Sunday, January 17 2016, 08:24:37

Komal Panwar


This Human Rights Day, JWB Chatted With Pankhuri Anuradha Mehndiratta, The Coolest Lawyer!

  • JWB Post
  •  December 10, 2015


I  first met Pankhuri in school when we were both only fourteen. We went for a basketball match with the rest of the team to Himachal Pradesh. I clearly remember her being seated next to me in the bus. A good-natured brown-haired girl, who laughed her heart out, cried her heart out! We shared each other’s walkmans, too. See, now that’s a bond you can cherish.

It’s after years now that we’ve been talking again, and my news feed tells me she’s quite a woman! I’ve seen intense travel portraits and landscapes, read articles about her work in the interest of human rights! Did I mention that she has also worked on the project to promote human rights for prisoners? And she is a licensed scuba diver too.

It’s Human Rights day, and we chatted with about her fascination with Human Rights.

JWB – Lawyer. Yawn. Okay, let’s not kid ourselves! It is a boring word. So there must definitely a strong reason for you to take up law?

Pankhuri – It’s not all doom and gloom! To be honest, like all else, being a Human Rights lawyer has its bright moments too! My reason to take up the law was my upbringing by doctor parents, grandmothers who were a surgeon and a teacher, and an Armed Forces grandfather who fought three wars for our country, all of whom raised me to want to be a part of a profession that gives back to the society in whichever way I would choose to. Although, my first choice (at 13 years of age) was to become a war journalist. Life had other, if not less amazing plans and that’s alright. Ever since I started studying law, I grew steadily but surely in love with it and with the immense power that it has to effectuate the changes we want to see in the world around us. Even though, the  changes may be little and slow sometimes, I believe that in today’s world of sixes and sevens, it is a superpower!

JWB – Let’s put the law aside for a moment, a licensed scuba diver? You seem to have a lot of adventure stories under your sleeves. Some more facts about you that we don’t know yet?

Pankhuri – I am so glad this is not a ‘law only’ interview! I believe that anything in one dimension can get fatally boring and I am no exception to that. I am a licensed Open water Scuba diver. I want to dive in all the oceans of the world. I have already dived in the Red sea, the Indian ocean, and the Andaman Sea with the rest on my list!

Travel is my first love and my favourite form of therapy.

I have a daughter. Before you get any scandalous ideas, she is an African Elephant that I adopted in Kenya. Her name is Aruba. If humanity was more like dogs, we most definitely would live more peacefully.

I trained as a Kathak dancer at a very young age thanks to my mother who too was one.

I am an avid reader: from the back of shampoo bottles to Murakami (Bring it all on!).

I am a practicing Buddhist, and genuinely believe Karma is real.

And as for adventure, it is true that I have many unforgettable memories, but I do believe that adventure is and should be a daily decision! Suffice it to say that people who are close to me always answer the phone with ‘where are you’ instead of ‘how are you’ and ‘hope you are alive’ instead of ‘hope you are well’!

JWB – It’s Human Rights Day! And we are amazed to see how much you have already done for the field. What project could you relate to the best?

Pankhuri – Thank you very much. I am very humbled, but I’ve only just taken baby steps towards my journey! There are miles to go before I sleep.

I have had the fortune of working in a range of human rights organisations including my dream internship at the UN. It backed criminal court prosecuting a political assassination in Lebanon – the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Hague. During this time, I was walking and working through a dream and I am immensely grateful for that.

My most relatable project, however, was for a much smaller organisation based in Delhi that worked to provide legal recognition to refugees from strife-torn countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan. There’s a lot to be said about meeting  and working with real life heroes who chose to live life on their own terms and survive despite it all!

JWB – Tell us about your experiences working with prisoners! Any inspiring story?

Pankhuri – I worked for a Swiss-based pro bono organisation that provided legal aid to the prisoners in Tihar for about a year. In the course of this time, I got the opportunity to represent a few people in court as a Defence counsel and got a few people who were eventually proved innocent out of prison. I also learnt is that 75% of our Indian prisons are under trial, which means that they are in jail without having been proven guilty!

One of the many of such cases was of a girl who was roughly my age. She was accused of murdering her father. However, the charge sheet completely left out the situations that led up to the crime. We only found out upon prolonged interactions with the girl! It turned out that she had accidentally killed the father in resisting one of the many attempts to rape and sexual advances that he would make at her regularly.

Lessons I learnt from this:  1. There is a flip side to every story; and as lawyers and as young people, it is our duty to weigh all sides of anything we come across.

2. The two most important functions in our society namely –investigating a crime (Police) and reporting it in the public sphere (Media) are handled by institutions and people, most of whom are neither adequately trained nor regulated. Considering that many people in our country refer to shouty, populist channels for their general awareness, it is a genuinely worrying state of affairs.

JWB – You’re only 23, and have already done a lifetime of things to be proud of. How does it feel?

Pankhuri – Haha, you are far too kind. To be honest, it constantly feels like there is so much more that remains to be done!

JWB – Law is a serious business, is it ever hard standing up for what you believe in when people try to influence you all the time?

Pankhuri – I think it is an essential part of our legal education to engage in due analysis of everything to the point that we are fully convinced of our purpose in court as well as outside of it, in our personal lives. Though, it is a muscle you strengthen only with practice, it is surely a part of our training.

JWB – Ever got emotionally connected to your clients?

Pankhuri – I think human rights work, in general, stems from an inherent love and respect for others. Empathy in that sense is a big asset in this line of work. The flip side of it is, however, that we can very often feel ourselves drowning under the weight of the horrors of humanity that you witness vicariously. In the Human rights field, it is extremely difficult to keep our professional hats at our workplaces. There have been times I have come home after a long day at work and have been too emotionally exhausted to even eat. So the answer is YES. However, in order to function effectively, we are expected to practice detachment.

JWB – Do you ever let the lawyer in you interfere with your personal life?

I believe in fairytales that have a logical sequence of events and a clearly spelt prenuptial agreement as our ‘happily ever after’! HAHA.

Like I said before, being a lawyer is much more than having any other profession. It becomes who we are! I am a living paradox of spontaneity and logic! This is often exacerbated by my practice of Buddhism. All in all, all those men out there better be prepared to make sense of your most incomprehensible emotions if things are to ever work out.

JWB – Do you debate at home? Is your family sick of it?

Pankhuri – I believe that a healthy debate is the sign of the health of any relationship. My family, whether of blood or of my choice, is the most important relationship to me and it is only befitting that I strive my hardest for its health. Haha.

As for my father- I bet he is only thankful that all the teenage rebellion found a meaningful channel in the legal profession. My friends and my brother are stuck with me!

JWB – What do human rights mean to you?

Pankhuri – Two things:

1. Equal respect and dignity of life, of my own, as well as that of others.

2. The right for every individual, is to be able to believe in the possibility that tomorrow holds for them.

In the context of our society, it means that there are no preferred children, that the dreams of girl children are as important as those of boy children, it means that smart young women don’t have to be at the edge of their seats trying to prove their worth any more than their brothers have to, it means that marriage for women of my generation and of those to come, should be a choice made that is fully informed and free from all sorts of pressure, and, not a compromise.

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