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Amba Salelkar is a Board Member at Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, a disability rights advocacy organization. She has previously worked with Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy and prior to that, as a criminal lawyer in Mumbai with Raja Thakare & Chimalkar.
In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, the NLSIU grad shares the trials and tribulations faced by a litigation lawyer with mental health difficulties, what it takes to be a policy lawyer, and more.
Amba Salelkar describes her law school experience as a buffet in terms of opportunities. However, while practicing in Mumbai, she found that her legal education offered little in the way of practical knowledge.
“I thought Trial (Clinical Legal Studies) was going to set me up, but I found that it really doesn’t! One of the first times I appeared in court, I had to represent a client who had got the summons the previous day. So when the matter comes up, I start arguing passionately and the Magistrate replies, “So?” Then I tell him that we can’t possibly argue because we got the summons yesterday, and he again replies, “So?”
At this point, I can feel someone tugging at my dupatta and whispering to me saying that I need to make an adjournment application. So I tell the judge that I would make an adjournment application and he starts screaming at me, ‘That’s all you had to say! Where do you people come from?’”
As much as she cherishes the rich experience of having appeared in trial courts, she admits that things did get a bit lonely and, well, sexist.
“Litigation can be very isolating, especially in the beginning. Initially, I didn’t have a lot of people to hang out with. Sometimes interactions would end badly. I’d ask someone if they wanted to get coffee and they would say, ‘You’re a woman, you’re not supposed to say things like that’!”
After six years of practicing criminal law in Mumbai, she called it quits. The reason? Unaddressed mental health issues that plagued her since the time she had been a law student.
“During law school, I was affected by recurring mental health issues, which wasn’t something I could really address back then. It’s complicated, because it takes some time to come to terms with it yourself.”
In fact, it is astonishing that she lasted six years, given the insensitive, dog-eat-dog environment characteristic of criminal practice.
“When you’re litigating, it’s difficult to say that you have mental health issues, because obviously, your clients won’t trust you. I had a particularly bad incident in the bar room, after which I felt a lot of perceptible judgment.
While appearing in court, I had an attack and had to leave the court. The judge was annoyed, so he passed an order after closing the evidence and noting that I had left court. After my seniors managed to get the order reversed, the judge asked for a medical certificate, so I got one from my psychiatrist. The judge then pronounced in open court to my clients, ‘If you hire a crazy lawyer, this is what will happen’.”
The judge then pronounced in open court to my clients, ‘If you hire a crazy lawyer, this is what will happen’.”
It was time for a change.
Amba Salelkar met Rahul Cherian, Co-founder of Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability and Policy. Cherian, who passed away in 2013, evidently left an indelible imprint on her.
And interestingly, her first project with Inclusive Planet dealt with the Mental Health Act.
“I studied the Act and gave my comments on it, without delving too deep into it. At that point of time, I was suffering from depression and told Rahul that I needed more time to work on it. He replied in a very matter-of-fact way and told me to take my time and that I was doing a good job. This was in stark contrast of what I experienced with the judge.”
One of her notable achievements was recommending changes in criminal law with respect to disabled persons. These recommendations would make their way to the Justice Verma Committee Report, and consequently the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment.
“We recommended procedural changes, because the presumption in criminal procedure is that you are an able-bodied person. For example, Section 118 of the Evidence Act in effect says that if you are unable to speak, you give your answers by gesturing. And it was up to the judge to understand what you were trying to say; there could be no interpreter in between.
Another problem was that test identification parades didn’t work for visually impaired victims. But they could identify their assailants by voice, or by other means. So we recommended having interpreters for such cases and videography of the procedure.”
And since then, there has been no looking back. The journey through the world of disability law and policy led her on a path to understanding herself a little better.
“As I started looking at the concept of disability differently, I also started looking at myself differently. Before, I felt that I couldn’t talk about it; that there was something wrong with me.”
As I started looking at the concept of disability differently, I also started looking at myself differently. Before, I felt that I couldn’t talk about it; that there was something wrong with me.
So what does it take to excel in the field of Policy? Research, and data analysis, she says, are of paramount importance.
“I don’t think it is emphasized in law schools enough as to how important data-based research is. You can sometimes argue on first principles, but if you’re looking to make changes that require budgetary allocation, you need to present data. With respect to disabilities research, we cannot rely on court judgments, as there are very few cases that are actually reportable.”
I don’t think it is emphasized in law schools enough as to how important data-based research is.
For those who are looking to pursue a career in Policy after graduating from law school, she has a few words of warning.
“I think it’s important to have practical experience before you get into Policy work. Even though it offers opportunities, I’m not sure if you should jump into it right after law school, because you really need to know how things work.
For example, if you want to work on criminal law reform, I think it’s definitely worth it if you do two years of trial court practice. You need to bring something to the table that you can’t just look up on the internet.”
Unfortunately, India’s current disability laws leave a lot to be desired, even though India is a signatory to the UNCRPD. In 2011, a draft Bill was submitted to the Ministry of Social Justice. When it came back, the Bill was “diluted”.
“Then, when it went back to the legislative process and was introduced in Parliament last year, it turned into something nobody could quite understand. There was more of a focus on the entitlement aspect in what was supposed to be a rights-based statute.
One of the glaring things is that the Bill says that persons with disabilities have a right against discrimination, except when it can be shown that the discrimination is towards a legitimate aim. Who determines this legitimacy? There is a lot of scope for misuse of this provision.”
And as far as advice for budding litigation lawyers goes –
“My only advice is get a good Senior, who will support you. A lot of Seniors, even though they don’t pay you, will ask clients to pay you or give you the freedom to take up work separately. Don’t say no to work when you are a junior. You should never think you’re too good to do something like, for instance, a surety application. You learn so much from each and every one of these small things. That is the only way you will really learn how the system works.”