Menaka Guruswamy would like you to get a copy of her favourite book if you haven’t already. “It’s not racy but it’s fascinating. It’s not light reading, it’s rigorous,” she says, extracting a copy of the Constitution of India from a bookshelf. “This wonderful book told Indians to aspire for something that was unthinkable even a decade before it was written — the idea of equality,” she says.
That idea of equality expanded substantially when the Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code last year, effectively decriminalising homosexuality in India. Guruswamy was one of the lawyers to represent IIT students, graduate and alumni, from the LGBTQ+ community in court. In March, the 44-year-old was among 37 lawyers promoted to senior advocate by the Supreme Court. For her eloquent interventions in the courtroom, she — along with lawyer Arundhati Katju — was recently named among the 100 most influential people of 2019 by Time magazine.
At her chambers in south Delhi, Guruswamy keeps a small dokra statue on her table, of a tribal man holding baskets in a way that recalls the scales of justice. “It was a gift from a tribal community from Chhattisgarh after a case in 2013. I love that the statue is not blindfolded and that there is a sense of balance. Justice should have its eyes open,” she says. A photograph of a young Dr BR Ambedkar is also on the table, prompting one client to once ask, “Is that your grandfather?” “Yes,” Guruswamy had replied, “He is everybody’s grandfather.” An accompanying photograph is of Jawaharlal Nehru, sitting on a go-kart next to the Dutch prime minister, except that Guruswamy’s face has been photoshopped on the latter’s. “It was a gift from Arundhati (Katju) on my 40th birthday. I admire Nehru, so this picture is very cool,” she says.
These are the images that watched over her last year as she wrote her arguments against Section 377. Guruswamy famously told a five-judge bench, “How strongly must we love knowing we are unconvicted felons under Section 377? My Lords, this is love that must be constitutionally recognised, and not just sexual acts.” At present, she is helping unearth the truth about cases of the alleged 1,528 extra-judicial killings in Manipur as an amicus curiae in the case, Extra-Judicial Execution of Victim Families Association vs Union of India. “For the first time in this country, the CBI has filed 41 FIRs against security personnel,” says Guruswamy.
The daughter of economist Mohan Guruswamy and Meera, a copywriter at an ad agency, she was born in Hyderabad and lived there until she was in Class VIII, when her family moved to Delhi and she enrolled at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. Her grandfather, Krishna Reddy, was a lawyer who passed away before she was born.
As a youngster, Guruswamy wanted to become a backing singer for Madonna. “My cousins told me that my musical talent was a little sketchy,” she says. In 1992, Guruswamy was about to enrol for an economics degree, when her mother came across a news item about an institute started only five years before, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bengaluru. She suggested that Guruswamy apply. “From day one, I loved law. We studied subjects like, ‘What is law? What does it mean?’ I wasn’t crazy about how constitutional law was taught but, as I started reading it myself, I could see how interesting it was,” says Guruswamy. “Even if you go to law schools today, students have no real idea about the Constitution and its potential,” she says.
She graduated in 1997, went to work at the office of the Attorney General of India, Ashok Desai, where she was one of the three juniors who worked on the Jain hawala case and fodder scam case, among others. “It gave me a sense of what was possible with the law and still influences the kind of cases I take up now,” she says.
In 1998, Guruswamy won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. One of the first things she noticed was that the paintings on the university walls did not feature anyone who looked like her. “These things also form you. You realise that you may be the only brown person in the room but you need to get things done. In case of women’s representation in the Supreme Court, I don’t let it get me down. The bigger question is: How do you make institutions such as the Supreme Court more inclusive and diverse?” she says. In 2017, Guruswamy’s portrait was hung at Rhodes House in Oxford University, a first for an Indian.
She returned to India and took up cases, such as the Augusta Westland and the 2G spectrum. “Litigation is a lot like chess. You need logic and the ability to plan many moves ahead. Being a lawyer is not about being aggressive. It is about having a good roadmap of where you want to go,” she says.
As a BR Ambedkar Research Scholar and Lecturer at Columbia Law School, 2017-19, Guruswamy is ploughing ahead with “finding out what is happening in constitutions all over the world”. “How or why a constitution works (or doesn’t) tells you a lot about the people of the country,” she says.
She has argued for constitutional rights in path-breaking litigations such as the Right to Education for children of disadvantaged sections in private schools and freeing the bureaucracy from political influence. She has written essays and given talks on constitutional law and is finishing a book, South Asian Constitutionalism. “It’s not like sitting in your drawing room and talking about what is wrong. You can go to court and actually do something about what’s wrong. It is a huge gift to be able to have that kind of job,” she says.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘And Justice For All’