Nikita Sonavane: justice for all

A project the lawyer co-founded represents Indians who are nobody’s priority

Updated - July 07, 2023 12:03 pm IST

Published - July 07, 2023 11:04 am IST

‘Criminalisation is not simply about being imprisoned — it’s also about everyday life and your access to it,’ says Nikita Sonavane

‘Criminalisation is not simply about being imprisoned — it’s also about everyday life and your access to it,’ says Nikita Sonavane | Photo Credit: A.M. Faruqui

It was when Nikita Sonavane, 31, began working in a tribal-majority area in Gujarat that she realised she couldn’t be just a lawyer. Very few social cause lawyers had any rootedness with the communities they represented, she found.

“Early on, you realise that you are responding to individual cases but there are really stark patterns in the way people are policed,” she says. “And there was no body of work that spoke to this.” So while you knew that the marginalised were overrepresented in prison, for example, there were few insights behind the statistics.

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The Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project, which she co-founded in 2020 with lawyer Ameya Bokil, was born from a need to build this knowledge and see how it could drive advocacy in the courtroom. “Criminalisation is not simply about being imprisoned — it’s also about everyday life and your access to it,” she says. The Project draws its understanding of the way we are policed by working closely with targeted communities. It seeks justice for those Indians to whom nobody gives a second look. It envisions a society where community care is favoured over incarceration.

Unfairly targeted

Sonavane tracks how impoverished, denotified tribal communities are branded as ‘habitual offenders’, harassed and targeted by the police. The 2021 Tamil film Jai Bhim told one such story too. During the pandemic, the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project’s researchers found that lower caste Muslims faced the brunt of a spurt in arrests in Madhya Pradesh, where the organisation is based. In both instances, the Project used data to demonstrate how the police, the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, unfairly target certain communities.

Sonavane has her ear to the ground. Not just her ear but her heart and her life’s work too. Madhya Pradesh has large forested areas and the country’s highest indigenous population (one in five people belong to Scheduled Tribes), and since 2021, the Project has been studying how the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, criminalises the livelihoods of people who depend on the forest. “Now wildlife conservationists see these communities as being antithetical to conservation,” she says, adding that liberals have contributed to the present-day draconian architecture of criminal law.

The routine collection of forest produce such as honey — a mere 250 grams of it — for example, can ensnare forest dwellers for 16 years in a trial court marathon, where, for some, death might come before the verdict. Communities displaced from traditional forest homes are penalised for hunting partridges and wild boar, found in abundance. There are instances of people being charged for fishing, a recognised forest right.

No-man’s land

Sonavane, the daughter of a Brahmin mother and Dalit father, both public sector employees who met at the workplace, grew up in Mumbai. Intercaste marriages where one or both partners sever ties from the institution of family, thus becoming castaways from the primary social unit, she believes, can leave their offspring feel like they are in “no-man’s land all the time”. She knew from the start that her parents came from starkly contrasting families, and that their differences went beyond the regional and linguistic. “You feel like you’re not grounded anywhere, in any history,” she says.

Though her parents gave her the best education they could afford, she felt a “deep dissonance”. “Your access to the privileged side of the family is cut off and you’re constantly reminded that you are not one of us. There’s a huge part of yourself that is shrouded in secrecy,” she adds.

In college, as a reserved category student, she began articulating these complexities of identity. “There is so much shame when you’re entering these spaces. Everyone makes you feel like you took somebody’s seat away,” she says. She carried this shame and anger through college, nursing the feeling that “I was here when I didn’t deserve to be”.

“I felt like I had to prove myself all the time and that meant conforming to a certain idea of merit,” she says. “But even when you tick all the obvious boxes, you still don’t have access to that world.”

In the past four years, Sonavane has witnessed Madhya Pradesh hurtle towards increased intolerance and criminalisation, a frontrunner among the country’s most divided States. “What we are also seeing is a greater public sanction for persecution,” she says.

“After Khargone (in April 2022, the State unlawfully razed Muslim houses), we documented how far back illegal demolitions have happened.” The Project noted that the State had been demolishing homes of denotified tribes, Pasmanda Muslims, and Irani Muslims on the basis of allegations (rather than evidence) for some years.

“Who’s created this Frankenstein’s monster that has come back to bite us all?” Sonavane’s question is worth mulling.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.

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