Advocating for a more diverse Legal Fraternity in India
“Unity in Diversity” was advocated by our first Prime Minister in 1947. It is a simple phrase signifying strength and harmony, yet people still debate on the very essence of this concept – Does it mean stay united and overlook our differences? Or that diversity empowers us and gives us strength? To comprehend this phrase, we should first understand – what is diversity?
The Lexicon defines “diversity” as “difference; unlikeness”. If diversity is differences, “Unity in Diversity” may imply maintaining unity while accommodating differences. However, this phrase sounds like tolerating difference, suggesting that representation of oppressed groups is an honour that can be allowed only if the privileged are willing. Having ‘more diversity’ rests on the notion that a homogenous fraternity dominated by wealthy men is the default. This appears to be the prevailing notion in our society, since most well-paid, formal sector jobs are controlled by a few privileged classes. For instance, the legal profession which concerns itself with civic issues and endorses social progress, itself has significant paucity of diversity. This stance is best substantiated via statistics.
Women constitute 48.5% of India’s population, yet percentage of women doesn’t cross 10% in the Supreme Court. Less than 5% Senior Advocates appointed in the top Court have been women, highlighting misogyny during promotions. This status quo is further exacerbated since the affluent urban class believes casteism does not exist. Yet, Backward Castes and Scheduled Castes (SCs) who form 41% and 16% of India are highly underrepresented in judgeships, holding just 5.2% and 2.6 %, respectively.
In addition, choice of language used in the judiciary is often a major roadblock for people from lower socio-economic strata. While English language is spoken mainly by the urban classes, it is still used in law entrances, placing about 83% students from poorer backgrounds at a disadvantage. Even if they overcome these obstacles, the wealthy, coming from a legal background get better chambers, earn perks and are appointed senior advocates. Further, bias against those from the northeast is apparent, with only one Chief Justice being from the seven sisters, till date.
This disparity has a profound effect on the judiciary. Adjudicating about the rights of underprivileged without their representation triggers conflicts. Case in point- the bench that diluted provisions of the SC ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act did not have a single member from the SC/ST community. The ensuing protests against the verdict claimed nine lives. This highlights the urgent need for greater representation to foster public faith in the ability of the judiciary to be impartial and just.
Greater representation of the marginalized can decrease such civil unrest and strengthen the nation. Cynics may claim that hegemony of the privileged will make a nation strong. However, history is evidence that sustained oppression does not often work. The British colonizers sought to crush dissenters, which led to mass uprisings in the form of revolts and mutinies. Additionally, our masses have tasted freedom and democracy, and will resist attempts to destroy it. A similar pattern was seen in Chile- an initially democratic nation, taken over by a dictator in 1973, till popular pressure forced the oligarchy to re-establish democracy.
Since the judicature is composed of a myriad of thoughts and beliefs, one’s opinion forms an intrinsic part of their worldview. An analogous outlook of the world in a judicial system dominated by a few prominent classes does not reflect our multicultural society. For instance- in 1992, Bhanwari Devi protested against the marriage of a 9-month-old girl. In retaliation, five men raped her. The judge, an upper-caste, claimed the accused being “respectable” upper-caste men, couldn’t have raped a lower-caste woman. This is not an isolated incident but a systemic problem. A report by the Quint explains- Low rates of conviction for crimes against SCs is considerably due to the privilege of the largely upper-caste judiciary, which does not understand the routine violence and systemic oppression melted out to lower-castes. A diverse group can open their eyes to a range of different experiences, embroidered in aspects of people’s everyday lives. Presenting an alternate worldview would challenge prejudices and stereotypes, giving rise to fresh ideas that will breed innovation. Besides, people whose lives are in question are best educated about their problems. Therefore, they will be the most effective problem solvers, and help expand discussions for societal change beyond an influential group, to the broader society.
Given the fact that diversity, especially in the judiciary is critical, the overarching question remains on how to attain that. The solution lies in gradually making changes at the grass-root level and going upwards. We can’t increase diversity without expanding access to legal education. Classism and sexism hinder that. Students are expected to spend 10 lakhs or more to simply get through the law school, a huge burden for the middle and lower classes.
Further, women continue to be discouraged from pursuing law. Recently, a career counsellor discouraged me from pursuing law since it’s a male-dominated profession. The counsellor presumed I was “soft spoken” and docile and may not be able to “handle the law culture”. Although a minor exchange, it embodies the taunts women face for trying to set foot in a man’s world. The cost of allowing these impediments to continue is affecting a generation of young learners. Thus, reforming legal education is essential, before discussing change at the higher levels.
By and large, India is currently characterized by a deeply entrenched patriarchy, dominance of money power, neglect of regional languages and north-easterners, hegemony of the English-speakers and a mutating caste system. The news is filled with reports of hate crimes, lynching, rapes and riots. This is not the diverse, pluralistic utopia we were promised on 15th August, 1947. It feels like with every two steps forward in our pursuit towards inclusion, we take one step back. However, quoting Brooklyn Nine-Nine , “Two steps forward, one step back, is still one step forward”.
The person reading this is likely to be privileged in some arena- be it gender, caste, wealth, being abled or merely being able to read this. Standing up for those who aren’t, is an urgent necessity. There are a number of practical reasons for doing so, however, we should do it simply because it’s the morally right thing to do. Sustained efforts by the collective society towards using their power for good, shunning all forms of discrimination and speaking up for the marginalized, can liberate us to the envisioned utopia. In my opinion, that is the essence of ‘Unity in Diversity’- standing up for others to build a better, more inclusive world.