Please tell us about yourself

[Rhodes Scholarship is known as the “world’s oldest and most prestigious international graduate scholarship”, and owes its origin to the will of the visionary Cecil J. Rhodes. Every year, only five such scholarships are given out to Indian students to pursue a degree of their choice at Oxford. Arushi Garg from NALSAR and Anupama Kumar from NLSIU are the two students from the field of law who have won this coveted Scholarship this year.

Arushi Garg (India & Magdalen 2013) is currently completing the MPhil in Law at the University of Oxford, after completing the BCL in 2014. Previously, Arushi obtained a BA-LLB at the NALSAR University of Law in India, receiving the University Gold Medal for Constitutional Law. She is the Deputy Chairperson for Oxford Pro Bono Publico and previously served as the Editor of the Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal. In her free time, Arushi enjoys eating, sleeping and being generally unproductive.

We requested Arushi Garg for an interview and she was kind enough to take time off her celebrations to answer a few questions. We congratulate her for achieving this huge feat and wish her the best of luck for all her future endeavours.]

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career? Was Law something you’ve always wanted to do?

No, by the end of high school I also contemplated studying maths, and journalism. Ultimately I chose the law because I saw immense value in using the Law to empower people.

When you joined NALSAR, what was it that you wanted to do after graduation? 

I had no fixed plans. I’m still weighing all my options, but given that the field I am interested in is international criminal law, academia seems like a good idea as well. There are many reasons, but I feel that the subject isn’t discussed/promoted enough in India and we need to generate more debate surrounding it. I think if India were to support the movement, we could go a long way in ending impunity in this country.

Another incentive is the fact that the law governing the ICC is still in its nascent stages. I see a lot of scope for some very creative legal argumentation. Even today, I’d say academicians are playing a dominant role in how interpretations of the Rome Statute evolve, and contributing significantly to the development of the Law.

Did your perception of the law change after you pulled out a huge win at the Henry Dunant Memorial Moot Court Competition 2011?

The moot did have a significant impact on me. I think it brought out effectively for me the difficulty in maintaining the delicate balance between the rights of the accused on one hand, and the pressing need to provide redressal on the other. The standard of proof required for a conviction before the ICC (“beyond reasonable doubt”) is a tough standard to meet, but it is important to discharge this burden even in the case of the most egregious wrongs if we are to call ourselves a rule of law society. Actually arguing out before a mock ICC chamber taught me a lot about the practical difficulties international criminal law practitioners face.

In what way did NALSAR contribute to all that you’ve achieved?

NALSAR provides a very stimulating academic environment, and it’s been great being part of a peer group that has challenged me to push myself to meet the standards of academic excellence the University stands for. I’m also grateful for having been exposed to opportunities that other Universities don’t often provide for. My exchange semester at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) was definitely an experience that shaped the way I think.

With regard to your future plans, what’s next after you’re done with Oxford?

Thankfully, I have a long time to think about this one J But my immediate plans would involve staying on for the M. Phil, if I can.

Having been selected to be a Rhodes Scholar, how would you describe the feeling? Were you anticipating it or did it hit you a surprise?

I’m thrilled! I was trying not to think about the outcome. I won’t say that I expected it, but obviously I kept secretly hoping I would be one of the five names.

Was the selection process taxing?

I don’t know if ‘taxing’ is the right word. It did require some amount of preparation in my case (mostly mock interviews with seniors or friends) but I think the greater challenge was to just relax and not be too nervous to convince the panel that you are passionate about what you plan to do.

How would you describe your time at Oxford so far? What stands out most?

Arushi Garg: It’s been very good so far – both academically and personally fulfilling. I have found it really exciting to be exposed to such diversity – it’s humbling in class or seminar discussions to be forced to question a lot of things you took for granted in your home legal system. Oxford has been effective in getting me to do that. It’s also been nice to meet people from very different disciplines and get an outsider’s perspective on how they perceive law, the legal profession and the work that I do—something I wasn’t able to experience much during my undergrad.

What does your current MPhil research focus on, and where did that interest come from?

Arushi Garg: My research is on criminal procedures in cases of sexual violence in India. I am studying rape cases from trial courts in Delhi over a period of six months. I’m trying to see if there are ways to make prosecutions more effective in those cases.

My interest in the topic comes from feeling that sense of vulnerability on a daily basis while growing up. There is so much at stake, and women sacrifice so much trying to deal with the insecurity that comes from the threat of, or exposure to sexual violence. My own experiences, and those of my friends, demonstrated that across the board, we are still very reluctant to classify sexual violence as sexual violence, even when a lack of consent is evident.

What struck me the most is that even as a privileged, educated, feminist lawyer, I still don’t take recourse to legal machinery to solve problems like this. I still don’t feel confident in the ability of the criminal justice system or the state to provide women a sense of security. It’s quite a disjuncture to feel these emotions while also working in the legal system! So I wanted to study ways to make it better, and to try to reconcile the various contradictions I experience in this regard.

How do you respond to the Western media coverage about the Delhi rape cases?

Arushi Garg: I’m really uncomfortable with how the Western media portrays sexual violence in India in general. I think that kind of coverage – in which sexual violence is “otherised” to the third world– does a disservice to women everywhere and their experiences of sexual violence. Sexual violence happens everywhere. 2013 statistics from the UK Ministry of Justice note that only 15 per cent of women who experience sexual violence feel confident enough to report it to the police. The media coverage about India perpetuates the idea that rape happens there, in that ‘less civilised society’ and not here in first world England, making it harder for people to come forward and report their experiences since they don’t fit the script.

I am, however, glad that the issue is receiving so much publicity. It is generating a lot of discussion, but I just wish the discussion were more nuanced. Even at home discussions in the media about potential solutions are simplistic – for example, handing out death sentences or chemical castration to the rapists, which is hardly going to solve the problem. I hope my research can contribute to a more nuanced discourse that offers more creative and just solutions.

Can you tell me more about your role with Oxford Pro Bono Publico (OPBP) and your internship in Johannesburg?

Arushi Garg: My experience with Oxford Pro Bono Publico has been one of my most significant experiences here. OPBP is a pro bono legal centre in the Faculty of Law led by volunteer graduate students. We provide free international or comparative law research for organisations located anywhere in the world, promoting the principles and practice of public interest law. Our clients include organisations and individuals involved in human rights litigation or those who want to advocate for changes in legal policy.

My work with them has been very fulfilling, especially litigation-based projects where you can see your research used in court. My association started as a volunteer and coordinator last year, and it was such a positive experience, that I chose to continue this year as Deputy Chairperson. I’ve just finished coordinating my second project for the year for REDRESS, which investigated victim participation in criminal procedures in nine different legal jurisdictions. They are going to use our research material to develop a sort of “model code” on the issue, which is really exciting.

Last summer, OPBP also gave me a grant to intern with the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg, which I really enjoyed. South Africa is such a fascinating legal jurisdiction and their Constitution is one of the most progressive ones in the world – it’s a work of art. South Africa’s constitutional framework is really inspiring for a human rights lawyer like me. The LRC was involved in some very interesting projects while I was an intern, including class action litigation against the mining industry for causing silicosis in miners, and making submissions on behalf of one of the deceased miners before the Marikana Commission of Inquiry.

Do you plan on returning to India in the future as part of your career?

Arushi Garg: I would like to return to India after my doctoral studies, because I feel like I need to understand enough about the issues I care about before making any meaningful impact in policy and law. I’d love to be back in India eventually.

What worries me most about India is that we are starting to become a more and more intolerant society, especially when we talk about secularism. Many people in India are quite resistant to the idea that some groups have been historically oppressed and marginalised in the country and are owed some kind of compensatory justice. It’s connected to the very conservative government currently in power and an environment that increasingly allows Islamophobic or derogatory sentiments to be aired publicly, such as suggestions that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed the right to vote.

It’s so unconstitutional, and I am sometimes so put off by what I hear that I feel like I don’t want to return. However, the alarming resurgence of this conservatism also indicates to me that the work I want to do is that much more important.

What inspires you most about law and the legal profession?

Arushi Garg: I find the basic idea that we all hold rights in a democracy to be very empowering. It gives citizens a sense of security and constitutional morality to hold on to, even when public morality fails us. That is what drives me, although I do worry that lawyers often think their role is over when an issue is sorted out on paper. Symbolic legal gestures are important but often there is also a need for holistic cultural change—something I think pop culture can be effective in bringing about. It leaves me with a sense of humility as a lawyer – my role is an important one but it’s only one way of affecting social change and it’s not the beginning or the end of the struggle. Law has its limitations, and it’s important to recognise them.

If one were looking to become a Rhodes Scholar, what is it that you’d suggest them to do in their five years of Law School life?

I don’t think you should reverse the order and do things because they’re likely to get you the Rhodes! I think you should do whatever interests you and see at the end if your personality type is what the Rhodes Trust is looking for.

There are thousands of kids who will either be taking CLAT now or are already in the Law School and want to achieve something this big. Your words of wisdom to them?

I would say that they should remember that achievement for the sake of achievement will only take them so far. I think it’s a good idea to take law school one step at a time, but just be sincere about anything you work on.

Lastly, any thoughts about CLATGyan?

I think it’s an excellent move towards inclusive legal education in India. You guys should keep it up!