Indira Jaising is an Indian lawyer and human rights activist. In addition to forging an unprecedentedly successful and distinguished career, she has often been at the forefront of many pioneering cases and landmark judgements. Furthermore, her work and achievements in the field of social justice and equality for women have won her world renown.
Jaising was born in Mumbai in 1940 to Sindhi parents who had migrated during the traumatic India-Pakistan partition. She attended Bangalore University and then completed a post-graduate degree in law at the University of Bombay in 1962. From the outset of her legal career, she focused on helping the dispossessed and oppressed sections of society, championing the rights of women, the poor, the homeless and the working classes.
In 1981, together with her husband, Anand Grover, she founded The Lawyers Collective, an advocacy firm devoted to human rights which provides funding and legal representation to underprivileged sections of Indian society. In 1986, she set up The Lawyers, a monthly magazine which focuses on issues of social justice and female equality within the context of the Indian judiciary.
Much of her work has focused on championing the rights, safety and equality of women. In 1986, she fought and won the famous Mary Roy case which led to Syrian Christian women being granted equal inheritance rights with their male siblings. She successfully challenged the discriminatory provisions of the Indian Divorce Act, thus enabling Christian women to get a divorce on the grounds of cruelty or desertion, a right previously denied to them. In the ground-breaking Githa Hariharan case of the late 1990s, Jaising was instrumental in winning the right of Hindu mothers to be the natural guardians of their minor children, so the children could take their mother’s name – a hugely important ruling for the rights and status of women in the family.
In a very high-profile sexual harassment case, Jaising represented Rupan Deol Bajaj, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service who had accused the then Director General of Police, of outraging her modesty when he drunkenly molested her at a party. The case dragged on and remained in the media spotlight for several years but the defendant was eventually found guilty.
Jaising’s advocacy for feminist causes is not limited to the courtroom. She had a central role in drafting India’s 2005 Domestic Violence Act and, the first Indian woman to be appointed, she was a member of the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against women. She is also the director of the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative which focuses on the elimination of violence against women and she campaigns vociferously to highlight and eradicate the the sexual harassment of women in the workplace.
As a social and human rights activist, Jaising was involved in the citizens’ initiatives to challenge human rights abuses in terrorism-hit Punjab during early ’80s and ’90s. She also represented the pavement dwellers of Mumbai during the mid-1980s when they were facing eviction, thus securing their rights and the safety of their homes. A keen environmentalist, she represented the victims of the Bhopal disaster during the 1980s when a pesticide manufacturing plant leaked a mixture of highly toxic gases into the atmosphere, causing one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. She fought in the Supreme Court of India to secure the victims’ claim for compensation against the powerful American multinational Union Carbide Corporation.
Jaising has represented her country at various national and international conferences and written extensively on the law and human rights. In 1986, she became the first woman to be designated as a Senior Advocate by the High Court of Bombay. In 2005, she received the Padma Shree (a prestigious civilian award given by the Indian government in recognition of a distinguished contribution to Indian life) for her service to public affairs. She was also awarded the Rotary Manav Seva Award in recognition of her services to her nation. In 2009, she became the first woman to be appointed Additional Solicitor General of India.
Today, at the age of 76, Jaising remains a force to be reckoned with. She is still Director & Secretary of the Lawyers Collective and remains committed to fighting for human rights. “I was clear about making law useful for sections of society which are dispossessed,” she says. “It is because they have no stake in the system, because the system offers them nothing and they have to fight and struggle every inch of the way. This is where my attitude comes from.”