In conversation with Gunjan Singh on his journey from law school to become a Chevening Scholar and Human and Labour Rights Advocate

Mr Gunjan Singh is working as the Director (Litigation) at Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), Delhi, where, other than litigation he also mentors budding lawyers and interns. He specialises in the field of labour and employment laws and has been actively working alongside several civil societies. He has also been invited as a speaker on a panel titled “Strategic Litigation Impacts: Global Case Studies” at International Bar Association (IBA) Annual Conference, 2019 at Seoul, South Korea and at Earth Trusteeship Forum 2019, Bangkok, Thailand. Mr Singh was awarded the Chevening Scholarship 2017-2018 to study LLM  in Human Rights, Conflict and Justice at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and has completed BA LLB (Hons.) from Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India and Master in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.

He has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student ambassador Syed Mohd. Haroon who is currently pursuing law from Jamia Milia Islamia.

 

1. Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself and what made you choose law as a career?

I come from Palamau, one of the poorest districts in Jharkhand, which falls into Red Corridor and experiences considerable Naxal insurgency. During my early years, incidents of blowing up of railway tracks, blocking of roads, and call of bandhs (strikes) meant nothing to me more than a holiday in school. The incidents of witch hunting and beating up of labourers for refusing to work beyond stipulated time and underpayment was prevalent. I belong to an agriculturalist family, and at an early age I was exposed to the caste discriminations practiced on the field and at home. During that time, though I could sense the injustice around me but did not know how to address it. At home, any attempt to discuss these issues was rarely encouraged. My parents though faced economic hardships showed extreme interest in sending me to the school. Later stories of historical exploitation in writings of celebrated writers like Mahasweta Devi’s “Bitter Soil” and P. Sainath’s “Everybody Loves A Good Drought” introduced me to the brutal realities of society, to which I belonged. The socio-political affairs surrounding me and a strong desire to engage more actively into such issues of exploitation motivated me to pursue career in law. 

 

2. Could you describe your life at law schools, how you came to pursue a double masters from different prestigious universities, your experience in each of them and how that led to the choice of labour and employment law as the field of expertise.

 

Life at Aligarh Muslim University had huge impact on me and it changed me as a human being. A.M.U is known to cater majority students of students from economically weak background, most of who also belong to the religious minorities. I literally had no exposure to Muslim culture till my high school and for the first time was introduced to a totally different culture at A.M.U. A whole lot of myths (imbibed since childhood) about Muslims were cleared during my stay at A.M.U. I became more aware and sensitive about the challenges faced by the minorities in India, particularly Muslims. My stay at beautiful Viqarul-Mulk Hall (hostels in A.M.U are called Halls) is one of the best time of my life. I met people studying wide range of subjects and learnt extensively from them over chai at dhabas (tea stalls). These discussions would be enthralling and would often start at late evening and continue till early morning. I can definitely say that I learnt more from my friends than my classroom. During my time, classroom teaching at A.M.U was traditional and the law college had traditional resources. However, professors at law school encouraged independent thinking and progressive ideas. I would often leave classroom agitated and that forced me to make further enquiry on the subject. I firmly believe this is the real job of any educator.

 

After my graduation, I wanted to pursue Social Work and landed at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Diverse crowd and debates on wide range of subject on the campus provided me an invigorating experience at TISS. Professors encouraged independent thinking and were friendly. Here too, I learnt extensively from my friends who had background in social sciences. I was also active in Student politics and unsuccessfully contested Student Union election (Lost to an Alig). During fieldworks, I travelled to different parts of the country and met inspiring people fighting against exploitation of poor and vulnerable in remote parts of the country. It was towards the end of my course, I felt more confident about practicing law. The labour struggle at Maruti in 2012 and the arrests of hundreds of workers prompted me to work with trade unions in Gurgaon. I enjoyed Labour law and Constitutional law in Law College and that too contributed in my decision to take up labour litigation in Gurgaon. The challenging work environment at the district court in Gurgaon introduced me to the procedural law and technicalities of litigation. Since then, I had the opportunity to represent and successfully argue cases on behalf of the workers. It was after two years, I shifted my base in Delhi as the work at trial court was getting repetitive and I was not learning new things.

 

My second masters at School of Oriental and African Studies, London was somewhat by chance. I had no intention to do further masters and was enjoying litigation in Delhi. A friend of mine encouraged me to apply for Chevening Scholarship. I did not apply for any other scholarship that year, neither did I apply in colleges till April as I was not sure of getting the scholarship. It was only after I was shortlisted for the interview, I had some hope and encouragement to apply in colleges. I opted for SOAS because of its uniqueness in terms of diverse crowd and politically vibrant campus in the United Kingdom.

 

3. Many students are sceptical about choosing labour and employment laws as a subject of expertise in their career, could you please shed some light on how it is in reality from a life-sustaining perspective that a law student may understand.

The reason for skepticism to practice labour laws is directly linked to the economic policies of our country. Post 1991 liberalisation, under the pretext of opening up of market and to encourage business, labour laws were poorly implemented and the contractualisation of work was encouraged. The growing practice of contractualisation has left poor workers at the mercy of employers. The robust trade unionism in late 1970-80’s challenged the high handedness of employers in terminating workers from their jobs and encouraged students to get involved in the trade unions and work for poor workers. The plight of workers was further accentuated by the judicial onslaught on labour laws- several judgments of the Supreme Court weakened strict implementation of labour laws (like 2001 SAIL judgment (2001) 7 SCC 1, Uma Devi judgment (2006) 4 SCC 1.

 

However, I believe the labour and employment law practice is one of the most satisfying and sustainable branch of law. If you manage to win a case of a terminated workman or ensure payment of their earned wage, you make a huge difference in their life. Payment of reasonable fees is never a problem with workers, if you get them relief. However, unlike other form of litigation, you cannot expect a terminated contractual worker to pay you handsome advance fees. Since the numbers of labour cases are many, reasonable fees would make your practice sustainable.

 

4. The recent developments in the labour laws have been a hot topic of the debate, be it the then proposed suspension of labour laws or the codification of 29 labour laws into 4 codes, what is your opinion on the long-term effects these changes will have?

 

The change in labour laws as I said earlier is directly linked with the economic path our country has chosen. There has been a longstanding demand from the employer’s side to relax the provisions of the labour laws. The second National Commission on Labour, 2002 recommended simplification and codification of labour laws. If you will see the new Codes, there is not much positive change. Many older provisions are retained in the new Code. The new concepts like “Fixed Term Contract” are legitimisation of the exploitative practice of “hire and fire”, as it would permit employers to terminate the services of workmen at any point. The decision to exempt the factories from the provision of labour laws by increasing the threshold of number of workers from 100 to 300 will have huge impact. This will give unfettered power to employers to terminate services of workers at their whims and fancy and would encourage factories to disregard safety measures for workers as enshrined in the present system. Further, the promise of social security to all still remains on paper and the new Code does not extend it to unorganised workers, who form approximately 93 % of the workforce. The change in trade union registration process, whereby threshold of forming trade unions have been increased and concepts like “Negotiating Union” have been introduced is also worrisome and against the core principle of right to organise and collective bargaining, as laid down by the ILO. A detailed critique of labour Code is not possible here and can be discussed separately.

 

Before, we move to the next question, it is important to remind the readers of the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha Case, where Justice Chandrachud, gave sound reasoning on how economic crisis faced by the State is not a valid legal ground to exempt factories from the application of labour laws and rightly set aside the notification issued by the State of Gujarat exempting factories from the application of factory act. This judgment observed that the economic crisis faced by the States should not be an offset on the weary shoulder of the poor workers, who already suffered during the Corona crisis. Similar notifications exempting factories from the application of factories act were issued by 11 states during the pandemic.

 

5. Working at HRLN, you are also deeply indulged in mentoring lawyers and interns, could you describe your experience with that, the few skills that you believe every student or a new lawyer must have and the importance of research in the legal arena.

I enjoy working with students and young lawyers. I get to learn from them as well. It’s a two- way process, where we discuss and think together. As far as mentoring is concerned, I just share my experience and advise people to not be in hurry. Often students tend to find answer from others as to what is best for them. This is not the correct approach. I believe everyone has their own journey and must explore their path and career. Be adventurous and try new things. The idea is to enjoy what you do.

 

Our profession is not an equal level field. Those coming from poor and marginalised background often find it difficult to meet the demands of this profession like proficiency in language and oratory skills. Therefore, one must be ready to work extra hours and learn these skills. This would require compromising your social life to some extent. You cannot expect to have a comfortable 9 to 5 job in the existing structure. As a lawyer, particularly a human rights lawyer, you must also be directly engaged with the socio-political issues around yourself. Meet new people and be empathetic to them. Reading on different subjects, not restricted to law, helps you to contextualise the case in hand and further sharpens your argument. Research helps you to draft your case with clarity and precision and gives you confidence in putting forth your arguments. However, one must have full grasp over the facts of the case before getting into case law research. Often, I have heard judges telling advocates to have full command over facts of the case before delving into case laws. Observing arguments of advocates during case hearings in the court also helps you to learn nitty-gritties of arguments.

 

6. There are numerous speculations about new Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) guidelines on NGOs and civil societies seeking foreign funding. How do you think it has affected NGOs such as HRLN, which are directly linked to the works of safekeeping human rights in the country.

Governments all across the globe are sceptical to the work carried out by civil society organisations, as these organisations highlight the gaps in the governance and expose malpractices of state authorities. India is not an exception. The new FCRA guidelines are meant to restrict working of civil society organisations and are not about transparency. The organisations are duty bound to give details of their funding and most of them have been complying for years. However, the new changes like restricting administrative cost, sub- granting and making AADHAR details mandatory are only regressive steps and lacks reasoning. The scale of foreign direct investments in Indian companies is huge and the regulation remains flexible for them. There is hardly any debate on this aspect. HRLN for many years have been complying with the guidelines and remains transparent about its work. The legal aid remains the core work of HRLN. The aim is to ensure that the rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India are fully enjoyed by the most vulnerable and poor section of the society. So far, the work has continued smoothly and we hope it remains like this in future.

 

7. Looking back at your journey, what are the challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?

I came from a conservative family and society and initially I found it difficult to accept new changes. My perspective changed through some reading and meeting new people. You learn to appreciate other’s point of view, when you are empathetic and have desire to learn new things. Travelling helps you a lot in broadening your horizon. Make good friends and always value your relationships. This helps immensely in the long run.

 

One must put extra effort to learn skills which they lack. I always advise people to not hesitate in reaching out to people for help. Often people do not reach out for help with the fear of being branded as weak. Mental health is an important yet ignored aspect of our profession. This is mainly a structural problem and to large extent is the result of the pernicious office environment. Many lawyers face mental health problems and in absence of support system succumb to the pressure. Peer support is very important and helps to address the challenge to some extent.

 

8. What advice would you like to give to the law students or young lawyers who would want to pursue higher studies in human rights in India and abroad and in general?

Ask yourself first, do you really feel angry about human rights violations around you. If you do, then pursue human rights litigation or academia. Human rights violations are rampant and there are wide ranges of subjects on which one can work. I would advise people to work on any of these issues first for couple of years, and then apply for higher studies in the field of human rights. This helps you in choosing your subjects wisely and conceptualising the course in your Masters or Ph.D. It is also good from the perspective of securing scholarships as work experience helps you in that. Lawyering is a demanding profession but also very satisfying. The cases of human rights violations are galore- caste violence, mass scale displacement of adivasis, sexual violence etc. and there is a pressing need for young, energetic and passionate human rights practitioner in the country. If you have desire to work for poor people, you will find your way to do it. Don’t hold yourself back because somebody said something about you. Don’t let your dreams die. As Pash said “Sabse Khatarnak Hota Hai Sapno ka Mar Jana”.

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