Looking Back: The Colloquium on Domestic Violence

SANJOY GHOSE walks down memory lane remembering the Colloquium on Domestic Violence organised by Lawyers Collective which set the ball rolling for domestic violence legislation.


When I had told Indira Jaising, my senior, what I was earning in my first job with a global consulting firm and that could I expect something in that region working as her junior, she had laughed. So, when she told us that she wanted to campaign for a law on domestic violence in India, it was my turn to laugh back.  It was too foreign a concept for India was my thought. How wrong I was!

This story is not about that. It goes back to Colloquium on Domestic Violence which the Lawyers Collective under Jaising organized.  It was her idea to make a big bang intervention to set the ball rolling for legislative reform.

Those were heady days and by Rumi’s definition, I was “young and clever” and wanted to change the world. It is another matter that for me the stage of “old and wise and therefore want to change myself” is yet to set in!

The Colloquium was to be grand.  There would be panel discussions in which would participate Supreme Court Justices, High Court justices and senior advocates.  Many Judges like Justice Sujata Manohar, Justice Qadri and Justice MJ Rao of the Supreme Court and Justice Ruma Pal and Justice AP Shah of the Calcutta and Bombay High Court had confirmed.

It went without saying that the stalwarts of the feminist movements such as Kamala Bhasin, Gauri Chaudhary and Anuradha Kapoor, Kavita Srivastava and Satyarani Chaddha had also agreed to grace the occasion.

The icing on the cake was the sitting Chief Justice of India, Dr. AS Anand had also agreed to inaugurate the event.

The days leading to this grand event were spent preparing discussion papers, primers, posters and coordinating the invites and the logistics. After all, the outstation participants had to be lodged and their logistical needs attended to.

It was then that the bombshell hit us. It was in the shape of a shoe hurled by a disgruntled litigant at the CJI Anand.  In those days, the Lawyers Collective used to still publish the magazine “The Lawyers” and as Indira’s juniors many of us were on permanent deputation as contributors to it.  The best part of the magazine was its back page which carried the gossip column and the naughty tales of the Bar and the Bench.

Indira, never known for her restraint, in the latest issue, unmindful of her Chief Guest’s sensitivities not only had reported the “shoe” incident but had also given her two pennies on it by saying something to the effect that “unfortunately the shoe missed its mark”

Had this “shoe kand” not happened we would never have found out that the Karta of the judicial family also read our magazine so carefully.

Jaising was summoned by Chief Justice Anand, and she insisted on taking her juniors along. That was the first and last time I ever found myself inside the chamber of the CJI!

We were seated and the Chief did not waste any time to come to the point.

“Indira …’the shoe unfortunately missed its mark’… I could not believe it when I read it. I hold you in such high esteem. Now I am a laughingstock. My brother judges are asking how I can inaugurate your function when this is what you think about me”.

Indira knew that if the Chief stayed away then there was no way other sitting justices would make their appearance. The entire event was now at risk. Profuse apologies and volunteering to send a written apology copy of which would be marked to all judges finally calmed the target of that fatal shoe.

I wonder how things would have panned out if Indira Jaising had refused to swallow her personal pride for the thousands of sisters and daughters of our country who faced domestic violence on a daily basis!

Fortunately, the issue died out and Justice Anand was firmly on board.

The Colloquium of 1999 shaped not only the destiny of the law of domestic violence but also my own life. Here are some snapshots.

A car had to be sent to pick up Justice Ruma Pal, then a Judge of the Calcutta High Court.  During my placement in Calcutta as a law student, I had heard about Justice Pal and how she ran her court firmly and had even put up a notice outside her courtroom requesting litigants not fall asleep in court. I jumped in to volunteer to chaperon her Ladyship!

Those days Delhi still had to make do with the old airport. I made my way into the visitors’ gallery and waited for Justice Pal to make her entry.  While Pal took her time I met a senior from Law School who was on the same flight! He greeted me and said that he had come to the city to file a Special Leave Petition against an order passed by Justice Pal. No, he did not know that she was on the same flight.

As I grew impatient waiting, I sweet-talked the security into allowing me into the luggage retrieval area. Ruma Pal did not know me but I knew her and immediately recognized her waiting for her suitcase to show up on the conveyor belt. In my excitement, I introduced myself “Maam I am Sanjoy Ghose, I am here from the Lawyers Collective to pick you up.” She froze on hearing this, and I felt most awkward. It seems she was in a state of shock.

When we were inside the car and well on our way to Gurugram, then Gurgaon, to drop her off at her sister’s house, Justice Pal finally softened up.  She said, “Your name reminded me of one of my relatives who I was very close to.”

I still kick myself for the response. I immediately said without thinking “Don’t tell me Sanjoy Ghose, the activist who was abducted in Majuli Assam and has gone missing.”. Her face shrank and she said “Yes. My nephew”.

To clear the discomfort what I did next was even worse. To lighten things, I said, “Maam incidentally you and an SLP against your judgement both have travelled to Delhi on the same flight.”

It is a miracle that Justice Pal and I are still in touch and on cordial terms!

We needed volunteers so I had roped in many of my friends and family. One being my closest friend and classmate who was a corporate lawyer with little interest in litigation.  One of the speakers was the legendary former Chief Justice Verma.  He was yet to be appointed as Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission.  This friend was sent to bring this gent to the venue at India Habitat Centre from his house in Noida.

When he returned, he blasted me.  “Why didn’t you tell me I was picking up a retired Chief Justice of India?”  I wanted to bang his head on the wall and mine too.

As I was mentally picturing the disaster that must have unfolded on that fatal trip, my friend put me to rest.  He said relax, our guest could not even imagine that I did not know that he was the ex-CJI.  So, when he asked Verma J “Which court do your practice in?” Verma was thrilled to bits and complimented my friend saying that very few people knew that there were three courts in Madhya Pradesh-at Indore, Gwalior and at Jabbalpur and then regaled him with stories from his days as a lawyer all the way to the venue!

Satyarani Chadda, the Founder of the NGO Shakti Shalini, who lost her daughter Kanchan to dowry death had gained India a champion of the rights of dowry victims, turned up with victims of domestic violence. Satya Ji’s protest with daughter Kanchan’s photograph on the steps of the Supreme Court captured by a celebrated photographer heralded the significant reform of criminal law and the law of evidence to ensure dowry deaths would not go so easily unpunished. Satyarani wanted the victims to testify and that too in Hindi.

While this was very noble and these victims were the very beneficiaries of the law we were canvassing, the meeting was meant to create a legal basis for a proposed law and the interventions were meant to be legal and jurisprudential.

More importantly, this was a logistical nightmare as the programme had already been finalized and there were back-to-back panel discussions scheduled with distinguished jurists and lawyers in attendance.  Satya ji was pacified by Jaising, and another embarrassment averted.

Years later Indira would assign me this Satyaji’s daughter’s dowry case to argue in the Delhi High Court.  By that time by political machinations the Great Satyarani Chadha had been outmaneuvered and ousted from her own NGO and was exiled to a life of regret with advancing mental debilities.

Most of the judicial invitees stuck to the beaten path.  Judgements cited on women’s rights and said nice things about women’s empowerment.  In all this, the bravery exhibited by Justice Qadri must be acknowledged.  Unfazed by the surroundings of a hall filled with activists, feminists and survivors of violence, the justice proclaimed that a little “wear and tear” in marriage was acceptable and common!

The conference was a complete success! Jaising and her collective had pulled off a coup. From that day Indira Jaising and Lawyers Collective became integral to any discourse of a law to address violence against women.

In the coming years under Jaising’s stewardship, we conducted outreach programmes through the length and the breadth of the country.  The mood was now set for the enactment of the legislation to address domestic violence.

This future was still a long distance away when on the evening of the concluding day of the event Indira sat down with her well-wishers and team to have the irrepressible Kamla Bhasin regale us with non-vegetarian jokes she had picked up on her many travels across the Wagha Border.  Sadly, cannot share most publicly.  One which I can goes like this:

President Zia of Pakistan had stamps issued bearing his mugshots.  However, there was a technical defect.  None of the stamps were sticking.  He had a Commission of Inquiry instituted to probe this.  The Commission concluded that the people were spitting on the wrong side!

Years later when many moons had passed from our Colloquium of the Summer of 1999, the law was finally passed by Parliament.  I was at my mischievous best when I call my senior to compliment her and said, “One day you shall be known as the Mother of Domestic Violence”!

(Sanjoy Ghose is an advocate practising in the High Court of Delhi and in the Supreme Court of India. The views are personal.)

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