Taking Suffering Seriously

On many issues, I’m not what you’d call a “bleeding-heart liberal.” But I purloined the caption for this post from Professor Baxi’s famous piece on public interest litigation in India. I’m using it to reflect on this article in today’s Hindu about this old woman in Chennai. It was quite heart-wrenching to read. It talks about how an old, old woman (an unbelievably ancient 112 according to the article) who was beaten-up by goondas and thrown out of her dwellings. She sought justice and got none — until recently when two young lawyers noticed her plight. Through their intervention, the Tamil Nadu legal aid folks have taken up her cause in court. And I do hope she prevails.

I first grew angry reading this story. It reminds me that, despite our recent economic achievements, we have a long way to go in providing a stable and secure social-security framework for all our people, especially our citizens. You don’t have to be a communist to realize the importance of providing such benefits. Indeed, an important measure of a country’s progress and economic development is how it cares for its elderly and retirees. This woman had no where to go, and no one cared for her. Surely our society (and it does not have to be the government) can do much more for people like her.

But there is a glimmer of hope in this article too. It shows that, despite its shortcomings and failures, our judicial system does protect about the poor, the infirm, and the underprivileged. The actions of the two lawyers (my heroes for today) who found this woman and the judge who promptly took the case reveals that our much-maligned profession does have a very noble side to it. They remind me of why many of us (speaking for myself, at least) were attracted to law school in the first place. Growing up in India, it is hard to avoid visible manifestations of injustice, deprivation, and misery in daily life. Suffering and struggle are present everywhere you go — in great measure and with discomforting frequency.

The idealists among us thought legal education would enable us make a difference. Law School would equip us with the skills to end these outrages and make our India a better place. The less motivated (but also concerned) ones became lawyers to quench that dismaying sense of guilt about these problems. As our careers have progressed, many of us, me included, have strayed into other more seemingly attractive avenues. Yet, these wanderings have not extinguished that burning desire in us to demand that justice be done. Stories, such as this one, suggest that we, as lawyers, have so much more to do. What Nehru said paraphrasing the Mahatma is probably apt to quote in this context:

The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every
tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears
and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

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