You are in ancient Greece. You have your own mansion, and a business you mind. You stay out of discussions on politics, you keep to yourself and you rarely interfere with the way things are going or not going in society. Such behaviour would earn you a nickname. Not of a recluse, or of an introvert, but of an ‘idiot’.
I come by this information from a lady who has made a life out of getting involved in championing causes and in teaching the new generation to be look beyond their backyards.
Dr Amita Dhanda is one of India’s most renowned legal experts and teachers of law and a steadfast believer in the ‘the power of the individual to change society’.
Hyderabad should be immensely proud that Dr Dhanda is at the helm of teaching its sons and daughters the true spirit of Law — to reconcile, to empower and to see justice is done especially for those that cannot look after their own interests (note to editor: can make this a blurb). She is one of the first legal experts NALSAR University of Law brought in as professor, all the way from the bastion of high temple of law research – the Indian Law Institute, New Delhi.
For her students, she can never do anything wrong, and for her part, she thinks she “spoilt my first few batches silly.” Into the campus she has brought in a fascinating combination of discipline and freedom and of law and literature, which encompasses a study of the language judges use to express their points of view, the role and portrayal of law in books such as the Merchant of Venice, legal references and nuances in poetry and essays, and the conception and acceptance of the freedom of expression.
While she revels in engaging with the younger generation and hopes to inspire a new generation of legal technocrats with the vision to see the bigger picture of justice, she is relentless about her work to get mental disability and the way the law looks at it, the space and the respect it deserves.
A thought leader makes her choice
Dr Dhanda chose law because she enjoyed using reason and logic to explore the multiple versions of truth. But her initiation began with an Honours in English from Miranda House, Delhi, because as her father put it “law needs felicity of language” because it has to communicate, it has to inform and it has reflect the thoughts and convictions of a civilization that makes it and governs with it.
Well into the study of law came a defining moment for Dr Dhanda. She was called on by the Supreme Court of India, (she was with the Indian Law Institute, New Delhi then) to survey the status of people with mental disability in the prisons of West Bengal.
“We have no business to put people with mental illnesses in the same prison as other criminals,” Such outspoken recommendations bolstered with pages of research and cross references that no one could shake played a considerable role in the state government reviewing how and where it housed prisoners who were certified with illnesses of the mind.
This commission gave factual validity to her Ph. D thesis on the legal status of the people with mental disability. The empirical confirmation helped her thesis in an unchartered area an arduous choice because “no substantial research or information existed on this” but as she says, along with the task of excavating for information no one knew existed, of travelling across the country on a discovery mission and of piecing together an analysis, there was a lot of satisfaction—however grim —in uncovering a reality that “mental disability in its hundreds of different avatars – autism, dyslexia, schizophrenia, dementia, depression….affects affects far more people than the country recognises.”
The Power of Intention
With this study in hand Dr Dhanda went back to what she knew best. Law. And scoured its texts to understand what the country and the constitution said, offered, excluded and included in its provisions that affected the life of those with disabilities of the mind. And as she explored, she found a lot of information and insights that just had to be written about and shared, and thus was born her book, a pioneering effort called Legal Order and Mental Disorder.
The next step was to take the legal provisions from their texts to the people who live with disabilities. She began extensive dialogues with NGOs and institutions that work with patients so they understood what the law had for them and also understood what needed reform.
An informal group of individuals across organizations was formed which was called Advoc, and they championed the rights of the disabled, with her spearheading it.
“I think activism and advocacy go hand in hand, one without the other suffers,” she points out and that is why every field experience she acquires she documents, and sources analogies and similar references from experts across disciplines to present her findings in a manner that you cannot refuse to accept.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Dr Dhanda’s work and her sharp and articulate convictions make her among top recall names at UN agencies – especially those dedicated serving persons with disabilities, state governments – she was part of the task force created for the Gujarat Government to study the way its legal system dealt with persons with disabilities and International law Universities (Western Ontario, South Wales) because international exchange students who come to NALSAR seem to make so much positive noise about Dr Dhanda that their managements cannot but pull out all the stops to get her there.
Home truths from Q&A with Dr Dhanda
For the layperson the word law conjures unpleasant images of interminable waits and corrupt courts.
All of us have within us the power to resolve conflicts peacefully and reasonably. Why don’t we use it? If we abdicate this right to the courts we are also letting go of our control over that right. Be a citizen, take more responsibility about yourself and your surroundings. Don’t let go of your powers. Don’t be a serf to the system, be a participant.
Law and courts are becoming more and more unpleasant.
The struggle is for legal practitioners to see the bigger picture and for the legal system to allow free and fair discourse and objective review at all levels. Everyone feels victimized by the system where as they should inform and improve it. The judicial and legal system needs to break unproductive processes and structures. It needs to encourage community scholarship even among practitioners. That’s the best way to get in touch and relate once again to the ideals with which we set out to be in this profession, in the first place.
Status check on India’s legal stand on the disabled.
India participated in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; signed it on the day it was opened for signature on 30th March 2007 and was among the first seven countries to ratify the Convention in October 2007. (The Convention is a significant development as it recognizes disabled people as people that have rights rather than those who deserve sympathy and charity).
I have been asked to do the first country report on it which provides opportunity to status check and a blue print the way forward.
Reactions to the recent uproar on the rulings on the Union Carbide case
Noise should have been made all those years back when the the settlement was announced or when Supreme Court reduced the charge and. I wish there was more furore then, that we had our media do what it is doing now. It is ridiculous to blame the magistrate today. It is the failure of several people. The government at that time didn’t allow individuals to lodge cases against the company and took on the role to represent the people itself and then did not even consult the people when it agreed to that ridiculous settlement. It shows an absolute lack of respect for the suffering the people went through.
Being in Hyderabad
NALSAR brought me here. Though staying in Delhi would have meant a different trajectory in the shaping of my career, coming here has helped me grow tremendously as a scholar – I have the time and the institution behind me to get on with research, and also keep my networks alive.
Being professor has helped me change and make more democratic and informative some intrinsic methods that are used to teach law. I’ve created my own courses and evaluation standards, I’m delighted to be able to make the teaching of law more practical, relevant and valuable to its students who will be the guardians and practitioners of law in the future.
The other side of Dr Dhanda that is not always immersed in academia.
I watch the serials on TV, I enjoyed My Name is Khan, they are all sources of inputs for me to understand what and how this generation thinks. I believe a lot in alternative therapies, and green tea is my daily elixir.
An interview of Dr.Amita Dhanda by Alina Sen published in Channel 6 magazine, September, 2010 issue.
Our sincere thanks to Channel 6 magazine for allowing us to upload this article in our website
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