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.

Rhodes Project: 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.

Rhodes Project: 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.

Rhodes Project: 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.

Rhodes Project: 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.

Rhodes Project: Which mentors or role models have been particularly formative for you – either academically, personally or in your feminist practice?

Arushi Garg: One person I should definitely mention is Shuchita, my best friend from home. When I started law school in India I was really reluctant to call myself a feminist and frequent conversations with her encouraged me understand the many ways in which oppression is gendered.

I also really admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her writing. Her writing reflects how we often don’t know how to make sense of our own experiences of racism/sexism, but those experiences – especially as women of colour in a Western society– need to be articulated and explored. She is really gifted at speaking and writing about some very important issues.

Rhodes Project: Much of your research focuses on feminism and gender justice. What issues are most prominent at the moment in Indian feminist discourse?

Arushi Garg: It’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t think Indian feminism is uniform – there is a lot of experimentation within the movement. It’s also difficult for Indian feminists to determine what other types of feminist discourses from other geographies are applicable to us at home. There are significant consequences when we derive our feminist theorizing from Western feminism, as it often focuses on a very privileged class of women. However, Black feminism has been effective in challenging those attitudes.

I think Indian feminism can focus simultaneously on issues like Eurocentric beauty standards and rape and sexual violence. The problem arises when we focus on standards of beauty but don’t tackle basic issues like lack of sanitation, unpaid labour or inequities within marriages. I think we are still trying to figure out how to give those issues proportionate space without trivialising anyone’s experience of misogyny, but also recognising that there are fundamental issues facing women in the most disempowered classes of our society. Our feminist movements at the moment seem somewhat exclusionary, so I do hope they become more intersectional over time.

Rhodes Project: 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.

Rhodes Project: 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.

Rhodes Project: What books have been most transformative for you?

Arushi Garg: The last book I read was American Sniper (Chris Kyle) because I wanted to understand the perspective of the writer, who served as a sniper in the Iraq war. I found him to be quite disturbing, particularly his characterisation of non-American people as somehow savage. It’s a discourse with which I am already unfortunately too familiar.

But, of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books! After I read Americanah I thought I was incapable of loving another book so much, until I read Half of a Yellow Sun, also by her. That book really brings all the issues driving movements like #blacklivesmatter to life. I didn’t expect it to be such a powerful political commentary, and also liked that it was so grounded in actual historical facts (though she is clear that she is more interested in the lived experience of people rather than in documenting an exact chronology of events). It very powerfully depicted the feelings of optimism and disenchantment that accompany any ideological struggle.

Rhodes Project: What do you imagine your life will look like in the next 10 years, both professionally and personally?

Arushi Garg: It’s tough to imagine 10 years from now! I hope I’m doing some work with law/policy in my area of interest. I do find the uncertainty exciting, but maybe that’s just my way of saying “I have no idea”!

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