‘The forces of good are on the run.’
‘But dark times also challenge people to fight.’
‘I believe Indians will rise against these dark times.’
Even as he was fighting against the deportation of Rohingya refugees in the Supreme Court came the announcement that Colin Gonsalves, founder of the Human Rights Law Network, had been named one of the four winners of this year’s Right Livelihood Award, often described as the Alternative Nobel Prize.
The distinguished lawyer spoke to Jyoti Punwani about his journey from IIT Bombay to fighting for the wretched of the earth in the apex court.
How did you switch from IIT to the law?
When I was in IIT, the situation was politically very turbulent.
The Jayaprakash Narayan movement was on as was the railway strike. This turbulence percolated down to students.
A Marxist Study Circle was formed in IIT. It was an academic group where a lot of reading took place.
For me, studying a dull and boring course, this was exciting, specially because we had some world class teachers in that study circle.
Why did you choose a ‘dull and boring course’ to study?
My father was an engineer and in those days there was no counseling.
A friend asked me to appear for the IIT entrance exam along with him. So I got into civil engineering. It was purely arbitrary.
But when you switched to law from engineering, surely your parents must have been upset.
My parents were very simple people.
When I got a first class in my ICSE school leaving exam, they were pleasantly surprised.
My father didn’t know what IIT was. Frankly, nor did I.
They just went along with my decision.
I didn’t become a lawyer immediately. I got involved in the housing rights movement. We used to have morchas against evictions, where I was arrested many times.
They (his parents) used to read about my arrest in the papers. And they must have guessed my finances weren’t great — I always took a bus, not an auto, my clothes were old…
I didn’t live at home, I was quite a nomad, living at different activists’ homes. But whenever I went home, they never asked what I was doing.
I was an engineering graduate, but could never send money home. They never said anything about it.
How did you become a lawyer?
Dr Samant spoke to me very roughly, implying: You middle class people come here to work for some time and then run away.
When he came to know I was a BTech he told me: ‘Better go find a job, don’t fool around.’ But I was insistent, so finally he called his brother Dada Samant and said: ‘What can we do for him?’
I had noticed many workers coming to them with their problems regarding lockouts, strikes. I suggested I could write letters for them. That’s how I started.
I went on to participate in domestic inquiries (against workers) in at least 500 industrial establishments in Mumbai. It was a marvelous experience.
Then a judge in the industrial court told me that if I didn’t become a lawyer I would have no career.
Did Dr Samant pay you?
The princely sum of Rs 500 a month for working from 8 am till midnight. But those were the happiest days of my life.
You started off as a labour lawyer?
Yes, even today I do a lot of labour law.
I practised in the Thane industrial tribunal and then in the Bombay industrial tribunal, and then moved to the high court.
I stopped appearing exclusively for Dr Samant’s workers only after his death.
Could you earn much?
I had many cases of Dr Samant’s workers so I was able to lead a decent life.
Dr Samant started me off with Rs 500, but left me with a rich legacy both of experience and of clients. I’ll remain eternally grateful to him.
He was my true guru. He taught me to see the world through the eyes of the working class. Only if you do that, can you do labour law meaningfully.
Dr Samant was much vilified, but he was one of the greatest trade unionists we’ve had.
His definition of militancy was correct — that one should not believe in the law and the court while negotiating workers’ demands. One must be a militant.
I have seen salaries of workers under him go up from Rs 400 to ten times that much just through negotiations.
When I see the salary scales today, some at pre-1980 levels and some even below the minimum wage, I feel all the gains of his period have been wiped out.
Explain: ‘One must be a militant’.
Miltancy is the right approach because in this country there is no respect for the rule of law and for working class people.
The inherent culture of domination lays down that working class people be treated with indignity. They must rise in revolt.
This is a fundamentally evil and unjust system.
What Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar said in 1942 (in his speech at the All India Depressed Classes Conference): ‘Agitate, educate and organise’ is still valid.
Those who see the legal system close up, specially, see that it is all maya.
It is deeply inequitable and actually cruel for working class people. It needs such a radical overhaul that even the best of judges cannot think what kind of change is necessary.
So it will have to be changed only by people revolting against it.
Take a simple thing like a worker being terminated. He cannot approach the court directly, except in Maharashtra. He has to take permission from the labour commissioner before his case is sent to court.
So the labour commissioner’s office has become a cesspool of corruption, with companies ready to pay so that cases don’t go to court.
Now Modi is going to dismantle labour laws. I’m sure if that is done workers will rise in insurrection, just as we rose against the British.
There is little evidence of people rising in insurrection except maybe the Maoists.
There is lot of evidence in remote pockets where the media doesn’t go. There are latent forms of insurrection — you don’t see it because the State is so repressive.
There is so much bitterness, anger and resentment among people that is ground for insurrection.
If the legal system is maya, why do you continue with your practice?
Even if it is an illusion as a whole, there are very kind judges who want to change the world and the system, in significant positions in all courts.
Some judges make PILs (public interest litigation) their own cause. And the judgment by a Supreme Court judge covers the whole country, while that by a high court judge covers an entire state.
So, public-spirited lawyers can do good work. The law is an area no human rights organisation lawyer should abandon.
Some cynics say that by using the law you are strengthening belief in the capitalist system. But within capitalism there are areas of combat possible.
In the legal system, decent results are possible.
You get great judgments, but what about the implementation?
There are varying levels of implementation.
The Right to Food judgment was implemented 70%.
The midday meal and anganwadi schemes were about to close in 2000. Under IMF and World Bank pressure, the government had decided to close down the public distribution system.
Then came the PUCL case asking for legal enforcement of the Right to Food, and the Supreme Court’s orders were implemented.
PDS coverage went from 14% to 70%. And in 2013 the Food Security Act was passed.
A lot depends on judges and the media. I tell sceptics — and there is a breed of new law professors who are super sceptics — as long as people are coming to you, people who have no lawyers to defend them, you must defend them.
If someone comes to tell you the bulldozer is coming to my house, will you tell him to fight the bulldozer by himself or give him a lecture on corruption of the judiciary? You would just take up the case.
Why did you move to Delhi?
When I was in Mumbai, the Human rights Law Network had only three or four offices. It was only after I came to Delhi that I could coordinate things and it could grow to 20 offices.
In Mumbai, the labour law field was stagnating because of the closure of factories and textile mills.
In Delhi, I started taking on environmental law and PILs. I found it to be a vibrant city of activists from all over the country.
So you don’t subscribe to the view that young people today are no longer drawn to social causes like the previous generation?
No. A whole generation is coming up with different approaches, maybe not in the field of labour, but all branches: Environment, housing rights, minority rights, Dalit rights. I’m optimistic.
I believe we are in kalyug where rakshasas rule and the forces of good are on the run.
But dark times also challenge people to fight. I believe Indians will rise against these dark times.
As the Sikh activist Jaswant Singh Khalra said: ‘Today when darkness with all its strength thrusts itself over the truth, if nothing else, a proud and noble Punjab is the light that will challenge it.’
He was just a diya, but if all activists become diyas, what will be the result?
The amount of surveillance, suspicion and anger against those involved in civil rights and Constitutionally protected work is very very high.
Fear among the people is also very high.
Do you see any difference in the way the UPA dealt with human rights and what the NDA is doing?
There is an element of continuity between the two. The UPA also suppressed civil rights groups and NGOs. Its levels of corruption were astronomical and this affected all its programmes.
But the NDA has raised the level of repression enormously.
The amount of surveillance, suspicion and anger against those involved in civil rights and Constitutionally protected work is very very high. Fear among the people is also very high.
Those who don’t see themselves as enemies of the State like me — I’m just trying by bits and pieces to correct the system; or the hundreds of NGOs and people working for reform in their specialised areas — we are all treated like enemies of the State.
Converting every social activist into an enemy of the State is the hallmark of this government.
Lynchings and hate speech, incitements to kill, are the hallmarks of this State.
Has all this affected the judiciary? The NJAC (National Judicial Appointments Commission) was shot down.
There is pressure to appoint judges of a particular political orientation. The NJAC would have fast-tracked the system of undermining the judiciary.
In two years the government would have appointed hundreds of judges. Now they have to do so in a decentralised fashion, go person by person.
You have recently taken up the Rohingya issue, before that you had taken on the AFSPA in Manipur. Do you get threats?
We get indirect threats.
Sometimes outside court someone walks up to me and says don’t do this. I just tell them that I’m doing my dharm. It is my duty.
They expect hostility and anger; I don’t have any.
I’ve found you have to listen to the other side and debate; people can then get logical answers to questions troubling them.
On the Rohingya issue, Subramanian Swamy in a debate with me on a TV channel raised security concerns. We have to take these concerns seriously, we can’t reply to them by just repeating, ‘Oh this government has an anti-Muslim stand’.
I pointed out that 7,000 Rohingyas live in Jammu. There has been not a single case filed against them. The CM of the state says there are no cases, the police say there are no signs of radicalisation.
So who are these terrorists we are worried about? Can’t you isolate and arrest them?
After the AFSPA judgment (the Supreme Court ruled last year that every death caused by the armed forces in a disturbed area should be thoroughly inquired into), I was accused by some army officers of supporting terrorists, and never condemning the killing of security forces by terrorists. Such judgments affect the morale of the forces, I was told.
I told the officers: If a terrorist tries to shoot you, and you shoot him dead, I’d be the first to pin a medal on you because you risked your life for the country. If a terrorist bombs a school he must be proceeded with within the boundaries of the law.
But to take someone on suspicion, torture him and then kill him in cold blood in a fake encounter… that cannot be supported.
Won’t your morale be higher if you catch rogue elements of the army and police, I asked the officers. Then you would not only be a fighting force, but a moral force too. I found that debating with them helped me clear my mind too.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to human rights?
It is all to do with the kalyug we are facing.
Under globalisation, capitalism has moved to a cruel stage. Money is equal to god, GDP is everything, and might is right.
In these circumstances, common people are deprived of all their rights, most of all, the right to live with dignity.
The hallmark of cruel capitalism is the violent discrimination of the poor.
The only solution then becomes revolution by the people. That is not a radical thought, it is just the simple solution.
Maybe it won’t happen in my lifetime, but one day it will.
So many millions cannot live under such oppression for so long.