She Lives in Our Hearts—Our Most Beloved Teacher: Lotika Sarkar | A by Dr. Amita Dhanda

March 11, 2013
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Lotika SarkarProfessor Lotika Sarkar, 91, a widely-known pioneer in the fields of law, women’s studies and human rights, passed away in New Delhi on February 23, 2013. She taught criminal law and conflict of laws at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi and was an active member of the Indian Law Institute. She was a member of the Government of India‘s Committee on the Status of Women in India and had been a founding member of several institutions—the Indian Association for Women Studies and the Centre for Women‘s Development Studies. Her husband, veteran journalist Chanchal Sarkar, predeceased her more than seven years ago. While remembering her we are publishing a tribute by one of her distinguished students, who is now herself a Professor of Law, and a message we received from Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, the retired Supreme Court judge, mourning her demise.

She Lives in Our Hearts—Our Most Beloved Teacher: Lotika Sarkar

Ma’am has left us. After living a full life which had its share of joys and sorrows, successes and failures, she has moved on. Lotika Sarkar made singular contributions to the cause of gender justice be it as a member of the Committee on the Status of Women; or as one of the signatories of the Open Letter to the Chief Justice in the Mathura Case; or as the co-petitioner in the public interest action on the Agra Protective Home. All these contributions have their material manifestations and hence would be studied, acknowledged and remembered. But her most notable and yet most invisible contribution was her contribution as a teacher and it is that contribution I wish to record and remember here.

We are often told that teachers play a vital role in building the social fabric of any society. They do so by training capacity and building character. They do so by humanising the head and informing the heart. They do so by being givers, givers of their time, their intellect and their emotion. Lotika Sarkar was all this and more. That is because she taught in the best way there is to teach, she taught by example. Ma’am did not ask us to do anything which she did not do herself. If the choice was between withdrawing a public interest action and refusing to be the member of the Law Commission of India; to succumb to the graceless behaviour of a Centre-in-charge or seek a premature retirement, she chose integrity, dignity each time.

When told as a young teacher of criminal law by the then Dean that she need not teach the law of rape and that a male colleague would come and deliver those lectures, she changed the sequence of the course and presented the Dean with a fait accompli. This because she knew that no amount of reason and assertion would have convinced her conservative patriarchal senior that she could instruct on all manifestations of human relations on an equal basis with her male colleagues. She needed to do and show it. Ironically, the Delhi University, where she conducted this quiet revolution in the 1950s, withdrew Ramanujam’s A Thousand Ramayanas from the curriculum on the specious logic that women teachers would be embarrassed to teach it.

Dr Sarkar’s classroom provoked thought. She took positions but did not impose them and was continuously open to learning from her students and making a fair evaluation of their work irrespective of her predilections. I remember in her criminology course she strongly endorsed Bonger’s theory on the economic causes of crime and was rather impatient of Lombroso’s physiological explanations. And yet a student who submitted a research paper strongly advocating Lombroso’s theory of crime topped the class.

Dr Sarkar did not write as many books as she could have written if she had not spent all her time listening to book proposals and commenting on book chapters. She was every-body’s favourite sounding-board—be it friends, colleagues or students. She could well be holding some kind of a record of honourable mentions in intellectual works which she helped nurture with unparalleled generosity of spirit. It was this generosity that her friends, colleagues and students recalled when we brought out Engen-dering Law: A Collection of Essays honouring Lotika Sarkar. As editors, Archana (Parashar) and I were faced with a situation where we had more contributors than we could include. We were continually besieged by her very many admirers who wanted to join us in celebrating her work, her presence, her life.

Lotika Sarkar taught us fortitude; taught us that most difficult of times can be borne with laughter; taught us that real homelessness is not when you lose your house but when you lose your place in the hearts of people. That place in our hearts she has made secure as she has moved her abode from this world to the other.

Prof Amita Dhanda is a Professor of Law, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.

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