Mihir Desai is an eminent human rights lawyer in cases of mass murders & riots, fake encounter & custodial deaths by the police, police brutality, freedom of speech & journalists, political activists & prisoners of conscience, excesses by the state, mass disappearances & deaths and genocide probes. A senior counsel, he has been practicing criminal matters in the High Court of Mumbai and the Supreme Court of India.
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Why did you decide to pursue a career in law?
I thought that this is a good way to help people. Basically I come from a human rights background. So I thought law is one area in which I could contribute to the maximum.
How did your interest come in Human Rights?
I belong to a family which was quite liberal and quite active on these issues. So from the beginning I was brought up in an environment where human right issues were always important. So that is how I got interested in Human Rights.
You worked at the office of Indira Jaising for two years. How did you get there and how was your experience?
I knew her before I started working with her because of the human right activities which I was following. I was active in the trade union, so that’s how I got to know her. And further decided to practice with her. For about two-three years I worked with her as a junior.
It was a very good experience with her. I learnt a lot, both in terms of research and arguments.
Role of academics in becoming a good lawyer.
Academics is always useful. You can become a very good lawyer without being academically very sound but the fact is, normally academic knowledge on issues always helps in preparing better for a court case. So the more knowledge is always better.
What skills are required to become a successful human rights lawyer?
Firstly, you should be a competent lawyer, you need to do work hard. You need to empathize with people. You need to be sensitive to the issues of the people.
You have also co-founded Human Rights Law Network. How did the idea come into your mind?
We were of the opinion that there are a number of lawyers across the country who are doing in their own way human rights work and their needed to be some kind of network organization which helps all these lawyers to come together and interact with each other so that people don’t feel isolated, they should feel that they are working together for a good common cause.
How much impact do you think the human rights organizations has made, in safeguarding the human rights of people in India; especially in conflicted areas like South Chhattisgarh and Kashmir?
People have been fighting, people have been struggling and human rights organization has played a very important role, both the human rights organization as well as human rights lawyers, especially in Chhattisgarh, played a very important role. They have also played an important role in Kashmir and North East. The success is limited but because of their work a lot of benefits have come to the people.
Sometimes it seems with all their untiring efforts, Human Rights Organizations are not able to change the fate of the civilians? How do you look at it?
The situation is becoming from bad to worse in terms of human rights. Human rights organization have had a limited impact and effect, they have been able to change some things but they have not been able to effect many others. It’s very important to have a voice of dissent and therefore human rights organization have been protesting and opposing various moves, sometimes they are successful but many times they are not. So human rights organization have very limited success in the Indian context.
What is the future of Human Rights in India?
Future is always bright as long as people are protesting, struggling and raising their voice, till that time the future is bright. But I also fear that from the present government there is a strong attack on Human Rights and one needs to combine together and act together to fight back.
I was told by a lawyer that “NLUs are market oriented. They are basically catering lawyers for law firms and MNCs. They do not train students to think critically or make them grow intellectually”. How do you look at it?
Yes, that is true. But you also have some good people coming out and doing human rights work from National Law Schools. That is also happening. There may be thousands of people joining these corporate houses but there are also a small number of people who come out and do civil work, etc.
Several students claim that the act of banning social networking sites on the University Wi-Fi is curtailment of their freedom of speech and expression. Your comments.
I totally agree with that. It is an assault on freedom of speech and expression.
Colleges/Universities should stop behaving like moral police.
Corruption in judiciary has not been discussed widely. However, the issue has been raised many times (recently by Markandey Katju and Justice Karnan). Your views on it?
There is corruption. No one can dispute the fact that there is corruption in our judiciary. There needs to be a transparency and accountability, which is much less than what it should be. Even if you know someone, it’s very difficult to prove corruption, first of all. Even if you are able to do it; you will not be able to attack it because of the lack of transparency.
Do you ever think that you would have become more successful had you not focused on human rights but opened up to all kind of cases instead?
It depends on how you define success. I am really happy with my life right now and I don’t think I would have been happier. Success is defined in terms of happiness.
Your mother was also a social worker and political activist. Would you like to share some profound memories with her?
My mother was always a non-interfering kind of person in the house. She allowed me to do whatever experiments I wanted to do and she actually set an example of how a working woman can be an excellent mother.
What would be your parting message to law students across India?
I personally feel that in the present day and age every student must devote sometime to human rights work.
Sir, in our generation people are more focussed on corporate jobs. Your take on this?
Every generation is. It was same even 50 years back. There is nothing to do with generation. Every generation is always focused on economic aspect. But you will have some people who will work for civil liberty issues…I don’t have any problem with people being focused on their career and all that, as long as they devote some time to human right issues.