Public Interest Litigation

One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards


With the introduction of the concept of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the late 1970s direct access for citizens was provided to the High Courts as well as the Supreme Court. Progressive judges such as Justice P.N.Bhagwati began to actively encourage social and political activists to bring instances of injustice to exploited groups and vulnerable individuals directly to the notice of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had even ruled that letters to it could be treated as petitions. Poor prisoners, inmates of Nariniketans, marginalised tribals, bonded labourers and similar groups whose voices had never reached the citadels of power began to get a hearing in the highest court in the land through social workers and political activists who brought their cases from remote regions to the country’s apex court. For a brief period it appeared that one didn’t need to hire expensive lawyers or follow long cumbersome procedures to get the voice of the poor heard in the Supreme Court. A few sympathetic judges even made allowances for the activists who tried to plead the cases directly without the mediation of lawyers. However, what was most encouraging was that there was no difficulty in getting some of the best lawyers to take on these cases gratis or for only a nominal fee.

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Politics Triumphs over Justice

Supreme Court Judgement on Tribal Women’s Land Rights

1698719535New ImageWe reproduce below the text of the Supreme Court judgement in a case filed in August 1982 by Madhu Kishwar and Ho tribal woman Maki Bui challenging the denial of land rights to tribal women.

Click here for judgement

Claiming Land Rights for Women

Lessons Learnt from two Different Endeavours to Help Women Claim Share of Family Land

15036967591954817453Untitled-1.psdA chance encounter with a 55-year-old Ho tribal woman in Lonjo village, Jharkhand, was a life transforming experience for me. In 1981, Jharkhand, then part of Bihar, was witnessing a tribal movement to reclaim forest rights. A reign of terror was unleashed with mass arrests and rapes of women by the police and paramilitary forces. Around this time, a group of activists had invited me to document atrocities against women as part of an all-women team.

After intensively working with victims of domestic violence in Delhi, we at Manushi came to the conclusion that the fragile and uncertain rights of women in their parental property make them easy targets of violence. Even within communities where women are the economic mainstay of the family and run farm operations and the village economy without much help from men, women find it difficult to hold on to landed property if they have no men in the family – sons, brothers or husband — to bolster their claim.

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