Menaka Guruswamy, a Supreme Court lawyer and former student of the Hyderabad Public School, has been invited by the prestigious Yale Law School to come on board as a visiting lecturer from January, 2016. Her subject will be South Asian Constitutionalism.
Guruswamy was invited to teach for a year, but due to her work commitments back home, she will only be there for a term. The Delhi-based lawyer, who has consulted also for the United Nations, successfully litigated against state-sponsored vigilante groups in Chhattisgarh, defended the Right to Education Act and challenged laws that declared same-sex relationships illegal, says she got the foundation for her super successful career at the National Law School of India where she got her B.A., L.L.B. (Hon.) degree. Following this she studied at both, Oxford and Harvard.
When asked to comment on the differences between the British and American education systems, she says, “Oxford is more personalised as it follows a tutorial system. Harvard has larger classes and follows the Socratic method, where you are called to answer questions in class.”
But what both these institutes teach you is, “To write better and think about law differently.” Whether you want to practise it or not, law is considered to be one of the best degrees to have. Why? “Law teaches you to reason better and through the course, you get to learn so much about your own country and society. It is a wonderful profession and there are so many parts to it. You can litigate, work at a firm, teach... If you look at the founding fathers of our country — Nehru, Gandhi, Dr Ambedkar and Bal Gangadhar Tilak — they all had law degrees.”
She adds that her own practice enables her to work on a range of legal areas — corporate law, criminal law and of course constitutional law. She is most fascinated by how our constitution crafts the idea of India — one premised on equality, dignity and liberty. “Equality of each individual as a citizen, was a radical constitutional idea — in a society that through history was defined by divisions on caste, religion and gender. Here was an India that the constitution ascribed equal worth for every individual.”
For ones who want to follow in Guruswamy’s footsteps, she admits that you need to be prepared for the endlessly long hours and hard-work that every successful lawyer puts in. So, how does she make time for herself? “Life is demanding. It is nice to do something you enjoy, I can’t imagine people not making time for something they like. I enjoy running and try to do so, for as many days in a week as I can.”
While she knows how to strike a balance between work and leisure, how does she handle unsavoury elements like the vigilante groups whom she stood up against in court? “It is not about me having to face bullies, what is important is how people living in those areas stand up to them. I am pretty insulated living in Delhi.” Is sometimes fighting unsavory elements easier than fighting the law? What are the areas in our legal system that need to be worked on? “We don’t have enough courts or judges. We have also not invested enough in modernising the law, to put in place a better quality legal system.”
Talking about the legal system, the Yakub Memon hanging has got the country debating about the pros and cons of capital punishment. What is Guruswamy’s opinion on this? “The issue of capital punishment is not whether someone deserves to be punished. Of course they do. The question is, what does capital punishment mean for a country and society? “Israel is one of the most terror-hit states, but it does not execute prisoners. Justification stemming from retribution is the larger question. We need to interrogate and see why is it that people from lower castes and minorities are handed out these sentences.”