One Future Inspire | Devyani Kacker: Using Law to Understand Our World

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One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.

Team One Future interviewed Devyani Kacker, advocate and specialist in international criminal law and transitional justice.

Please tell us a little about your personal journey. What are you currently doing?

I decided that I wanted to pursue Law because I wanted to work in the development sector, with the avenue of using law as a tool — either through public interest litigation, by getting people the benefits that they are entitled to or helping them understand the law. I pursued law and at the same time, founded a non profit organisation in Delhi (Kutumb Foundation) using the organisation as a tool to make young people more knowledgeable about the law and build respect for the law. I worked at the Supreme Court of India for a bit, and then did my Master’s. That’s when I started looking at international criminal law, transitional justice, human rights. I did an externship on pro bono practice and design. That ties into my work with TrustLaw. I went to intern with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. I was working with the office of the co-prosecutor there, looking at prosecuting the leaders of the Khmer Rouge for genocide and war crimes. I moved on to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and worked with the office of the prosecutor, there. I came back to India to work in the trial courts, worked on the 2G [scam] matter. I went back to Kosovo to work on property restitution of people displaced by the conflict, there. From there I returned to work with the ICC for a year, and returned to India. In 2015, I took a break and moved to Mumbai. I was interested in TrustLaw (Thomson Reuters’ global pro bono legal programme) because it allowed me to use the education I had picked up at the pro bono practice and design course I did at Columbia. It showed me that lawyers could contribute to the development sector without having to do it full time. That’s how I joined TrustLaw. At the time, there was no lawyer [at TrustLaw] in South Asia.

There were quite a few law firms that wanted to do pro bono work, but not the kind that was coming through the usual channels. Law firms were happy to do what they had always been doing — advisory, drafting of contracts, helping with  — but some wanted to do more than just that. Part of my responsibility was to generate research projects on anti-trafficking, child rights, environmental justice. My work also included the institutionalisation of the pro bono work at a law firm — ensuring that there is a structure to it. Apart from that, we had our own pro bono work. My job was to identify non profits that needed legal assistance and draft the project so that the law firm and the beneficiary would understand it.

I am currently taking a break from work, to introspect on the way forward for myself.

What are the challenges you face at work?

One of the biggest challenges was that we did not provide legal aid, we provided legal assistance. One could not go beyond a certain point when it came to research projects. Say an organisation wanted to file a PIL or go to court for a matter. We could only give them the research assistance, and not the lawyer who would litigate it in court. That was a challenge. Take the issue of Aadhar or LGBTQ rights — we could give them the research assistance, even the draft the brief for them. But we would not be able to engage the lawyer, and that is the crux of the matter.

The other challenge was legal aid. We couldn’t do legal clinics or explain the law to the beneficiaries. We worked at an institutional level, not an individual level, so for example if we were working with an organisation working against domestic violence, we could sit with the NGO and make a primer on the law, but we could not give them a lawyer who would explain this law to the beneficiaries, ie — in this case, the women who actually need to understand the law. Our ‘end-user’ was the institution, and their job was to communicate the information to the beneficiaries.

Time can be another challenge. Sometimes an NGO would need quick assistance but because there would be lawyers doing the work, we could not always promise that the work would be done in ‘x’ amount of time.

Tell us about your work with international criminal law.

I decided to study international criminal law after a holiday in Cambodia. I discovered and read more about what the Khmer Rouge had done. Almost two million people died in a span of 4 years. What was shocking to me was that almost all regimes under which genocide or crimes against humanity have occurred have tended to be legal regimes. Displacement or killings or forced marches or the Holocaust itself were legal measures. That, to me, was important. As lawyers, what is it that we are holding up? What is the rule of law, if we have one at all? What are citizens’ rights against the State? I studied human rights, transitional justice. I read international criminal law and decided that I wanted to work in this space. That is why I worked in Cambodia, and at The Hague. It was an enriching experience, but a part of me felt that there was so much else happening, back home [in India]. Even if it was not a full on conflict, massive violation of human rights take place in India. Riots, atrocities and massacres happen in our own country. I thought it might be better to come back and see if I could take what I had learnt and apply it here. I joined Trust Law at the time because I was a lawyer who had not worked in the development space. I wanted to take on a job that would give me a big picture view. I could see the work being done not just by activists, but by a variety of workers in education, environment, child rights because it is all so connected. And then, of course, I wanted to learn how to harness the law as a tool for positive change.  

There are several things that go wrong in court, and quite often. But what are the good things, the positives about the Indian legal system, related to your work?

The biggest thing about the Indian legal system is that it functions. It functions slowly, but it functions. When you come from a country that has seen the collapse of law and order, you feel like there is some law and order, an independent civil society. It is a functioning legal system. We have a Constitution, and I think it is a beautiful Constitution. If it is not abrogated, it is an outstanding piece of work. We have functioning media that is mostly unafraid to cover stories, and that speaks a lot. We do have a functioning democracy. At the end of the day, we elect who we elect. I have faith in the Indian democratic structure. Coming back to law, you can pick up any issue and run with it by yourself if you want to. You can go to court and fight it. That is huge power. That is access to a system without too many barriers.

Law, of course, has its limitations. Law cannot change morality, it cannot change public perception. Law can only help you get that far. When I was thinking about what could be done with transitional justice and international criminal law, I thought of its uses and its limitations. It could be used for reconciliation and bringing about peace and harmony. If law is the tool for doing those things, how do we use it, and if not, what are the other ways in which we can achieve those goals. The answer lies in understanding the limitations of the situation. You have lawyers, NGOs, activists working in isolation. The answer really lies in some sort of bridge between them. Law could be used as a bridge to get people on the same page. Lawyers are useful there — we are good at negotiating and putting out a good draft.

Devyani Kacker / NSRCEL, IIMB

Tell us about the non profit you co-founded, Kutumb Foundation.

Kutumb Foundation was established in 2002. It was a product of a group of friends going to college together [in Delhi]. It started off by engaging the community living in that area, in any activity — singing, drawing, painting. A lot of the children used to resort to begging, even if they did not need to. The more we interacted with them, the more we realised that those children were not learning from school. They could not read and they did not have a concept of ‘country’. They did not understand geography. They did not understand what it meant to be a citizen and have rights. We started conducting more classes with them — basic English, Hindi, and Math so that they would not get cheated. We would do this at a park in Khan Market.

We then moved into Junior Modern School to conduct classes there. All of this was voluntary work. We then got the organisation registered, because we needed equipment, books, space, and wanted to make it sustainable. Eventually, we wanted to create a space for other non profits to come in and share best practices and faults. We started two cross-programs, Hilley Ley and Goal of Life. Hilley Ley is a theatre-cum-culture festival that had directors to help the children develop a production, and we would help host the play. Goal of Life was a football tournament where we would bring in coaches to train children associated with different NGOs. It culminated into a league. The idea was for NGOs to learn, but so did the children. They became friends. The success of those two programs meant that the world had opened up — you were no longer restricted to your burrows and villas. You were moving across Delhi, and playing together. The biggest learning was that children are more open to change. Kutumb Foundation continues to function in Delhi.

Describe three books or people or moments that have impacted your life.

Mahatma Gandhi, and not because he’s the father of the nation. To me it is his struggle with his own faults and how he overcame them, that is inspirational. I am amazed at the fact that he was a terrible public speaker. For a lawyer and national leader, that was a huge thing to overcome. When I read My Experiments with Truth I liked that he felt that he needed to do something, and then went out and did it. To me, that is inspirational.

I have been thinking of The Handmaiden’s Tale. I read the book and then watched the series, and have been thinking of all the questions related to women, the decisions we make, whether we make decisions out of choice or compulsion. Are our choices freely made? Those are questions that resonate with me.

My trip to Cambodia has shaped the work I have done, since then. I was in Lucknow when the Babri Masjid fell, on 6 December 1992. I have the memory etched in my brain. I have always felt sad and ashamed that the Masjid was demolished and that it happened the way it did. When I went to Cambodia — and not equating the two — I realised that there are a lot of things that happen around the world that show us how the law is being used or misused to suit the person in power. That is when I began to explore the connection between international criminal law and transitional justice. Transitional justice is a study of mechanisms used when a country that has experienced mass atrocities is recovering from an autocratic regime to a democratic one. One uses different mechanisms with the eventual aim of bringing peace and harmony. You may prosecute the people who did wrong, use truth and reconciliation commissions, compensation, and rehabilitation and reform. In Cambodia, the regime killed so many people and did so much harm, and people knew about it. There was consent. Closer to home, look at the Bangladesh War. This is even before India entered the war. How much do we know about it? There is jurisprudence, writing, organisations and movements that I was not aware of. I wanted to learn about it and bring it back. Every person studying in this country should know it and should know we have the right to question the status quo.

What is your advice to the youth?

Be outward and inward looking at the same time. Be aware of what is happening around the world. It is a long life. You do not have to be successful first, do things you like to do. Always remember we have a commitment to society. Be kind, empathetic. Try to make a difference in whatever way you can.