India: Indira Jaising

Stereotyping of women, both as lawyers and as women, is carried to the extremes in the profession. It has been a great struggle to gain acceptance, without compromising yourself.

— Indira Jaising

Once fighting to establish herself on an equal footing with her male colleagues, Indira Jaising's legal work and her dedication to the cause of the marginalized is today the stuff of legend-her cases include Olga Tellis (pavement-dwellers' rights), the Bhopal Gas Leak (that the government cannot represent the victims to their exclusion), Mary Roy (inheritance for women), Gita Hariharan (mother's right to guardianship of the child), and many others. With each victory, Indira holds the Indian constitution to its covenant-justice for all.

Indira Jaising grew up in a conservative Sindhi household. Defying the future her parents envisioned for her-marriage alone-Indira struck out on her own path: she became a lawyer, in an almost all-male fraternity, both at the bar and bench. While her colleagues and judges refused to take her seriously at first, she stood firm: she knew exactly why she had joined the bar. In 1982, Indira fought and won the landmark Olga Tellis case, which stopped the authorities from evicting pavement-dwellers from their lean-tos and scrapboard shelters to beautify the city. When she took up the case, the very notion that pavement-dwellers had rights was unheard of. The law books and reports of the 1950s and 1960s show that only the rich used the courts to claim what they considered their inarguable rights: not a single laborer complained that minimum wages were not paid; not a bonded laborer sought freedom; not a woman sought freedom from violence. Besides Olga Tellis, Indira has repeatedly created Indian legal history, each time winning a substantial victory for society's marginalized: among many others the Bhopal Gas Leak Case (where she was the first person to challenge the government's self-determined right to represent the victims, to the exclusion of the victims) and the Tehri Dam Case (to protect those who lost their lands to submergence). Indira has also fought long and hard against corruption in the judiciary. She is representing in the supreme court of India the victims of the 2002 Gujarat genocide. Both her methodology and her goal are straightforward: to hold law to the promise delivered in the preamble to the constitution of India-justice for all.

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