Prashant Bhushan: "Engage in issues of public interest!"
Mahesh Peri, 06 Jan 2014

WHENEVER the common man gives up hope, it is time for this soft-spoken lawyer to act. Where powerful people and institutions collude, this lone voice reverberates in court rooms.

For many, he is India’s conscience keeper. Prashant Bhushan, senior advocate at the Supreme Court, is a beacon of hope for all those who do not have the stamina to engage and challenge the system, judicially. In a candid interview with Maheshwar Peri of Careers360, he shares his motivations, his advice for today’s Law graduates and his faith in the change that is shaking up the nation.

During your college days you took up Philosophy, jumped into law, can you describe your journey?
A: My career has been somewhat convoluted. I went to study Engineering at IIT-Madras but quit after one semester. I realized my interest was not in engineering; it was in Physics. Secondly, I was very homesick because I had a two-year-old sister to whom I was very attached at that time.   I decided to do a two-year BSc programme with Philosophy, Economics and Political Science in Allahabad.

During 1974-76 Mrs. Gandhi’s election case taking place. I attended the hearings both in Allahabad and the Supreme Court. Of course, I was only seeing a small part of Law because this was a high profile case.   So I went to study Law and for  next three years pursued it evenwhile  informally continuing study  of Philosophy and Physics. Since  I still wanted to become a Philosopher,  I applied  and got admission with a scholarship in Princeton. I realised the kind of people in the field of academics even there were basically playing intellectual games without really improving anything.  It had become a word game. And, I didn’t want to play that game. So, I decided to come back. I took my final exam after coming back. I enrolled in ’83 and became a lawyer.  

Q: Is it a default option that for most people when the parents are in a particular profession, it becomes easier to enter that kind of space?
A: It is particularly so in Law. You have several advantages if your father is a lawyer. You have the infrastructure available to you. You start getting some clients because of your father. So, it is certainly a very big advantage.    

Q: But, the way you conducted yourself in the legal profession is different. Many lawyers opt for criminal, civil or corporate law which earns you lots of money. What actually motivated you to be different?   
A: I was always interested and sensitised towards human rights, environmental issues. Vandana Shiva came to me in 1983. She wanted somebody with an understanding of Science for her case. I took up that Doon valley mining case which was the first Public interest case I did. It was really an environmental case. Thereafter, I got interested in Human Rights. In ’84 the riots took place. I became a member of PUCL, took up those issues. Bhopal litigation was going on where the issue of compensation first came to the Supreme Court in 1988. I was approached by the Bhopal Mahila Sahayog Sanghathan and I took up that case.

My interest became very wide and varied. When any issue of Public interest arose, whether it pertained to civil liberty, human rights, corruption, environmental issues or socio-economic rights of the poor, I would willingly  get involved. Also, Bofors deal was unraveling at that time. I started following that. I wrote a book about it which was published in 1990. Incidentally, I wrote a book about the Mrs. Gandhi’s corruption case.  

Q: Moving more into education, this area generates very high number of consumer complaints. Is putting Education in the Concurrent List a mistake in that sense? 
A: No, I don’t think it is a mistake. We are seeing enormous corruption in the regulatory bodies of education. Medical Counci, AICTE particularly in terms of professional colleges have a lot of potential for money. There are conflicts of interests. Secondly, we don’t have any proper, independent, honest, strong anti-corruption institutions. CBI itself is controlled by the Government. Big educational institution scams have influential people of the government involved. CBI doesn’t pursue cases against these kinds of Educational bodies.

Q: That is another big issue. When Tri-Valley happened in the US most of us in India were outraged that those who actually got student’s visas were being ill-treated. There are so many Tri-Valley-like institutes in India which give sham, fake degrees. Nobody talks about that.   
A: That is true.  Such a huge vested interest has been created. Very powerful people are involved.  Ketan Desai is a good example of a thoroughly corrupt man presiding over a corrupt institution. But, he became so powerful.  Even today, his enrollment has not been cancelled because he has powerful connections.  (He refers to Dr.Ketan Desai, the erstwhile Chief  of the now defunct Medical Council of India who is arrested for allegedly taking bribe to facilitate  medical collge approvals Ed.).

QYou also interact  with Delhi University’s Law graduates. How do you see them today as compared to say thirty years back when you were a student? 
A:  There is a difference. In my times, Law was not a very attractive profession. Law schools usually had the worst students. Now, with the coming up of five-year law colleges and proliferation of law firms in the country things have changed. The are better in terms of quality, the Bangalore Law School pioneered that, people are coming to law schools and a lot of money is there in the profession. 

Q:  But, in terms of idealism, is it the same?
A:  You have slightly better quality Law students coming in and coming out of these professional Law schools.  On the other hand, this whole race has become a way of making money. People come in for money and glamour, not necessarily for idealism.

Q:  Coming back to the laymen of this country, how do you defend a person like Kasab?
A: I am essentially a Public interest lawyer. However, in my view, everybody is entitled to a defence. If anything can be said to defend an accused, it should be said. If there is nothing that can be said then, of course, you don’t present falsehoods.
Q: You are starting an institute in Palampur to educate young people on Public Policies. What’s the objective, when will the institute start and how can people join these kinds of institutes?
A: The objective is to educate, motivate a new generation of young people to engage with issues of Public Policy, and try and steer public policy towards public interest. Today, public policies are being largely influenced and controlled by commercial, vested interests. Very few people are in a position to counter them. They have a direct vested interest. They have money also. Money stakes are involved so they employ professionals like Nira Radia to do that, steering public policy in their interest. It is important to have a cadre of young people who understand public issues.  

Q: Is this for freshers or can experienced people also join?
A: It is mainly for people in the age groups of 18-30. Even older people can join. There will be three kinds of programmes. Summer programmes for 6-8 weeks will be essentially for students. There will be a core programme for ten months for educating and motivating people who show serious interest in spending time and energy on these issues.  Then, there will be issue-based seminars and workshops, which will be on specific aspects of public policies.

Q: If a set of students were to approach Center for Public interest litigation (CPIL), would CPIL be interested in taking up something that would have a larger ramification?
A: Certainly. We already do it. We don’t charge any fees for it. We take up so many issues and if it has larger ramifications for the education system, we will certainly do it.

Q You’ve been a part of this process of taking on the establishment on so many issues.  Did you at any point feel frustrated or wanted to just give up and walk out of this whole thing?
A: No, I have not felt the need to walk out. I have felt frustrated occasionally. My work is not merely in the courts. I work with a large number of organisations outside courts in terms of advocacy and strategic advice. I find that outcomes in the courts are sometimes quite frustrating but at other times it is also heartening. We are currently in a good phase in terms of activism in the Supreme Court. Outside the court you are always heartened to see that activism is alive and kicking in this country. That’s what sort of keeps you going. You realise there are a large number of people who are extremely talented and gifted, and who spend day and night in public interest issues, living in extremely difficult circumstances, who are making a real difference.

Q: What is your advice to students who are taking up Law and issues of public interest?  How should they go about it?
A: Do not look at Law as a means for making money. Look at law as an instrument for securing justice to people. Engage in issues of public interest. One of the great things of being a public interest lawyer is that you come to learn about a large number of important public issues from the persons who are experts in the field on a one-to-one basis, something you could never do otherwise. It’s a very rich and rewarding experience.   

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