Sunday, July 27, 2014 8 comments

LEGAL (IL)LITERACY



My daughter was talking to me about a senior of hers from school whose parents had divorced and who lived with his mother.  Apparently his mother travelled abroad a lot and he was alone for long periods of time. Curious, I asked her what his mother did for a living. 

“Oh I don’t know. Must be living off her alimony” she said dismissively!  I asked her if she knew what was meant by “alimony”. She fumbled and then went on to give me an explanation (  sprinkling in words like “child support” )  that seemed like something straight out of some American sitcom- about income that women who were into “serial marriages” and “milking” the ex husbands  earned to maintain a certain life style.  That explained her dismissive tone I guessed.

I then offered to tell her another story – about a friend of mine who is also divorced and living with a son about the same age. My friend is  a Ph.D  and working at a reputed Indian university. Her son is a brilliant student and keen on studying abroad in an American University. But foreign education as we all know is very expensive especially at the undergraduate level as there are almost no scholarships available to foreign students. The father of this boy is very well to do. However he is very non committal about supporting his son’s education abroad.   I told my daughter about the mother’s dilemma -  how  was she going to raise the money to support the boy’s education abroad? She has been planning to sell the house she lives in to finance his studies.

My little young lady was shocked!! “But how can that be? Why can’t the father support his son? Can’t the courts make him support the boy’s education” she asked indignantly. I had to explain to her that in the Indian context, family law was very different. While divorced women were entitled to “maintenance”  there was no clear stipulation about the amount and what were the further financial commitments  involving children in this regard. A lot of men got away with paying nothing to their ex wives.  There went crashing down, my daughter’s image of a glamorous ex wife from “Desperate housewives” ! 

While a school girl’s ignorance about this is excusable, I have been thinking about how little  all of us, even adults,  seem to know about our laws though we are very vociferous about having a uniform civil code! However, few of us would admit to knowing so little.  I don’t think it is embarrassment  that holds us back but ignorance about our own ignorance. We seem to think we know enough but actually it is not so. 

I think much of this false impression about our legal knowledge , especially among the educated English speaking middle class  comes from the fact that what we consider as “legal knowledge” is not knowledge pertaining to the legal system in India but the US. The media is flooded with American sitcoms like “Boston legal” “ Good Wife” etc which are all about legal matters. And then there are those books written by  John Grisham.  We lap them all up and then live in cuckoo land thinking that our judicial system must be like that!!! And  of course our education system being so lopsided towards science does not educate any  young person adequately on the judicial system in the country.  I will not be surprised if I were to do a random survey among  IT professionals in their mid twenties asking if we had “Trial by jury” in India and get a response of “Yes” from a 50% and “Don’t know” from about 40%!!

The Indian legal system is a legacy of the colonial times. It has some antiquated laws yet, some very progressive ones.  For instance, if you take the law on Bigamy - any man who is married to two women at the same time is said to have committed Bigamy and his second relationship does not have any legal sanction. Our Indian laws however, give children born out of wedlock rights on all property that is earned by the father/ mother ( not inherited property) as the law believes that children are not responsible for their parent’s actions. 

But it is appalling how our films and TV serials interpret the law!  It is almost as though the law is put in to justify the plot and not vice versa . For e.g in a Bigamy situation, the teary eyed first wife is made to sign a legal document that is supposed to be giving her husband “permission” to marry a second time.  Such portrayals make many people in India think that a man may marry a second time if his first wife permits him to. This is actually rubbish!! What that legal document the first wife in a film or a serial is made to sign is in essence a “No objection “ document because if at all anyone can take the man to task legally for marrying a second time it is Wife no 1 !!. The document is only a safeguard against such a future action.  Similarly no abandoned children of a man can be denied any part of the property earned by him ! 

I don’t know if there is some way by which legal action can be brought against the makers of such films/serials for presenting the law wrongly. But in a country that has a lot of more serious legal transgressions, I guess this is trivial!

I wish all these people who are now fighting about “preserving Indian culture and values” would focus their energies on “educating Indians about Indian laws”. It is not enough to have it put together in civics text books in the classes VIII to X only to have them wiped clean out of the mind as the students read “more important  concepts”  like Archimedes Principle and Faraday’s law  beyond their Xth. Legal education needs to come out of books and into mainstream media in a way that people understand it better. 

Despite the fact that the US is a more litigious society than ours, we still cannot deny that we would not need the legal system at some point in our lives. So, how prepared are we for that? A court room scene with a black robed judge shouting “Order order” or a loud mouthed lawyer shouting “Objection  milord” is not sufficient. We need to know why the judge let out the hero saying  Ba izzat bari kiya jata hai” before we see “THE END” flashing on the screen with the title song playing in the background. 

Movies like “Jolly LLB” came close to depicting the law for what it actually is- the crammed district courts etc. But I am yet to see a movie that is about a good Public Interest Litigation like “Erin Brocovich”.  It is not that there have been so such judgments. It is just that there is a dearth of good film makers who can present the law correctly and in an entertaining / interesting manner.  Until we have that the illiterate /poorly educated would get cheated of their rights  while the English educated  Indians might just want to know why someone does not invoke the “Fifth Amendment” around a trial proceeding  if some is treated unfairly in the legal process!!!
Tuesday, July 15, 2014 6 comments

LESSER AMONG EQUALS



Life has a way of coming back to you full circle!!

Twenty  years ago,  I remember being asked again and again why did I have to go to Bombay to study “Social work”?  And yes, did “Social work” actually qualify as a study stream?  While in Bombay  peers at the same institution doing Personnel Management often made sarcastic  remarks about those of us in the social work department.  It was annoying but considering that there were over  sixty of us  in the Social work department  one did not have to deal with it alone. 

Today the circle was completed. My daughter came home from school seething in anger!  A 12th standard student ,she is one of the two  in her class who has taken an elective course in English Literature.  She has  two tests coming up on Thursday – History and Literature.  When she told a classmate that Tuesday and Wednesday were going to be difficult days trying to study for two tests coming up on Thursday, the girl asked her if Literature actually needed any  ‘studying’!!!  

I think she handled this quip better than how I might have handled it at her age.  She explained calmly to this girl that Literature is not just about reading “story books” . One had to understand , analyze and interpret it in one’s  own way, making references to other interpretations!! But the anger was  there  bubbling just  below the surface!  I realize that came from the fact that the question had not come from a science student but from a fellow student in the Humanities class!!  I guess this is something that she has to come to terms with if she is going to major in English Literature as she plans.  A lot of people are going to tell her  that she is “wasting her time” or worse ! 

I think one of the problems with our education system is the way it assigns value to courses. Students doing certain courses are considered to be “brighter” than others. In the assigned hierarchy of courses within the  Indian school system,  Humanities and social sciences get the lower rank. Subjects like Literature probably have the distinction of being the lowest among the low rated courses.  It is not something that we can  change.  But I think  what this experience has taught her is to stand by what she believes in  and explain her stand. 

It is sad that a country like ours that has such a rich literary heritage, should think that the subject means nothing!! Children only reflect what they hear adults speak.  My daughter’s school is a very progressive  one where each child is encouraged to explore and express their talents. But despite the open mindedness of the school, there are biases that a child is exposed to in the home front which they imbibe. As parents we do that often – consciously or unconsciously!  There are stereotypes arising out of our own incomplete knowledge,  which we perpetuate. Analytical thinking for example,  is not unique to science. It extends to literary works. Analyzing a poem from various perspectives is something that requires as much learning as does solving of a quadratic equation. Actually, as a student who studied mathematics until my under graduate level I would say solving mathematical problems is easier once you work out the logic. Literature on the other hand requires considerable interpretation of intangibles  that is sometimes beyond a sixteen year old’s capacity to grasp!  A good teacher ( like my daughter’s) helps the student develop that. Few people understand this!  Literature is not just about writing good English. It is like saying that a student who knows her formulae and tables should be the topper at Maths. These are but aids . 

One of the challenges within our education system is that we are unable to help our learners understand and appreciate what I would call “shades of grey”!!! It is easier to process something as black and white. Children are taught to look for “right” or “wrong” in their answers. But subjects like “Literature” unfortunately do not have a “right” or “wrong” answer. It is like being an “artist” – your ability to interpret and express. But I realize now, that Literature does not get even quite the same recognition as art in  the education system. A student who is studying “art” is seen as “talented” while the Literature student is seen as  someone who wants to have an easy way through higher education!!! 

But like I told my daughter, ultimately it not about what others think of you but what you think about yourself that matters. For a sixteen year old  searching for her identity, I suppose it can be difficult. But I am  glad that I see an emerging person who is confident and not easily swayed by anyone’s opinion !  I am also happy that she is not succumbing to peer pressure when it comes to expressing what she thinks.  I can almost see life coming full circle and….. meeting myself….. but not quite…. ! This young lady has a lot more diplomacy in tempering her expressions!  A pragmatic approach that tells me that she is using her head as much as her heart!


 
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