Justice DY Chandrachud: Law as a force for social justice

Speak truth to power, maintain your composure in the face of unspeakable social injustices and utilise your good fortune and privileged positions to remedy them

DY ChandrachudUpdated: Tuesday, August 09, 2022, 04:30 PM IST
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Convocation speeches are always difficult because I do realise that I am speaking to a crowd which is simultaneously dealing with complex emotions of happiness, accomplishment, nostalgia and also a little bit of sadness. Unfortunately, my specialisation tends to be more towards the area of law, lectures on which are generally believed to be drab, emotionless and lectures which I believe you have received enough in your half a decade at law school.

However, unlike the stoic image of law that is generally represented as a mark of a good judge or lawyer, I do want to clarify that the characterisation of emotions as a force that warps and degrades judgment is incorrect. As critical legal scholars have explored through their scholarship over the past two decades, understanding emotion is an essential part of building a fairer, more effective system. While emotions may lead us astray, they also play a crucial role in sense-making and decision-making. Even the assumptions of emotions leading individuals astray have more frequently been applied to individuals and groups with marginalised status, primarily individuals and groups lacking social, economic, educational or political capital.

My next piece of advice is drawn from Professor Quigley’s “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice” which I think is applicable to all law students – remember to not confuse law and justice. A lot of work which leads to achieving justice within law also happens outside law in terms of social movements, shaping politics and cultural understanding. At many points in your career you will realise that what is legal is probably unjust, whereas what is just may not be legal. However, this is where your law school training of learning to critique the law will come in handy. I hope many of you will either pursue a career or have opportunities in your career to participate in working towards social justice and furthering rights. Of course, I understand that pursuing such a career trajectory is not for everyone. In fact, for many, the low pay which accompanies such practice not only makes rights litigation an unlikely but an impossible choice. Many students come from impoverished backgrounds. They or their families may have taken loans to fund university education. They are compelled to take high-paying jobs to pay off their loans. Further, for many students from marginalised backgrounds, financially lucrative jobs bring social mobility. But one can promote constitutional values and social justice if you imbibe constitutional morality in the way you conduct your professional life, regardless of the career you pursue.

At all the junctures where you do have the opportunity of working towards social justice and furthering rights in small and big ways, you must remember the importance of differentiating between law and justice, and critiquing the law as a step to advance justice. Neeti, in other words, does not always result in Nyaya. Along with this critique, it is important to simultaneously look for the ways in which laws can be reimagined and redefined to make them better and more just. The re-interpretation of law takes place as much through the lawyer’s vision as through the judge’s craft.

In this process as well as in anything you do in life, you will have moments of doubt and times when you confront failure. The more exciting, adventurous paths you choose in life, the more probable failure becomes. So always remember to not be afraid of failure. As a matter of fact, if you are not trying to achieve things where you are failing, you are probably not even trying to meet your potential because it is only at that edge where you will receive equal amounts of success and failure. Furthermore, especially in our profession, it may not be even a sign of that but just sheer bad luck. And if you are in the space of social lawyering, always remember that never has justice been achieved in any movement without encountering failure, criticism or chaos.

It also helps to remember, especially in the world of social media with limited attention spans, that a lot of work we do will only have long-term impact. And that you should not worry too much about the everyday distractions that will come in your path. Seth Godin talks about this beautifully using the analogy of the current and the wind and I quote:

“The wind gets all the attention. The wind howls and the wind gusts… But the wind is light. The current, on the other hand is persistent and heavy. On a river, it’s the current that will move the canoe far more than the wind will. But the wind distracts us. Back on land, the current looks like the educational industrial complex, or the network effect or the ratchet of Moore’s Law and the cultural trends that last for decades. The current is our persistent systems of class and race and gender and the powerful industrial economy.”

And if I may add, in our context also caste.

“It can be overcome, but it takes focused effort. On the other hand, the wind is the breaking news of the moment, the latest social media sensation and the thin layer of hype that surrounds us. It might be a useful distraction, but our real work lies in overcoming the current, or changing it. It helps to see it first, and to ignore the wind when we can.”

This is especially relevant to remember in today’s world, with polarising opinions and conflicting actions. Legitimising and balancing thought can only be termed as a grave responsibility of each citizen - young and old.

The words famously attributed to Voltaire — “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it” — must be incorporated into our being. Make no mistake — being accepting and tolerant of the opinions of others by no means translates into blind conformity and it does not mean not standing against hate speech. Stepping into the world as fresh graduates, amidst the increasing noise and confusion of political, social and moral clashes of ideology, you must be guided by the paths of your conscience and equitable reason. Speak truth to power, maintain your composure in the face of unspeakable social injustices and utilise your good fortune and privileged positions to remedy them. It may seem idealistic, but as young wide-eyed graduates, you must aspire to attain utopia - for the harbingers of change are often hopeless dreamers.

This is an edited version of the speech Dr Justice DY Chandrachud, Judge, Supreme Court of India, delivered at the convocation of the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, on August 6, 2022.

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