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Meher Dev received the Baker McKenzie scholarship for 2018. A graduate of Jindal Global Law School (JGLS), Meher went on to work with Senior Advocate Indira Jaising, and is currently a Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School, New York.
In this interview, she talks about her journey, working on important matters including the Triple Talaq case, the Baker McKenzie Scholarship, and more.
What inspired you to study law?
From a young age, I understood the heightened vulnerability that women felt due to their sex and minority status and how their inability to access legal remedies exacerbated that vulnerability.
I grew up in a Sikh family hearing stories about the injustices my grandparents and other Sikh refugees faced during India’s partition and the Sikh genocide. I learnt about how women in my family particularly felt vulnerable because of their sex and minority status as they migrated into India amongst wide spread rape and abuse. Many crimes went unpunished, as many Sikhs had no access to law, especially minority women who struggled to access basic amenities of food and clothing and to protect themselves from sexual abuse in over-crowded refugee camps.
Despite growing up in much more stable times, I saw women and girls around me face sexual harassment at their schools and their workplaces. Women of my generation carried a similar sense of vulnerability due to the lack of knowledge and ability to access legal remedies. We faced discrimination in newer forms.
I decided to overcome the vulnerability that I felt and women and minority communities felt by bridging the lacking access to law by becoming a human rights lawyer who represents voices of women and minorities.
In the last eight years, I have consistently channelized my efforts and used my different positions be it as a student, teacher, firm lawyer, litigator, legal researcher and consultant, to passionately advocate for the rights of women and minorities in India.
How was your experience at JGLS?
My experience at JGLS was serendipitous. Being from the first batch, I had the opportunity to be part of building an institution with faculty, mentors and peers from across the country and the world. I saw JGLS as my canvass of opportunities and strived to use these opportunities to shape my professional and personal life. I built life-long friendships and a support system that I can rely on in my ups and downs.
Working as a student teaching assistant and tutoring students on public international law confirmed my intuition of having a career that is linked with legal education and my commitment to mentor and build capacity for human rights lawyers by establishing clinics in law schools.
While still in law school, you set up an organisation called the Women and Law Society. What kind of work was the organisation involved in?
I co-founded the Women and Law Society (WLS) with my sister Kudrat Dev and like-minded peers with the objective of creating easy free access to law for women working in the law school and living in its rural neighborhood. WLS was a forum to discuss how women’s rights could be realized using both domestic and international human rights laws.
We led socio-legal awareness drives and provided legal counseling on issues of domestic violence and property rights that women from rural communities in Haryana faced. WLS mediated with the law school administration to ensure gender parity in the pay of gardeners. We formulated policies on equal pay and anti-sexual harassment. WLS assisted widows who were being restrained by their in-laws from re-marrying to reach out to the Punjab and Haryana State Women’s Commission.
After the 2013 gang rape in India, we submitted to the Justice Verma Committee our list of required criminal law reforms on sexual assaults that were informed by international human rights norms and guidelines.
WLS developed a partnership with Majlis, where we began to raise funds for litigation and medical expenses of domestic violence and acid attack survivors. In exchange, Majlis lawyers provided mentorship during summer internships to WLS members.
My WLS experiences helped me to develop the skills of advocating for women as one amongst them rather than an outsider, and of developing partnerships with NGOs and human rights advocates to advance human rights in a collective manner rather than re-inventing the wheel.
You joined Indira Jaising’s chambers after graduating. What was the some of the work you did there?
My work with her was not restricted to pure litigation. It involved policy and advocacy work for Lawyers Collective. It was the perfect profile that I was looking for to engage in constitutional feminist advocacy in courts and beyond.
In courts, I made it a point to cite India’s international human rights obligations to supplement our constitutional law arguments. Particularly, while representing Muslim women who were unilaterally and instantaneously divorced by their husbands and thrown out of their households and while representing Hindu women who were prohibited from entering in temples as they were considered impure during their menstruation and stereotyped as provoking “deviancy” amongst celibate priests and gods, we relied on CEDAW.
In both the cases, the Supreme Court acknowledged our arguments of the practices being in violation of Indian constitutional law and CEDAW norms and declared the practices of unilateral instantaneous divorce by Indian Muslim men and ban on Hindu women’s temple entry as unconstitutional.
My litigation experience has taught me to translate hardships of women into legal arguments before judges, buttress arguments with international human rights norms, manage client expectations, and most importantly, ensure that women’s subjective emotions and voices are not lost in legal objectivity.
Outside courts, I worked on advocacy projects for Lawyers Collective. For one of my projects, I assisted in drafting the Guide to Eliminating the FGM Practice in India report recommending legal solutions and reforms to stop the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) on young girls and women in India. I wrote a chapter in this report making an argument of how FGM cannot be justified as a religious practice under India’s Constitution and researched on how FGM is both a domestic and international human rights violation.
To keep the recommendations of the report grounded in the reality that survivors of FGM face, I interviewed an Indian Muslim Bohra survivor of FGM and relied on existing interviews of FGM survivors documented by other organizations. This report was discussed at a side event at United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 36th regular session and is now being used in a pending litigation on this matter before the Supreme Court of India.
Could you elaborate on the mentorship programme you started at Jaising’s chambers?
I have been fortunate to have accessibility to training from luminary feminist lawyers such as Indira Jaising and Flavia Agnes and exposure to clinical legal education. Many don’t have such access or exposure. I believe that experiential learning in law school clinics is an effective platform for law students to develop practical legal skills and fill the gap for persons in need of legal aid. However, most law schools don’t have well-functioning and organized legal clinics focusing on constitutional human rights lawyering.
To create this access to experiential learning and mentorship, I designed and ran the mentorship program in human rights lawyering for law students at Lawyers Collective. The program followed a six-week intensive curriculum designed to help mentees build identified skills of human rights lawyering such as client interviewing, drafting and argumentation.
In addition to core skills, mentees were provided with career counselling in our “Saturday Talks” where human rights lawyers and activists like Anand Grover, Jayna Kothari, Masooma Ranalvi, Amritananda Chakraberty and Tripti Tandon and Lorraine Misquith shared their motivations of taking up human rights lawyering and anecdotes from their journey of advocating for human rights.
Could you give us a few details about the Baker McKenzie scholarship?
I was nominated by Columbia Law School for the Baker McKenzie Scholarship. This scholarship is given to one Columbia LL.M. student who demonstrates academic success and financial need.
Constanze Ulmer-Eilfort, Executive Committee Member and Global Chair of Diversity and Inclusion at Baker McKenzie said that this scholarship was awarded to me because of my “demonstrated passion for advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession…my consistent efforts to advocate for women and minorities, mentor students in human rights law, and advance these initiatives through the creation of legal education clinics.”
What opportunities has the scholarship opened up for you? What does the future hold?
As a LL.M. Human Rights Fellow, I am working with the Columbia Human Rights Clinic and with the Human Rights Practicum.
At the clinic, I am engaging in international transnational human rights advocacy with women in Papua New Guinea who have been impacted by mining and sexual abuse. Recently in November, I led the clinic’s transnational advocacy initiative at the 7th Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights where with our women advocate partners from Papua New Guinea, we made a submission to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights on how businesses practices disproportionately impact women and offered recommendations on how the Working Group can shape its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to make them more gender sensitive and to hold businesses accountable.
At the practicum, I assisted Professor Sarah Cleveland, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee in legal research for the 124th session of the committee and in evaluation of countries’ compliance with human rights norms. I attended the session in Geneva and interacted with other committee members and NGOs who engage in UN advocacy.
Presently, I am researching for UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence and exploring ways of becoming a teaching assistant at the Columbia Human Rights Clinic.
All these experiences are geared towards to setting up clinics in law schools in India that engage in transnational advocacy and human rights lawyering for women and minorities.