An Agent of Change with Karuna Nundy

An advocate at the Supreme Court of India and an international human rights lawyer, Karuna Nundy, who is also in the TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2022; was the guest on The Navhind Times’, Talk from the Heart show that aired on Sunday, May 28 on the Goa 365 channel.

Nundy has helped shape and redefine legislation especially around gender justice and freedom of speech in India. She has argued cases involving the rights of alleged terrorists, mentally ill people and class actions on sexual harassment. Most recently, she is litigating a challenge to India’s rape law that contains a legal exemption for marital rape. On the show, she spoke expansively on reforms made and need to be made for women in the country.

Explaining the law-making process, she clarified that laws are formulated by the Parliament and at the state level by Legislative Assemblies and Councils. The role of the courts, she said is to protect fundamental rights of the people. Giving many examples, she highlighted the function of the judiciary in interpreting the law, settling disputes and administering justice to all its citizens. “The reason the constitution of India exists is to protect my rights, even if I am in a very small minority of one,” she stated and added, “This is why our constitution is such a beautiful and noble thing.

A die-hard constitutionalist, Nundy fearlessly takes on corporations and governments when it comes to protecting people’s rights. With the number of cases that come her way, she uses a unique strategy when it comes to deciding which fights to take on. “When a particular case comes to me, I look at a number of things,” she said. “One is that I have to feel I can partner with this client, have faith in the case and be able to stand by and with him/her. Secondly, if it’s a rights’ case then the deciding factor is the quantum of impact that the case will have and thirdly is the fee structure, if it can be borne by the client or not.

Known as a feminist superhero, Nundy has been using her voice bravely not just in court but outside the courtroom as well to bring about much needed change. Asked what other changes/reforms besides the present ones were needed to uplift women, she answered emphatically, “There are so many but the top priority should really be for the central and state governments to take the most important laws that deal with women’s rights and set up local area committees so if work-place committees are biased, women have some one to turn to.” Another need she pointed out to, was setting up government-supported shelters for women.

Property rights of women was another important topic that was discussed on the show. “Succession of property depends on which religion you come from. In the Hindu Succession act, there is an illusion that the amendment of 2005, which says that girls will inherit equally as boys, removed the patriarchy from that act. Sadly, however, it did not. Because for example, if a woman dies then where does her property go? If in the first instance, it does not go to her children then it goes to her husband’s family. What happens if it is self-acquired property? It just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “The rules are archaic and need to be changed.” She added.

With regards to the reforms in the anti-rape bill that she has helped to draft, the most significant aspect she highlighted was the expansion of the definition of rape. “Another extremely noteworthy change is section 166A which requires police officers to register rape and other sexual assault cases and if they do not, they themselves can be prosecuted criminally.

The Indian judiciary still remains a man’s world. Since its inception in 1950, the Supreme Court has had only a few female judges and the presence of female lawyers inside courts is still not very common. Commenting on this imbalance, Nundy said, “Changes have definitely come in, thanks to some important members who have pushed to make the judiciary more representative of the demographics of society. It is a slow process but it is progressing.” Preparing for a case robustly with a strong legal strategy and presenting it creatively is how she addresses and deals with the challenge.