It was April 1917. The place was Champaran, Bihar. Mahatma Gandhi had reached Champaran with the idea of making a short visit to understand the plight of indigo farmers in the region. The short trip turned into a year-long fact-finding mission that culminated in the Champaran Satyagraha, the first satyagraha in India.

Before starting work, Gandhiji addressed a group of lawyers in Patna to encourage them to help the movement. A number of lawyers volunteered and for more than a year, they toured Champaran in teams to obtain statements from more than 22,000 indigo farmers who were being exploited by planters. The statements formed the basis of the historic agitation. Gandhiji’s work at Champaran is well-recorded by historians, but not enough is said about the deep effect that Champaran had on the lawyers who worked with him there.

Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, was a lawyer who worked in Champaran, said –

Most of us who joined Gandhiji in Champaran were lawyers . . . But when we started working in Champaran, our whole outlook changed…When we had finished the work in Champaran, we returned home with new ideas, a new courage, and a new programme…”

Prasad wasn’t alone. Pro bono work seemed to create legends out of lawyers throughout the Independence struggle, Motilal Nehru, C.R.Das, Rajagopalachari, and Vallabhai Patel, were examples.

Over a hundred years later, it seems that Prasad’s reflections on Champaran continue to be relevant in describing the impact of pro bono legal work.

In the last eight years, iProbono India has worked with at least a hundred lawyers who have provided legal advice and assistance to the most vulnerable populations. Last year, we worked with a homeless community in Rajeev Camp Delhi, who were fighting for housing after their basti was demolished for expansion of a highway. In our work with Rajeev Camp residents in the run up to the litigation, we played the role of the secretaries and messengers to record the stories of the residents. The community was represented in court by a partner at a leading law firm in Delhi, who managed to secure housing for 14 of the families after a six-month long court battle.

This year, lawyers in private practice are working towards providing legal representation to three other jhuggi jhopri communities, collectively adding up to over 2500 people, who are on the verge of becoming homeless. While the work of collecting accounts and narratives from the community is done by community-based NGOs and iProbono, it is significant that the lawyers representing the communities in court often don’t have any previous experience of litigating human rights, and perhaps like Rajendra Prasad, are changed by it in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

Being involved in sustained pro bono work could hold promise for a lawyer’s understanding of the world – From seeing the legal system as a site to negotiate certain narrow goals, it becomes easier to see that the legal system is much more – It embodies a form of politics, sometimes it impedes politics, sometimes it is the agent for creation of vulnerability and sometimes, it is the only savior.

As we have seen repeatedly in cases involving people who suffer from extreme deprivation, lawyers engaged for the case have to acquaint themselves with the machinery that creates vulnerability – the schemes that authorize cities to clean out slums; the schemes that require famine-stricken people to produce Aadhaar cards to be able to access ration; the laws that allow people to be put away without trial for indefinite periods of time; the state-supported forces that breed hatred and violence; the laws that keep the most disadvantaged people exactly where they are. The machinery that creates poverty, violence, and disadvantage may be visible to only those who are looking. Lawyers are often powerfully placed to create long-lasting social and political change. What is needed then, are many more opportunities for lawyers to see the workings of vulnerability, first hand.

Hidden in pro bono work is the chance to experience the world through the perspective of a disenfranchised client and to be part of a cultural shift – a fundamental change that recasts the legal profession’s vision of itself and a lawyer’s perception of her own place in the world.

In short, a change that helps us see.

The access to justice space in India has people and organisations that work on diverse projects, but without connection to one another. There are no platforms for dialogue, which could have rewarding effects in building impact and scaling up access to justice efforts, nationally. The Agami Prize offer us the opportunity to connect with one another across organisation lines and helps us learn from each other, and contribute to, a unified goal of universal access to justice.

There will be probably never be another Mahatma Gandhi, but with more cohesion between the people working on justice, we could still learn to be good scribes and envoys to the Champarans simmering around us.

(Source of quotes: A Sketch of the Development of the Legal Profession in India, Samuel Schmitthener, Law & Society Review Vol. 3, (Nov., 1968 – Feb., 1969), pp. 337-382))

Swathi Sukumar – Co-Founder, India, iProbono

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