An Interview With Gagan Sethi
Interview With Gagan Sethi, co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice
by Anuj Agrawal - courtesy Barbench.com
“And they reply that we have been told that your kok (womb) produces terrorists.” Forty-five minutes into the interview, Gagan Sethi looks right into my eyes and recounts Bilkis Banu's deposition before a special court set up after the Godhra riots.
The then 19-year old Bilkis was being attacked by men she thought were part of her family, and she was pleading for the men to stop tearing her clothes, stop raping her.
For a moment, the only sound in the room is that of the whirring fan above. He blinks and the conversation meanders on, Sethi sharing his plans on professionalism in the world of voluntary organisations and his days as a “young boy with rosy ideals”. By the end of the hour, Sethi will speak about a lot many things, including some revolutionary ideas on providing legal services and more. We don't really discuss the Godhra riots in detail; a few cursory questions are all that are asked. That line about Bilkis Banu though remains, lurking somewhere in the darkness.
Gagan Sethi is quite an imposing personality, with a deep baritone that almost always means business. Starting off as a student at St. Xavier's, Sethi initially worked with the Behavioral Science Center, a unit of St. Xavier's that was working with Dalit farmers. Remembering his early days, Sethi smiles and shakes his head dismissively.
A few years later, he went on to complete his master's degree and then returned to Xavier's. Once again, he resumed working on Dalits' rights, working for those whose rights had been denied. It was not an easy job and a few years into this profile, two of his close friends who were working with him were shot dead by individuals belonging to the upper castes. He was twenty-nine years old. The trial that ensued changed him in more ways than one.
It was this trial that also proved to be one of the most educative phases in his life, especially when it came to the subject of law. The assigned driver of the special public prosecutor, Sethi would drive the lawyer every morning from Ahmedabad to the special court in Nadiad. Sethi would interact with the witnesses and also follow up on the legal procedures involved. While the rest of his colleagues were happy when the judgment was delivered, Sethi had had enough.
It was this particular experience that led Sethi and some of his friends to start the Centre for Social Justice, an organisation that devoted itself to facilitating and improving access to justice. Initially CSJ focused on training paralegals and working on providing free legal aid.
Sethi's primary critique of the institution of the judiciary being that it was too “incestuous”. With trained paralegals, this “incestuous” nature of the profession could be fought, to some extent.
The CSJ would also train fresh law graduates, teach them to view the law from the eyes of the community rather than as simple text. In essence, Sethi and his team were asking lawyers to “take off their black coats” and view problems as members of a community, to go back to their roots and then examine whatever dispute has arisen. The other goal was to improve the competency of the lawyer's themselves, a topic that Sethi is quite blunt about.
Gradually, the free legal services became extremely popular, even garnering support from the judiciary. Justice RA Mehta, the then Acting Chief Justice of Gujarat, even provided an office space within two district courts for the CSJ to operate from. Others, though, were less than impressed. Six months after the office spaces were given, the Baroda Bar went on strike.
Following the strike, the CSJ lawyers had to move out of the district courts and set up shot outside. Hostility from the Bar was not the only problem they faced; the other was far more operational in nature. A lot of lawyers, after working for CSJ for two or three years, wanted to move on and it was impossible to stop them. And it is while discussing these operational issues that Sethi breaches upon one of the most interesting developments in the legal sphere, Nyayika.
Put simply, Nyayika works as a franchise model of legal service providers. Currently in a pilot phase of sorts in ten districts in Gujarat, the Nyayika model means lawyers provide legal services at fixed rates, with each district office identical to the other. In other words, a standardization of a legal aid delivery system built on self-sufficiency as opposed to relying on financial assistance.
But doesn't this go against the very fundamental donor-based model that voluntary organisations have traditionally followed?
Quips Sethi,"Kya karega? Bees saal ke baad, begging bowl leke jata rahoo? (What should I do? After 20 years, should I still go around begging?)
When it comes to funding, a number of voluntary organisations have been targeted by the State through the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, a legislation as the name suggests that controls all donations receivable by a voluntary organisation. Without an FCRA clearance, this supply is cut off, often forcing organisations to either toe the government line or shut shop completely.
For all his misgivings against the State, Sethi does not shy away from the fact that misuse of funds is a serious problem for voluntary organisations. He has in fact, sought a self-regulatory mechanism for such organisations and is pushing for greater oversight on how these organisations are run. In fact, Sethi is routinely asked by organisations to strengthen their internal structure and not just finances alone.
The Nyayika model as well as introducing a regulatory body for voluntary organisations, both of these are potentially revolutionary ideas and coming from someone like Sethi, both carry a certain sense of credibility. Their success though, rests on a number of variables and it will be interesting to see how things pan out.
As the conversation meanders this way and that, one of the questions relates to “Lest we forget history” a book on the post-riot events that Sethi had co-authored. Given that Sethi was on the special monitoring group constituted by the NHRC, he was a first-hand witness of much that took place following the Godhra riots. And even though the book itself is marked by a very dispassionate rendering of accounts, there is no doubt that the riots affected Sethi in a deeply, deeply personal way.
Yet despite these frustrations, Sethi stubbornly clings onto the hope for a better future. Partly he says, this hope stems from the young men and women who are his colleagues. Partly from the realization that being frustrated helps no one.
In the past hour, we have covered legal services, regulating NGOs and brushed ever so slightly onto the Godhra riots and Indian politics. That deep growling baritone also makes it difficult to lose attention, difficult and ever so slightly frightening. His words are an interesting mix of a very real reality and the hopeful thoughts of a dreamer.The conversation remains interesting for its practical insights and rather unconventional points of view. For example, when asked why young people continue to join organisations such as the CSJ, Sethi's replies,
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