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With Journey to India, Students Bring Human Rights Research to Life

Kristin Flood (left) and Kate Flatley at the Taj Mahal.
Kristin Flood (left) and Kate Flatley at the Taj Mahal.

Listen to "Human Rights in India: A Presentation by the Cowan Fellows Human Rights Study Project," April 20, 2007
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by Emily Williams

Frequent terrorist attacks, human trafficking, police corruption, a refugee crisis, and widespread poverty aren’t usually words used in concert with “democracy,” yet they are problems that can exist in any democracy, even the largest in the world: India. Armed with a semester’s worth of research and preparation, members of the Law School’s Cowan Fellows Human Rights Study Project set off to the other side of the world in January to investigate human rights in the paradoxical nation, where media portrayals of a booming economy, rich cultural heritage, and a population of more than one billion often overshadow deeper problems.

Despite India’s regional and global influence, human rights concerns pose challenges in every corner of the country, which makes for an active public interest legal community and an ideal case study for students. The eight-member group had the opportunity to literally knock on the doors of organizations and speak to people involved in the human rights issues they were researching, adding new dimension to their studies.

“It put a lot of things in context; it changed each of our understandings of what it is to be a lawyer and what human rights are,” said third-year Melany Grout. “Each of those things will have a really permanent effect on us. We are going to be lawyers for many years to come and [this trip is] definitely going become part of our identity as lawyers.”

The three-week expedition marked the fifth trip abroad for the student-run organization. In previous years, student teams traveled to China, Syria and Lebanon, Sierra Leone, and Cuba over spring or winter break. The students who took the journey will use the research they collected for independent study credit as well as to compile their findings into a publication. The group is also planning to present its findings to the Law School community and later to an undergraduate audience.

The students worked out of the basement office of a nongovernmental organization for the first few days to get their bearings and begin planning their meetings. From there they dispersed to the cities of Ahmadabad, Baroda, Kolkata, Chennai, Kanchipuram, Mammalapuram, Mumbai, Pondicherry, and Thiruvanamalla. In all, they went to 120 meetings and interviews.

Meredith Horton and Ryan Harvey tour a temporary settlement for displaced tsunami victims.

Meredith Horton and Ryan Harvey tour a temporary settlement for displaced tsunami victims.

Several students focused on the violence all too common in India. This March marks the fifth anniversary of the Gujarat riots, during which 2,000 to 3,000 people — most of whom were Muslim — were killed. Second-year law student Kate Flatley traveled to the area and to Mumbai to research communal violence and transitional justice. “I’m looking at different mechanisms to provide justice to the victims, for instance bringing in judges and prosecutors from outside the state of Gujarat with the aim of providing trials that are free from political influence,” Flatley explained. She’s also examining how other countries have dealt with similar violence.

“I had expected there to be reluctance to meet with us—we’re a group of students from the U.S. who don’t know historically a lot about India. We don’t have a cultural understanding of India. People were so open to speak with us. They spoke with us about the challenges they are facing and the situation there. They were very generous with their time.”

Classmate Jim Evans accompanied Flatley to Ahmadabad, where he researched police reforms with respect to communal violence. Such reforms have been part of the public dialogue since the 2006 decision by the Indian Supreme Court that central and state governments must implement police reforms to increase accountability for misconduct and separate policing from politics. The Supreme Court and the states are now debating what the decision means.

“It was a great time to be there because in the newspaper everyday there were two or three different articles that were directly related to what I was doing,” Evans said.

Evans explained that the police force in India is an extension of the political party in power, which has led to racism, corruption, and gender and religious violence. He talked to attorneys and groups advocating for police reform. “One of the best interviews I had was with a high-ranking police official in the state of Gujarat. He was actually one of the few police officers who stood up to intervene for the victims during the rioting. He’s been essentially blackballed because of it. He is due a promotion that he will never get. He’s testified against the state government for their role in the rioting.”

Grout focused on anti-terrorism legislation and policies that affect civil and political rights. “I’m really interested in national security law and policy and its intersection with human rights,” she said.

Cowan Fellows Group Shot

Left to right, back row: Melany Grout, Kate Flatley, Ryan Harvey, Meredith Horton, Jim Evans, and Fiona McKinnon. Front Row: Becky Barnes and Kristin Flood.

Grout met with groups involved at all levels of advocacy and involvement with anti-terrorism legislation. The constant level of violence in India is unimaginable to most Americans, she explained. Last year, India was second only to Iraq in the number of fatalities caused by terrorism. Those she met “brought the human element—the advocacy element—back to the project. Seeing what it means to real people and to lawyers who are actually in the battle [was important],” she said.

Two natural disasters, the tsunami that devastated South Asia in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina that hit the United States in 2005, provided the backdrop for third-year Meredith Horton’s research. She spent a week in New Orleans after Katrina, which sparked her interest in disaster relief in India. Horton spent the bulk of her time on the southeast coast, touring the hardest hit areas and investigating whether human rights standards are being followed and enforced during the ongoing relief and recovery period.

“A lot of communities whose homes were wiped out were relocated to temporary settlements, and I was able to see some of those,” she said. “Certainly, a lot has been done. The tsunami hit the coast on December 26, 2004, so progress has definitely been made; however, it’s quite apparent when you’re on the ground that there are a lot of issues yet to be resolved. Right now, housing reconstruction is clearly the biggest issue.”

Some villages have been relocated so far from the original site that it has affected residents’ livelihoods. Coastal villages depend on the fishing industry to survive, so having to carry boats a mile to get to water “tears away at the fabric of the community,” Horton said.

Horton met with NGOs, attended village meetings and spoke with some village leaders, one of the highlights of her trip. “I think there are many cultural and political nuances that you can’t really pick up from sitting in the States searching through Lexis or Westlaw. The ability to travel to the places of the focus of your research just adds to the richness of your project.”

Second-year Kristin Flood talked to human rights NGOs, academics, feminist organizations, children’s shelters, and children’s help lines in the red-light districts of New Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai for her research on human trafficking with the purpose of sexual exploitation. In the poorest areas of the country it’s not uncommon for people to sell family members into the sex trade, including children. Flood believes the problem stems from poverty.

“You get a totally different picture when you are talking with [the people affected] because the law is enforced differently than it’s written,” she said. “It was really interesting finding out where people thought the law was lacking, where the law was good but not being enforced, where the other problems were that may not be visible.”

The right to water is a developing notion in international and human rights law, including in India.

The Indian Supreme Court and other organizations are constantly reinterpreting the matter, said second-year Ryan Harvey, who explored the issue in Ahmadabad, Mumbai, and Chennai. “Water has always been an issue in India because there are areas of desert and then there are areas of great, flooding rivers,” he said. Harvey looked at three related legal issues: dams, pollution, and access to water.

His meetings with community and religious leaders, academics, reporters, NGOs, and grass-roots activists led him to cities and rural villages. One meeting in particular with a water rights activist gave him information and reports that he would not be able to find in a library. The activist’s involvement in water rights in India was inspiring to Harvey.

The students returned from the trip exhausted but having mastered the art of networking for meetings, gathering information for their reports, and doing business in unfamiliar surroundings. “I think toward the end of the trip you get used to [the new environment] and you start to realize it’s an entirely different way of life, a different way of doing business, a different way of getting around,” said Barnes. “It opens you up to the possibility that there’s more than one way to live life. I think anytime you’re in a foreign context you learn as much about how to do things as you do about what you’re researching.”

The final hurdle for the students was to pay for the trip, which totaled close to $23,000. Although students engaged in various fundraising activities throughout the year, the support of Cam ’81 and P.J. Cowan, for whom the fellows are named, subsidized the students’ travel and other expenses.