Q: If you weren’t in the court winning cases, what would you be doing?
F: Actually I am not in court all the time. In fact, I’m rarely at court because what I do is much larger than that.
A lot of my work is not as a lawyer or to win cases, the primary portion of my work is distributed amongst training the judiciary and the police to do their work correctly, working with communities to make people aware of their rights, training the members of my NGO about this. I also write about 4-5 articles every month.
Secondly, I have a program for “protecting” victims of sexual violence. In specific cases, we don’t represent the victims as lawyers and win their cases. Instead, the case is construed as The State vs The Accused where the victim is represented as a witness rather than the defense.
My work is to provide support and ensure that whatever the law dictates is executed at every stage of her protection. Sometimes to assure complete implementation, we will not worry about the end result at a particular stage. Instead, we want her dignity to be maintained while she is in court, which is not a part of the legal process at all.
In general, a lawyer does not only care about winning cases but also about how much money they can make in a year. To become a judge, one has to prove the revenue they earned in a particular year, as it is an estimate of their experience. But our approach is completely the opposite.
We are an NGO. We do have lawyers who get standard salaries independent of their cases. As a lawyer, if I charge my client per day, the longer a case is, the more revenue I make. Or when it is a proven situation that there is no need of a legal case, I can call the other side and come to a settlement outside of the court, by saying “These are your rights and here’s how you exercise them.” Also, sometimes people who are ignorant will believe that if a lawyer is making a simplified case extremely complicated, he/she is ‘very good’.
We are not at all like that. We say “this is what your problem is and this is how your problem can be solved,” and we’ll try to solve it without going to court.
So in the end, ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ cases becomes a baseless concept and lacks motive.
Q: Your organization ‘MAJLIS’ boasts impressive statistics of an outreach to 50,000 women in person and supervision of their cases, and provision of moral support to almost a triple of that number. When they approach you, how do you encourage them to tell their story?
F: Oh, they always come to me to tell their stories. I don’t have to encourage. They seek me or my organization out because they’ve tried everything in their power and means. And I’ll tell you something, when anyone has a problem, if you lend an ear, they will tell you their problem. You don’t need to counsel them or advise them, they just want you to hear them out.
A woman can approach us, “I’ve got a problem with my husband or mother-in-law; this happens to me”, then, we ask them relevant questions which will help formulate a legal strategy, like, “Do you have kids, how old?”, “Are you working?”, “Under whose name is the house registered?”
My team is trained to get the facts out of them, whereas there are counselors who can listen to their emotional side of the story. Our team is prepped not only to listen to their woes, but also to help them solve their woes; to help them to think logically, to educate them on their rights.
For example, “Your husband, is he earning? How much is he earning?” They may respond with, “I do not know. All I know is that I’m getting beaten.”
Many times, women are not aware of all these details, but by asking them, they don’t know that you are equipping them with information they will need to know to enforce their rights.
Q. Do you think the Indian judicial system has adequate legal framework to provide for the needs of the women?
F: Of course they have a framework. Theoretically, that is. There is no implementation.
For instance, if a case has to be decided in a set amount of time, it cannot be, because of the lack of infrastructure. There are no modes, no magistrates. There’s so much backlog. How do you then expect a judge to decide a duration for the case? How is it possible, despite everybody’s best eﬀorts?
When it comes to the judicial system, we are not lacking in terms of laws for women; if all the laws are implemented on time, we wouldn’t have this issue at hand. What we do have though, is an issue with the judicial infrastructure, which is not able to keep up and is lagging behind, given our population.
We constantly ask for more laws without realizing that we end up in the same courts, in front of the same judges. That’s where the issue of the backlogs begin.
For instance, if someone pushes their case ahead, it will queue another one. There is no uniformity here. The #MeToo campaign is an example of this. Several cases of defamation, violation of modesty, etc. are constantly being ﬁled. You can imagine the amount of litigation this is generating! At an enormous rate too.
I recently read about a high proﬁle case that went on for three hours in a court. What do you think happened to the other cases in line for that day? They would have gotten a postponement of their date to one after 2 months or so, and eventually end up waiting forever because of a case that appeared into the domain out of nowhere.
However, now the high courts have progressed. Previously, I used to end up going to court and looking at my case on the list for the day to ﬁnd it postponed repeatedly. Now due to the internet, this process has become more frequent and quicker.
Q. Why do you think then, that we don’t employ more judges?
F: That is the job of the government, not the judiciary. Government has to sanction funds and there isn’t enough money for that, besides it is a whole new procedure. There are already many vacant courts, and corresponding vacant posts. They advertise, but people do not want to be judges.
It has come to the situation where acceptance to the lowest level judiciary is a 12th standard pass criteria.
You are inducted into the judiciary, and by the time you study and graduate from law, you are ready to be a judge. Young girls sit as judges; they often end up surprising me as well. We have a lot of litigation, and each new law implies more litigation.
Q: Have you seen any changes in your field since the time when you’ve started?
F: It’s getting worse for many reasons. There is increased visibility and exposure to the public domain thanks to social media. It was not in the papers, it was not written about, it was not on television channels, and it was never shown to your face.
News was always limited to the private domain, but now it’s coming into the light.
The recent phenomenon, the #MeToo campaign has allowed women to share their stories. But during earlier times, when someone came out voicing their sexual harassment, they would not reveal the name. But now nobody is fearful of compromising their identities and sharing ‘Yes, this has happened to me. Such and such person did this to me’.
There was a constant fear that other companies will not employ women if they spoke up, and the affected women wanted to resign and change companies. The internal complaint committees were very ineffective as well.
But, now there is transparency because people are participating in discussions and there is a widespread awareness.
Still, I feel like our society is constructed with too much violence in general. This becomes an extension to violence on women. We’ve seen lynching cases. There is so much anger and hatred against the ‘other’ and the ’other’ can be anybody. It could be a woman, in particular, or women overall. Acid attacks and various other atrocities are expressions of that aggression.
Then there is poverty. We can now plainly see the affluence and wealth of some people, and this hits those who are on the opposite side of that disparity, particularly the unemployed youth. Any such youngster, having noticed the visibly large disparity, believes he has no future and wastes his time thinking ‘I want to get this girl’, but if she doesn’t accept him, an effect of that rejection leads to pent-up violence.
People see high-profile marriages and glimpse into their affluent lifestyle, their houses, but on the other hand these people may not even have access to clean drinking water, for which, they have to stand in line.
There is so much frustration and anger in people. This social disharmony which exists, affects women a lot. So women’s issues is not an alienated problem, it is a culmination of deep-rooted complications in our society.
Another example – the Muslim women to whom I speak to, do not have problems because they’re Muslim but, because of the ghetto-isation and segregation of Muslims (in most cases) leads to a decrease in job opportunities in the organized sector, rise of materialism, etc. Maybe if one needs a domestic maid, one may not want to hire a Muslim, so there are certain problems faced by the Muslim minority in general which arise due to stigmatization, and there are more problems these women also face, being Muslim women. So what matters is what you put into context.
Q: MAJLIS was against the death penalty verdict in the Shakti Mills and the Nirbhaya cases. What is your opinion about this?
F: Even now, it is against the concept of death penalty, and my stance is still the same. Death penalties are only awarded when there is a conviction. Unfortunately, most these cases don’t even reach conviction.
Only about 15% of cases reach conviction (declaration that the accused is guilty of criminal offence). Most cases end in acquittal (declaration that accused is not guilty). Considering this, how can death penalty serve as a deterrent?
In addition, we also have human rights. Women’s rights are a part of human rights. By that logic, I cannot do something as a woman that is against human rights. So, when death penalty happens, even abroad, you notice that the most marginalized of the youth are hanged.
For someone coming from a good background, having an inﬂuential lawyer would most likely get them away from conviction. So, death penalty, or even imprisonment, is a class issue. You only ﬁnd the poor there. You would not ﬁnd the middle class or the rich, upper classes, because they will always come out on bail.
A speciﬁc example I can give would be the hit-and-run case of Salman Khan. To the court, it was as simple as saying that there was no real evidence that he killed those people. You can imagine the amount of corruption that took place after the killing, to the extent that even the blood samples procured were claimed not to be his.
Everybody can be bought off; the doctors, the witnesses and everyone else involved. The case then kept dragging on in the court. There was one witness present, a policeman who was his bodyguard. They enticed him with money and more, to the point where he left his police service and joined as a personal bodyguard, which led to his death before the case even started. Note the amount of planning that was done to do this to him.
We have so much faith in our judicial system, as we rightfully should, but we cannot be blind to the tampering that goes on.
Unless we systematically analyze each case with integrity, there most certainly will not be conviction. To get conviction against somebody is extremely diﬃcult. At the same time, when the State wants to convict somebody, there can be plenty of evidence to convict them.
NOTE: Continue reading this interview in the second part on the LDC Lounge: An interview with Flavia Agnes: Part II