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Interview : 'I try to bring the law closer to movements'

Interview :
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Prof. Kalpana Kannabiran, a sociologist and legal researcher and currently Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad, is a recipient of the...

Prof. Kalpana Kannabiran, a sociologist and legal researcher and currently Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad, is a recipient of the newly constituted Dr Amartya Sen Award for Social Sciences in the discipline of Law. This is an e-mail interview with the winner of the prestigious Award. She is at present in the US on her research work

prof kalpanaWhat is the area of your work recognised for this Award? My primary effort has been to bring the social sciences and law closer to social movements. I have attempted to examine the possibilities of justice that may be realized through radical approaches to understanding, teaching and researching sociology, law and gender studies. This is to evolve a framework for justice that provides the tools to put in place the twin constitutional ideals of non- discrimination and freedom.

In attempting this, I have adopted an approach that is self-reflexive, critical and constructive. The basic idea is that we need to examine the idea of justice in all its complexity. Not in terms of personal gains and losses, but in terms of societal transformation towards greater equality. And there can be no 'trade-offs' in this.

I see this Award as an affirmation of the idea that justice must be at the centre of social science endeavor � and law is a tool that must be used creatively to further this larger goal. This way of seeing is my inheritance, which I have built on for over two decades through work of a very different kind � so the Award is a validation of that stupendous inheritance of ideas, commitment and determination that my father K G Kannabiran represented.

What is its significance? For over two decades now I have attempted to work at the intersection of social sciences, law, advocacy and public education on rights through social movements. In this, I have looked at the historical emergence of criminal jurisprudence through the colonial period in India � beginning with the early debates in colonial courts on the devadasi system, and continuing into the present time with looking at debates around sexual assault, the death penalty and a range of other issues.

While I have been concerned about diversity and social location, human rights in their intersections with law, I have also explored diversity in my publications. I think this combination is perhaps uncommon in formal academia, and yet so critical to the understanding of the relevance of the law and social sciences as areas of academic engagement.

The union government hopes that research of scholars like you will help in the formulation of policies. What do you think of it? My research over the years has focused on women's studies and gender studies bringing new dimensions to the understanding of violence against women; on the history of colonial jurisprudence with reference to the devadasi question that explores the politics of courtrooms and interpretive strategies; criminal jurisprudence, especially striking a different path in the understanding of criminology that looks again at social location, criminal procedure, patterns in punishment etc.; and most recently constitutional law. An important part of my writing has focused on the question of caste, rights of persons with disabilities, adivasis and sexual minorities.

The concern with violence has been a running thread through my entire writing, and I am currently engaged in editing a collection of original essays for a volume on Violence Studies for OUP, through which I hope to open this field up for deeper research in the social sciences in India.

Each piece of this work has direct implications for policy. Even more directly I was part of the Expert Group on the Equal Opportunity Commission set up by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India. We prepared a draft legislation to constitute an equal opportunity commission.

I continue to do work that has a direct bearing on policy � right to education with reference to indigenous tribal communities � especially Chenchus of Nallamalai, De-notified Tribes across the country, internally displaced communities on the AP-Chhattisgarh border; women's rights against sexual violence; the mapping of disability based discrimination in different locales in India; to name a few. The relevance is ever present. I hope for effective intervention and the promise of delivery.

Since India is in a pivotal position among developing countries, you think your research will be useful for other similar societies? I hope my work is relevant both to societies like ours and societies unlike ours. I am interested in the flow of ideas and in contributing to an environment that fosters debate and deliberation on the possible contours of Ambedkar's idea of constitutional morality. He only sketched it. It is for our generation and the coming ones to develop it in the spirit in which he proposes it.

A last word: In doing this kind of work, we need spaces that allow for a different kind of thinking and provide platforms for a debate of a different kind. Asmita, the women's collective that I co-founded has been that space for me. In the days when no university would give me a job, leave alone recognition, I was able to keep working at my ideas because there was a collective that was willing to debate them.

My initial writing on issues of public concern sprang from this collective thinking. So by the time I got my first job in a university, I had already explored a different path. When I gave up my job, dissatisfied with the lack of imagination in formal academic spaces, I returned to Asmita, where I spent a year and a half writing my book on constitutional law and discussing it. Considering the Award is for my contribution to law, this period was vital.

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