlling these aspects – namely impulse control, behaviour regulation, and future orientation – is still in the process of developing.

Also, in my experience, juveniles who commit heinous crimes are very often victims of violence, neglect, emotional deprivation, sexual abuse, broken families, poverty, substance abuse and so on. All of these factors are known to influence and impede healthy brain development. While they do not make their actions right or take away the pain and damage caused to the victims and their families, it provides a certain perspective to understand why and how adolescents who should be in school or college end up committing rape or murder.

Almost every juvenile that I have worked with has expressed remorse and sadness for their actions when they feel safe to do so in a therapeutic environment. Many of them have often spoken of a deep desire to make amends to their victims and their families. A 17-year old charged with murder wanted to give his monthly earnings to the family of his victim as he felt he had deprived the family of an earning member.

My experience has been that juveniles who commit these heinous crimes do not get off lightly. They are traumatised and haunted by their actions and the pain of their victims. Depression, post-traumatic stress, nightmares, psycho-somatic disorders and a host of other mental health problems continue to dog them for years. They are cut off from their families, have to give up their schooling, and are removed from all that they hold dear. To a young person, that is often the harshest punishment one can give. Besides, the conditions at the reformatory institutions – whether Observation Homes, Special Homes, or Places of Safety – are not exactly idyllic. There is nothing ‘special’ about special homes and all these are just euphemisms for prison or prison-like conditions. Physical violence, neglect, sexual abuse and substance abuse are usually rampant. The over-worked, ill-trained and poorly rewarded staff at these institutions are not oriented to care giving or working professionally in a correctional setting for children and adolescents.

Transferring adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18 years to the adult criminal justice system and incarcerating them in adult prisons will only lead to a situation where these youngsters will come out of jail a few years later – thoroughly groomed and trained as career criminals. Instead, investing in strengthening the existing juvenile justice system – where they still have a chance to reform themselves and helping them take responsibility for their actions, teaching them to make amends to their victims and to society in appropriate ways – is the way to help prevent further crime and actually bring about some measure of healing and justice for all concerned. Restorative justice has the potential to bring together the juvenile, the victim, and society in a meaningful way. Some countries are already trying it, with varying and encouraging degrees of success.

Juvenile justice is a complex issue and there are no easy answers that will satisfy all. There is a need to balance the rights and interests of the juvenile, the victim and the society. Debate, discussion and engagement with young adolescents at risk and understanding and addressing their concerns before they commit a crime would be a positive step forward. Shutting them away in prisons afterwards will not help anyone.

Kalpana Purushothaman is a senior Counsellor at the Centre for Child and the Law, National Law School of India University.

*Names and some case details have been changed to protect identity

Human Rights

Four women lawyers help Bastar’s imprisoned adivasis access justice in a broken system

Manish_goodhumanrightslawyeringConflict zones, as this column has pointed out earlier, are particularly difficult places for human rights lawyers to work. In the Bastar region in southern Chhattisgarh, years of the Maoist insurgency and the counter-operation by the Indian state have created a battle zone where even normal life is subject to the oversight of security forces. In Jagdalpur, I was advised not to step out after sunset as I could be picked up by the CRPF.

Paradoxically, for the wide publicity it gets, there is little in-depth information or reportage about Bastar. The legal issues that affect the region have not been understood or documented in detail.

It is in this situation that a group of committed human rights lawyers has been quietly working towards documenting the plight of undertrials in Bastar and providing them with legal aid at the trial courts. The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (or “JagLAG” as they call themselves), is an all-women team of lawyers based out of Jagdalpur, the headquarters of Bastar district, where they are fighting state apathy, disempowerment, and patriarchy while helping the predominantly adivasi population secure access to justice.

Earlier this year, I interacted with the group at their office in Jagdalpur and visited the courts and the jail there. JagLAG is unique in that its members are all graduates from major law universities and have chosen to litigate at the trial courts in Bastar over other, more lucrative, options. Shalini Gera, 44, is the oldest member of the group and a graduate from Delhi University, and had previously been working with senior advocate Sudha Bharadwaj in Bilaspur. The others, Guneet Kaur, Isha Khandelwal, and Parijatha Bhardwaj, are recent graduates from Indian and foreign universities. For all of them, JagLAG was the first experience at practising law at the trial courts. In an unfamiliar location, theirs has been a trial by fire of sorts.

Early days of gathering data

Chattisgarh's Bastar district

Chattisgarh’s Bastar district

JagLAG had its genesis in conversations that took place in Mumbai and Delhi among lawyers and activists around the possibility of a systematic legal intervention in Bastar. Major human rights abuses, such as the Soni Sori case, had come to light from the region. The intervention aimed at documenting human rights issues from the ground and providing legal aid to undertrials and adivasis who had been framed as “Naxals”. As a result of these conversations, a few advocates committed themselves to providing funding and mentorship for the group, with the aim of supporting an effort at ensuring access to justice in this region.

The Bastar region, where the group works, is comprised of five districts – Bastar, Dantewara, Kanker, Sukma, and Bijapur. JagLAG, being the first such intervention in the area, has had to learn the ropes from scratch. They spoke to local lawyers to get a sense of the courts and the cases being handled, and used empirical data obtained through the Right to Information Act to substantiate the anecdotes.

The RTI applications about court and prison statistics revealed a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system in Bastar. The jails were severely overcrowded. While  the average occupancy in jails across the country is 112%, the corresponding figures ranged from 255% at the Jagdalpur Central Jail to an astounding 428% at the Kanker District Jail. Most of the prisoners were illiterate adivasi men between the ages of 18 and 30 and an overwhelming majority were undertrials.

Overcrowding-in-Bastar-jails-(2012) (1)

An analysis of the case disposal statistics between 2005 and 2012 revealed that two-thirds of undertrials in Jagdalpur had to spend between two and five years in prison before receiving bail, while on an average, across the country, 75 per cent of undertrials spend less than a year in prison before receiving bail. An astounding 96 per cent of the cases between 2005 and 2012 ended in acquittal, indicating that in most cases, the police had mostly framed innocent adivasis and there was no evidence to indicate any actual links with the Maoists.


Trademark Naxalite cases

Following up, JagLAG began to track the cases of those who had been incarcerated the longest, to identify the blocks in the system. As they interacted with more prisoners and went through their files, patterns began to emerge. Most of them had been incarcerated in what Shalini described as “trademark Naxalite cases” – allegations of being involved in Maoist activities or conspiracy – including charges under Sections 302 or 307 and 149 of the Indian Penal Code, along with Sections 25 and 26 of the Arms Act, 1959 and Sections 3 and 4 of the Explosives Act, 1884. In addition, provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 are also invoked. Many of the prisoners who had been in jail for a long time had not even applied for bail, due to a combination of circumstances.

Bringing in families to file for bail

Local lawyers are reluctant to file for bail, given that the sections involved are non-bailable and the charges are grave, making it rather difficult to obtain bail from a trial court. In addition, the prisoners are usually residents of remote villages and given the long distances and poor transportation facilities in the region, it is difficult for their families to visit the jail or the lawyers. As families was unable to take an active role in the case, the local lawyers lose interest and the cases – and the undertrials involved –  would languish for years.

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group - (from left to right) Guneet Kaur, Isha Khandelwal, Shalini Gera, and Parijatha Bhardwaj

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group – (from left to right) Guneet Kaur, Isha Khandelwal, Shalini Gera, and Parijatha Bhardwaj

The group began their legal aid work by filing bail applications on behalf of these undertrials. This intervention, including working with the lawyers currently representing the undertrial prisoners and persuading them to file for bail and bringing the families back on board, was a learning experience. They visited the families in their villages rather than rely on them – mostly poor, illiterate adivasis – to make the long and expensive commute all the way to Jagdalpur. However, local security concerns and the looming threat of police action have forced them to restrict field visits in favour of courtwork. They also provide support to fact-finding investigations into grave human rights violations, such as the PUDR investigation into the Sarkeguda extra-judicial killings of 2012, and represent victims of custodial torture, violence, and death at enquiries before the sub-judicial magistrate. Incidentally, on the day of my visit, Guneet and Shalini had just arrived after a day’s trip to Dantewara, to record the affidavits of villagers in a case of extra-judicial execution.

Problems with data and procedure

From the beginning, JagLAG faced several challenges in their work. The initial set of RTI applications revealed that data was recorded in different ways in different places. For instance, while the jail records were referenced by crime numbers, the court records used case numbers, and matching the two took some effort. Many of the long-pending cases that they took up already had lawyers, and much time was spent in tracking down people and their cases, as well as persuading the current set of lawyers to file applications or hand over the cases.

Local procedural requirements also made simple processes, like the filing of a bail application, extremely onerous. The criminal court rules of practice in Chhattisgarh require that while applying for bail, an affidavit had to be filed by a person other than the accused, who was conversant with the facts of the case. Usually, this was a close relative who resides far away from the court and the lawyer. The bail application cannot be filed until such a person has been located and the affidavit filed. JagLAG therefore had to re-calibrate its strategy and adopt more realistic goals about the number of cases they planned to take up. At present, they have taken two cases to the High Court and have handled several more at the various trial courts.

The group’s successes have also exposed the rot within the system. One of their early achievements was securing bail for two undertrials who had been incarcerated for six years, without their names even appearing on the chargesheet. Shockingly, the bail was only granted on a surety of Rs. 10,000 which resulted in the individuals concerned remaining in jail for another ten months while they contacted relatives and raised the money. An application filed under Section 440 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, to reduce the bond amount, remains pending before the court. In another case, they managed to get bail for three arrested persons at the remand stage itself – something that, despite being permitted under law, was almost impossible to do in Bastar.

Threats to their safety

The Sukma court, deserted on a weekday.

The Sukma court, deserted on a weekday.

The rigidly binary nature of public discourse in conflict areas means that anyone who does not espouse the State’s views is seen as siding with the opposition. In Bastar, this has meant that the members of JagLAG have been branded as “Naxalite supporters” or “sympathisers” by the administration and the police, for trying to higlight human rights abuses by the State. Consequently, they work under a constant cloud of threats to their safety, and hostility from the courts. Working as ‘outsiders’ in Bastar has not been easy: they have also faced hostility from fellow lawyers, who view them suspiciously because of their model of human rights lawyering, where they blend activism with court work, and also see JagLAG as competition because do not charge for their services. Isha says, “People keep attributing ulterior motives to us all the time. It’s difficult to explain the concept to them.” In addition, they began work with no contacts or local networks, and have had to build these up from scratch. However, being outsiders with no familial or other investments in the area has also enabled them to take more aggresive stances against the State which local lawyers would have been reluctant to do. As a group, JagLAG is always conscious about the danger of their advocacy work appropriating the agency of the adivasi communities they are representing as lawyers. Says Guneet, “It’s something that goes on all the time in my head – in our role as civil society here, we shouldn’t make decisions [on behalf of the adivasis] that aren’t ours to make.”

The challenges of patriarchy

Being women in a partiarchal, all-male structure – there are almost no women among court staff and at the Bar in Jagdalpur – means that they are at the receiving end of condecension and a patronising attitude from lawyers and judges alike. Parijatha says, “We have inexperience going against us, but this gets compounded by the fact that we’re women.” Over the last couple of years, they have managed to negotiate an uneasy space for themselves, while in the process breaking stereotypes about how women are expected to work and behave in public spaces. Guneet, Isha, and Parijatha have recently featured in Forbes India‘s “30 under 30” list for their efforts.


JagLAG is supported, financially and professionally, by a number of lawyers around the country, and they are grateful for the mentorship that has helped them work in a very difficult location with very little experience. All four of them have found the work to be an enriching process. Says Guneet, “There were times we would call [the senior lawyers] up at night with minute legal queries and they were always very encouraging and helpful.”

The group has not fully considered its future, given that their experiences have been different from what they had originally planned. However, they are optimistic that they will be able to sustain themselves and include more local lawyers in the process. Shalini concludes, “The key to replicating and making this sort of initiative sustainable in other places is to involve local people as a core part of the work. That is something that we look forward to doing in the future.”

(Manish is a 2013 graduate of NLSIU, Bangalore and works on issues of access to justice. He is currently based in Ahmedabad.)

Human Rights

New Gujarat terror law creates vague crimes, allows confessions to the police, permits secret trials, gives police immunity

Manish_authorOn March 31, the Gujarat Assembly passed the Gujarat Control of Terror and Organised Crime Bill, 2015 (“the Bill”), which is now awaiting the Governor’s assent. It is modelled on the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (“MCOCA”), a law that was criticised for being draconian, in excessive violation of civil liberties, and with several documented instances of misuse. This bill had previously been passed on two occasions, in 2003 and in 2009. Each time, it was unsuccessfully referred for the President’s assent. Now, the Opposition has abstained from voting on it and has appealed to the Governor to decline assent.

Poor drafting, vague definitions

The Bill is poorly drafted, especially in places where it deviates from MCOCA. Definitions of “continuing unlawful activity”, “organised crime”, and “organised crime syndicate” (Sections 2(1)(d), (e), and (f) respectively) all refer to one another in a circular manner and offer little clarity. The definitions are also vague. “Organised crime” includes “cyber crimes having severe consequences” and “running large scale gambling rackets”. What constitutes “severe consequences” or “large scale” has not been defined. These terms are absent in MCOCA. The Bill also attempts to define “terrorist act” in Section 2(h) through a long-winded, logically inconsistent, and grammatically incorrect sentence that is painfully strung together and offers no useful guidance regarding what exactly constitutes the act in question. A much clearer definition (with the same ingredients) is found in Section 15 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967.

The substantive offences are defined in Sections 3 and 4 and are mostly similar to those defined in the MCOCA except for the addition of “terrorist act” in addition to “organised crime”. Besides these acts themselves, conspiracy, abetment, harbour, membership of an organised crime syndicate, and possessing property derived therefrom are all criminalised, with the possibility of life imprisonment (and the death penalty if the organised crime or terrorist act causes death).

Special courts

Sections 5 through 12 deal with special courts and their functioning. The state government, with the concurrence of the Chief Justice, is empowered to set up one or more special courts and appoint judges for exclusively trying offences under the Bill. The special courts have the powers of sessions courts but can also take cognisance of offences. Of interest is Section 10, reproduced verbatim from MCOCA, which states that trials before a special court shall have precedence over trials before any other courts, and imposes a de facto stay on all other proceedings for the period of the trial.

Evidentiary rules for intercepted communication and confessions

Section 14 provides for the admissibility of evidence collected through the interception of wire, oral, or electronic communication. This is where the Bill makes a significant departure from MCOCA – while the latter actually provides a procedure for the interception of communications, the Bill does not do so, only making existing intercepts admissible. Therefore, the procedure that will have to be followed will be as laid down in Rule 419A of the Telegraph Rules, 1951 and Rule 3 of the IT (Interception, Monitoring and Decryption) Rules, 2009. The unhappiness of the drafting reveals itself in a rather confusing (and possibly unnecessary) non-obstante clause at the beginning of the section, followed by the words “under the provisions of any other law”. Interestingly, the first proviso to the section also requires that the accused be provided with a copy of the order of the authority authorising the interception, ten days prior to the hearing where the intercept is sought to be admitted as evidence. This is partially nullified by the second proviso, which gives the judge the discretion to waive the period of ten days.

Among the most controversial of the Bill’s provisions is Section 16, clause (1) of which makes a confession to a police officer admissible in evidence. This section overrides Section 162 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and Sections 25 and 26 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, which specifically prohibit the use of statements made to police officers in evidence, in order to protect the rights of the accused by preventing the extraction of confessions under duress or torture by the police. While investigating agencies ordinarily have the option to record statements before a magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the Gujarat bill destroys this delicate balance between the rights of the accused and the powers of the investigative agencies. It opens the door to egregious violations of human rights while extracting confessions from persons detained under its provisions. By means of an eyewash, the Bill provides some ‘safeguards’ in clauses (2) to (4), which are mostly meaningless given that the authority administering them is not independent, but a part of the investigating process. The shallowness of the provision is revealed by clauses (5) and (6), under which both the statement and the person making it are required to be forwarded to a magistrate within 48 hours. In such a circumstance, the statement could well have been recorded by the magistrate. This section appears to be an elaborate ruse for legitimising confessions to the police, and the inhuman machinations that go behind it: under clause (7), an allegation of torture by the person making the confession does not invalidate the confession, but merely prompts a reference to a civil surgeon for a medical examination.

Witness protection and closed trials

Section 17 contains provisions for the protection of witnesses, and is modelled on Section 19 of MCOCA. It empowers the special courts to hold the trial in-camera and take any measures necessary for concealing the identity and address of the witnesses. As part of this power, Clause 3(d) allows the court to make a decision that “it is in the public interest to order that all or any of the proceedings pending before such a Court shall not be published in any manner”. This is an extreme provision which is reminiscent of the attempt at holding a “secret trial” in the UK for terrorist offences, which was rejected by the Court of Appeal on the ground that “open justice” was both an integral part of common law and a means of ensuring public confidence in the legal system. The same considerations regarding open trials apply to India as well: Section 327 of the Criminal Procedure Code mandates that trials be held in open court, with limited exceptions on reporting. In a situation where the Supreme Court has already laid down guidelines for court reporting, the blanket media gag proposed by the Bill is extremely troubling and avoidable.

Procedural safeguards diluted, stricter conditions for bail

Section 20 dilutes several procedural safeguards provided to the accused under the Code of Criminal Procedure. On the lines of MCOCA and UAPA, it increases the time for which a person may be detained in police and judicial custody, pending investigation, to 30 and 180 days respectively. Clause (3) removes the option of anticipatory bail and clause (4) provides for extremely restrictive conditions regarding bail, almost mandating the acquiescence of the public prosecutor. Clause (5) is another controversial provision, which denies bail even if the accused had been released on bail in an offence under any other law on the date of the offence. This clause is based on Section 21(5) of MCOCA, which was held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2008. The Bill therefore deviates from the well-established jurisprudence of bail being a right and jail being the exception. Thus, even if no charges are made out, people detained under the provisions of the Bill will have to languish in jail.

Burden of proof shifted

Section 21 of the Bill, which is identical to Section 22 of MCOCA, is a reverse-onus clause, which shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused in certain circumstances. In doing so, it dispenses with the presumption of innocence of the accused and breaks the “golden thread” of criminal jurisprudence, requiring the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt, which originated in common law but has become a settled proposition in Indian criminal jurisprudence as well.

Immunity for state functionaries

Image above is from the website of the All India Radio.

Image above is from the website of the All India Radio.

As a matter of abundant caution, Section 24 of the Bill contains another non-obstante clause giving it overriding effect over all other laws for the time being in force. Section 25 caps off the draconian legislation by granting complete immunity to all state functionaries for any action taken under the provisions of the Bill. This effectively provides impunity to police officers for torture and extra-judicial methods employed in criminal investigations, under the garb of “anti-terror operations”. Thus, even in cases of false prosecutions, like the 2002 Akshardham terror attack, the victims will be left empty handed and without any recourse to justice.

“Tough anti-terror laws” have rarely if ever proven useful at combating terrorism, and usually serve to provide a cover for the incompetence of investigating agencies. A case in point is the aforementioned Akshardham terror attack case, where the Supreme Court came down heavily on the investigating agencies for conducting a shoddy investigation, which led to the framing of innocent persons, while the actual masterminds behind the attack were still at large. Gujarat already has a history of draconian legislation in the Gujarat Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act, 1985 (“PASA”), which authorises preventive detention, and has been heavily criticised for being used to detain activists and protestors. For now, hope rests with the Governor and the President to prevent the new Bill from becoming law. Unfortunately, judicial history shows that the Supreme Court has also been extremely restrained while testing the validity of these laws under the Constitution, with the most draconian provisions being upheld repeatedly. The last of these was MCOCA in 2008, which was upheld (although the challenge was mainly on grounds of legislative competence rather than violation of Article 21). While hope is eternal, the outlook remains bleak if the Bill is assented to.

(Manish is a 2013 graduate of NLSIU, Bangalore and works on issues of access to justice. He is currently based in Ahmedabad.)

Human Rights Supreme Court of India

Legalise or abolish? Debate on sex work back in focus

VeraShrivastavIn 2011, the Supreme Court of India set up a panel to deliberate potential amendments to the law on sex work, suggest measures to rehabilitate sex workers, and ensure their basic citizenship rights. Recently, the chairwoman of the National Commission of Women, Lalitha Kumaramangalam, declared her stance in favour of the legalisation of sex work.

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, (“ITPA”), the only Indian law specifically covering prostitution in India, was passed to give effect to India’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, 1950 and also to uphold the freedom against exploitation guaranteed under the Constitution of India.

The prohibitions in the ITPA

Under the ITPA, prostitution is defined as the sexual exploitation of women for commercial purposes. It does not criminalise sex work per se. It is not illegal to carry out sex work within the private confines of one’s home but sex work in or near public places and the soliciting of clients for the purpose of prostitution are criminal acts. It also criminalises the facilitation of the acts of kerb crawling, owning and managing brothels (more than one prostitute constitutes a brothel), pimping, procuring, and trafficking. In effect, the criminalising of prostitution has accorded an offender status to sex workers. Civil society has been largely insensitive to their forced sex work, the abusive customers, their poverty and lack of basic amenities, and most regretfully, their fundamental right to live with dignity.

In 2006, an amendment was proposed in the Parliament to decriminalise prostitution and the solicitation of clients under the ITPA. It also purported to strengthen the definition of trafficking but this bill promptly lapsed with the dissolution of the Fourteenth Lok Sabha. If passed, it would have provided sex workers with a large degree of protection from harassment by the police, social ostracism, and the exploitative network of pimps, traffickers, and abusive customers. Further, it would have embraced a victim-centric approach towards sex workers as opposed to the offender status accorded to them under the existing law.

Lalitha Kumaramangalam (left) and Bharati Dey

Lalitha Kumaramangalam (left) and Bharati Dey

Amongst all the facilitating acts, the trafficking of sex workers is easily the most lucrative business for pimps and traffickers. It exploits minors and adults alike, who are often trafficked into the trade against their will and better judgment. Given that the social fabric of India highly stigmatises prostitution and given that sex workers are not legally recognised, the number of sex workers in India who freely choose this means of livelihood, without being driven or trafficked into it by poverty, illiteracy, and the lack of other viable alternatives, are few. While the statistics of the Ministry of Women and Child Development had estimated over 3 million sex workers in India a few years ago, the Human Rights Watch pegs the number at a much higher 20 million sex workers. A 2013 report by Dasra Foundation also estimates the number of sex workers in India at 20 million, of which 80 per cent are victims of trafficking.

Under the ITPA, trafficking was not defined comprehensively and the measures were ineffective in curbing it. To remedy this, the Verma Committee in 2013 recommended the adoption of the definition of ‘trafficking’ from United Nations Palermo Protocol which classifies trafficking as an offence if done for the purpose of exploitation. This definition has been incorporated in Section 370 the Indian Penal Code, 1860 by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.

Abolition versus legalisation

The approach towards trafficking is a contentious point between two opposing viewpoints on sex work. There are the abolitionists who advocate abolishing the sex work industry altogether and who consider trafficking a crime in itself and then there is the pro-legalisation group who recognise the sex work industry and the accompanying trafficking as part of the trade, as long as it is not done for exploitation.

Apne Aap Women Worldwide and a number of other NGOs and activists advocate a third way between abolishing and legalising sex work. They advocate the decriminalisation of the sex worker, penalising and educating the customers, and criminalising the traffickers.

Apne Aap strongly feels that “prostitution is inherently exploitative and unequal and is in reality an absence of choice, not a choice. Women who have been prostituted must have their basic rights recognised and safeguarded but this must not be confused with the issue of legitimising the sex trade and creating a section of ‘sex workers’ as an employment avenue, such that women from poor and socially oppressed backgrounds, or women lacking education and skills fall prey to the pressures of the market economy, to serve the interest of the profiteers such as pimps, traffickers, procurers, running this trade. The prostituted woman is completely controlled by an exploitative network of pimps, recruiters, brothel managers, money lenders, muscle men and organised crime networks who actually take most of the money a prostituted woman makes from sale of her body, leaving her into a vicious debt cycle”.

An opposing viewpoint is provided by Bharati Dey, the President of the All India Network of Sex Workers and the Secretary of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, who leads the pro-legalisation campaign. Sex work, she says, should be treated as labour and should be brought under the purview of labour laws and policies of the state so that sex workers can live with dignity and enjoy workers rights. She also believes that once the sex work industry is regulated under labour laws, the ITPA will serve no purpose and ought to be repealed. Ms. Dey’s vision encompasses a scenario where the sex workers are empowered and self–reliant. She proposes a self–regulatory board as well as an anti-trafficking board, which will be constituted of and managed by the sex workers themselves. This way, the sex workers union will be able to closely supervise and segregate the women who join the trade of their own free will and those women including minors who are trafficked into the trade. For the latter and those who wish to opt out of this means of livelihood, she proposes to involve the government for long-term rehabilitation measures.

Some NGOs and activists also believe that legalising sex work will prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, provide access to health facilities, education opportunities, and financial inclusion in society as well as prevent exploitation but there is no conclusive study to support that legalisation will improve the conditions of sex workers.

Most parts of Asia, Africa, and the United States have criminalised prostitution while most of Latin America and Europe legalise prostitution or regulate it in some way. Germany and Netherlands, the leading examples of countries which have legalised prostitution, are still facing problems of illegal trafficking of women from less prosperous countries, links with organised crime syndicates, and drug abuse. Conditions amongst prostituted women have not improved noticeably. Sweden is a prime example for the decriminalisation model. Sweden has decriminalised the sex worker and offered rehabilitation measures, but has criminalised the traffickers and customers. This Nordic model has been adopted in Norway, Finland, Iceland, Korea, Philippines, and Russia.

Any model that we adopt must provide solutions to the pressing issues of exploitation by the trafficking network, lack of access to health, prevention of diseases, safety measures for women, financial inclusion in society, and the right to live with dignity. Further, the government must ensure strong long-term rehabilitation measures for any sex worker who wishes to opt out of this means of livelihood.

(Vera Shrivastav is an Associate at LegaLogic law firm and is a part time researcher and writer.)


Be true to the cause, use litigation to support movements and advance the law

Manish_goodhumanrightslawyeringIt’s that every now and again – not often, but occasionally – you get to be a part of justice being done. That really is quite a thrill when that happens.

– Tom Hanks (as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia)

Across generations, human rights lawyering is fundamentally driven by the passion of seeing justice done. For veteran advocates like the Punjab-based Rajvinder Singh Bains, passion may arise out of witnessing injustice and atrocities. Younger advocates, on the other hand, may be inspired by the work of path-breaking people before them, while also bringing newer perspectives and ideas to the practice. In either case, the passion for the cause is an essential element of being a human rights lawyer.

Beyond passion


Mihir Desai has three decades of experience with human rights lawyering.

However, while being passionate is important, being effective in court is even more important. “To be a good human rights lawyer, you have to be a good lawyer first,” says Mihir Desai, a veteran advocate and activist from Bombay. Mr. Desai, who has been practising for three decades now, is also the co-founder of the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (“IPT”), which describes itself as an “alternative People’s Court that gives voice to the struggles of grass-roots organizations and affected communities” and conducts investigations on human rights and environmental issues. He has worked extensively on human rights issues at the trial court level, and has been instrumental in bringing them into mainstream jurisprudence, through his litigation before courts, movements such as the IPT, and publications like Combat Law. Given the marginalisation of human rights issues at the trial court level, it is all the more important for a lawyer working in this field to have an excellent grasp of procedural as well as substantive law, which is why Mr. Desai encourages all young lawyers in the field to hone their skills in the courtroom.

Among these young lawyers is Rajat Kumar, 28, a graduate from the Gujarat National Law University, who has been practising at the courts in Delhi for just under five years. Headed down the standard National Law University path – with corporate internship after corporate internship, an internship with the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore introduced him to the world of human rights lawyering and he was immediately attracted to it. A subsequent internship provided him an opportunity to work on the Narmada Bachao Andolan case, as part of which he made a visit to the site of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and interacted with displaced people. The realisation, like the one had by the protagonist in Philadelphia, that one was part of an actual process that was bringing justice to people, was a powerful experience that Mr. Kumar describes as life-changing, and he has never looked back since. After graduating, he joined the offices of Jawahar Raja in Delhi, and now works primarily on criminal and labour law matters.

Mr. Kumar argues most of his labour cases (where he represents workers’ unions) before the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction under the Sick Industrial Companies (Special Provisions) Act, 1985. Contract labour and regularisation of employment is also a major issue, and Mr. Kumar has argued the cases of workers who have been denied benefits due to them, and are trapped in sham contracts. He perceives that the scene for labour rights is not as positive as it used to be. With the increased focus on economic development, he said that there is a corresponding perception that courts are increasingly hostile and reluctant to grant relief to labour, citing the instance of the 2013 Punjab and Haryana High Court order denying bail to the Maruti workers who were arrested during the unrest at Manesar, which mentioned as a ground, the risk to foreign investment due to “fear of labour unrest”. However, as a human rights advocate, it is important to keep the faith and continue the fight for the cause.

Staying the course, true to the cause

Mr. Desai says that a good human rights lawyer works for a cause throughout. There cannot be any inconsistency in the stand that one takes on an issue. The human rights lawyer is committed to the issue and the advocate needs to let go of individual ego and think of the cause. Staying true to a cause also inspires greater levels of trust and confidence among one’s clients. This is why it is important, as a lawyer in this field, to choose one’s cases and remain committed to the cause – for instance, in a labour court, one cannot defend workers one day and managements the next. He clarifies that the right to legal representation is important, but so is the right of an advocate to choose her cases and causes: “An accused rapist is definitely has a right to receive legal representation; but I would not want to be his legal representative. And that’s a consistent stand I take.”

"Important to choose one's cases and remain committed to the cause" - the 28-year-old

“Important to choose one’s cases and remain committed to the cause” – the 28-year-old Rajat Kumar.

The ability to inspire trust and confidence from one’s clients is critical to good human rights lawyering. To illustrate this, Mr. Desai draws on his experiences while arguing some of the Gujarat riot cases as a lawyer for the victims, where despite his perception that the judges were not supportive, he, rather than give up, continued to advance his arguments.

In such situations, where people have been at the receiving end of severe human rights violations and have lost everything except their faith in the law, it is particularly important that they are able to trust their lawyer. A good human rights lawyer should be willing to be there throughout for her clients, no matter what difficulties one might face along the way. Ultimately, says Mr. Desai, what the victims want is complete support and dedication from their lawyer and – irrespective of the final outcome – the feeling that they have been heard, and had their day in court.

Social transformation through human rights litigation

Mr. Desai said that a human rights advocate should be able to use the court process to help and support movements. Therefore, strategy and court craft are critical to the practice of human rights lawyering, even more so at the trial court. Mr. Kumar says that it is important for a lawyer arguing at the trial court to be able to anticipate arguments at the High Court or even the Supreme Court, should her case be dismissed or appealed against. This is particularly significant since the higher courts do not normally deal with matters of evidence. They usually rely on the evidence brought on record before the trial court. Further, while it is difficult to make a direct prayer for relief at the trial court based on a constitutional argument, it is nevertheless important to frame these arguments since even if they are rejected by the trial court, the High Court has the power to recognise them and grant appropriate legal relief. In this context an important part of human rights lawyering is to use arguments that may have not traditionally been accepted by courts. Thus, an advocate has to try at all times to expand the horizon of the courts’ human rights jurisdiction by advancing arguments in that direction, rather than restricting oneself to a narrow legal perspective.

Public interest litigation, or the use of the Cr.P.C. to obtain basic amenities from local authorities, are all examples of this approach. As K.G. Kannabiran argued, lawyering for social justice necessitates a certain stretching of principles and breaking new ground in order to advance the progress of the law as an instrument of social transformation.

Sustainable human rights lawyering

Both Mr. Desai and Mr. Kumar dismiss the misconception that practising human rights lawyering is financially unsustainable. Says Mr. Desai, “If your ambition is to have a Mercedes and stay in five-star hotels, it won’t be remunerative. But it is definitely sustainable in that it will help you lead a reasonably comfortable standard of living.” Both of them cross-subsidise their human rights practice with revenue from regular commercial cases. While accepting commercial cases, they remain conscious of the conflict of interest and only accept cases from clients who do not put them in a situation where they have to compromise on their human rights work or the causes that they espouse. In addition, they also point out that not all human rights work is pro bono – there are several clients who are able to pay, although in these cases one would have to charge according to the client’s capacity and not the regular fees that one would charge in commercial matters.

Personal and professional growth as an advocate is greatly helped by having a mentor in the profession. In this regard, Mr. Desai recalls his early days when he started practising in the chambers of Indira Jaising, who was then (as also now) a leading light in the field of human rights, and an inspirational figure and role model in the profession. Mr. Kumar is grateful to Jawahar Raja, from whom he says he has learned more about the law than he ever did in his five years of law school. It is not an easy practice – as Mr. Desai puts it, while in mainstream lawyering one might win 70 per cent of the time, as a human rights lawyer one might only win 30 per cent of the time. Nevertheless, both Mr. Desai and Mr. Kumar suggest that human rights lawyering is a passion, rather than a sacrifice – both of them whole-heartedly state that they enjoy their work and there is nothing else they would rather be doing.

(Manish is a 2013 graduate of NLSIU, Bangalore and works on issues of access to justice. He is currently based in Ahmedabad.)