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‘At CEDE we believe representation ought to be a goal in itself’

Disha Wadekar
Supreme Court advocate Disha Wadekar

The legal profession and judiciary are dominated by upper castes while the Bahujans are severely under-represented in this field. Even after seven decades of independence, the number of judges in the Indian judiciary from marginalised sections is very small. CEDE, or Community for the Eradication of Discrimination in Education and Employment, is an initiative that aims to change this.

CEDE was founded by two practising advocates at the Supreme Court, Disha Wadekar and Avinash Mathews, and the assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School, Anurag Bhaskar. CEDE’s goal is to remedy the poor representation of people from marginalised social backgrounds in the legal field and make the legal system more inclusive. The organisation believes that a responsible and accountable legal profession and judiciary would be achieved only when it is truly representative and diverse.

CEDE is working to create a support system for the law students from marginalised communities. It organises regular workshops to improve their skills in the legal field and facilitates internships for them through its network of lawyers. They are also creating an active discourse on the need for representation in the Indian legal profession. Recently, it managed to secure internships for 41 students for law students from marginalised backgrounds, out of which 28 will be paid internships. 

I got the opportunity to talk to the co-founder of CEDE, Disha Wadekar, who explained the organisation’s journey so far and what the future holds for it.

Sana Irshad: What is CEDE and what was the intent behind founding the organisation?

Disha Wadekar: ‘Cede’ literally means to transfer control. That is the intent behind our organisation as well. We believe the capital in the legal profession and judiciary has been disproportionately concentrated in the hands of a few privileged communities. CEDE was born in response to the deplorable dearth of representation of marginalised communities in the legal field.

For the first three decades since independence, there was no Dalit or Adivasi person appointed in the Supreme Court. In 1983, out of nearly 400 high court judges, only six were from the Scheduled Castes (SCs), while the Scheduled Tribes (STs) had no representation at all. The situation has not improved much since then. 

As of 2011, there were only 24 judges belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities in the high courts against a total of 850 judges. In terms of proportional representation, there should have been close to 191 judges from Dalit and Adivasi backgrounds. As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, there have been a total of  five judges from Dalit community, and only one from Adivasi community till now. The data on the composition of the Indian legal profession is not available, however the recent designations of lawyers as senior advocates indicates the near absence of SCs and STs as designated senior counsels. 

We have built—and continue to expand—a community of lawyers, law firms, judges, and other organisations and individuals who are committed towards reforming the Indian legal profession by cede-ing their intergenerational capital and remedying the injustice of under-representation of marginalised communities. We envision that our efforts contribute, even if on a small scale, to changing such lamentable state of affairs to better represent the vast diversity of social identities that exist in our country. We want to emphasise that it is not simply an issue of diversity either; a lot of times, demonstrably, it is an issue of survival for the most vulnerable communities. It is also an issue of the right to representation and equal participation. At CEDE we believe representation ought to be a goal in itself.

Irshad: How did the idea of CEDE take birth? Did you face any barriers in bringing CEDE into reality? 

Wadekar: The reality of the legal profession being one of the most inaccessible, rigidly casteist and hierarchical fields is not unknown. This inaccessibility and exclusion is a lived experience for Bahujan communities. The founders of CEDE—Anurag, Avinash and I—who are law professionals in different capacities, agreed to work together towards addressing the problem.

The idea is to take forward steps, which would cede social capital from the legal profession. CEDE has envisaged a number of initiatives to realise its vision. Firstly, through our flagship programme, we are creating a network of lawyers, judges, law professionals and organisations that will commit to offering at least one paid internship each year to a student selected by us, hailing from a marginalised social background. Secondly, through research and advocacy we are trying to form an active discourse on the need for equitable representation in the legal system. Thirdly, we are trying to address the structural barriers through mentorship, capacity building, and peer learning mechanisms for law students and young lawyers from marginalised social backgrounds.

Setting up an active initiative only made us realise how much entrepreneurship is reliant on social capital in having people for advice and mentors to guide you. Ultimately, CEDE managed to empanel close to 50 advocates, law firms, academics and legal NGOs (non-governmental organisations), most of whom have offered paid internships and we have 30 more pending registrations. We have a community of 150+ law students from marginalised backgrounds who had applied for internships in our very first cohort. However, not every lawyer to whom we reached out gave a positive response. The pandemic has been especially difficult for the legal fraternity and have faced some hardships in getting paid internships. Furthermore, since we are full-time working professionals, we had to take help from enthusiastic law students (Sitamsini, Hamsadhwani and Dev) towards managing the day-to-day work. We are grateful for their valuable contribution. 

Lastly, one concern is to reach out to students of law colleges in small cities and not keep the initiative limited to students from national law universities and other central universities.

Irshad: Why do you think, even after seven decades of independence, the Indian legal system has such dismal representation of marginalised identities? 

Wadekar: Education has historically been limited to the upper castes to the exclusion of Bahujans. For the longest time, Bahujan communities could not even learn to read. Law, in particular, was historically written and interpreted by Brahmins (as clearly noted in a study done by American scholar George Gadbois). Thus, the game was rigged from the start. 

Even as we moved to a world that was casteless on paper, a world where anybody could study and practise law on paper, it was the Savarnas—especially “Brahmins and allied castes” (as Babasaheb Ambedkar called them)—who were already in positions of power and influence, owing to the head start they had. This head start has been reflected in the Indian legal system generation after generation with marginal difference, leading to the abysmal representation we see today, even after seven decades of independence. It shows that India is only free from British colonialism, but caste colonialism continues to plague us.

Bahujan communities firstly do not have the privilege to study law owing to the financial cost of doing so. Secondly, law is a subject that requires English fluency to begin with, which is something that marginalised castes disproportionately lack access to. Added to this is the undue focus and glorification of the flawed and discriminatory rhetoric of ‘merit,’ which leads to shame and distress, apart from the loss of opportunities for Bahujan students who are admitted through reservation policies. Thirdly, to succeed in the legal field, it is imperative to have ‘connections’ with other people already in the field who can help you understand the nitty-gritties, introduce you to other people, and root yourself in the profession. 

Though there is a general acceptance in the legal fraternity about the problem of nepotism, the caste-patriarchal system at the very foundation of such nepotistic practices is never questioned. It is a norm for Savarnas in the legal profession to draw attention to their relative disadvantage by saying “I am a first generation lawyer!” while being ignorant to the fact that most Bahujans are first generation learners.

Therefore these “connections” or “networks” are essentially upper-caste connections, which, again, Bahujan students and professionals lack. This trinity of marginalisation, combined with several related factors, are the reason that today we have a legal system that can never be for the marginalised, because it is run by the privileged.

Irshad: How has the response been for CEDE from the Indian judiciary?

Wadekar: For our launch event, Supreme Court judge DY Chandrachud graciously gave a lecture on ‘Why Representation Matters’. He talked about how “one may argue that after 70 years of the Constitution of India, caste-based discrimination no longer exists because untouchability and other egragious caste atrocities have been outlawed. However, overt discrimination has now become systemic! Casteist, ableist and patriarchal, genderist hierarchies are entrenched structures in our society.” His presence at the inaugural event was a great show of support for our initiative and was encouraging. Apart from this, we had reached out to a judge to join our empanelled network but they refused, citing reasons of judicial impropriety with joining a network of this nature.

Irshad: Do you plan on rolling out more fellowship programmes in the future?

Wadekar: We take in three fellows annually to help us with our operations. Apart from that, the applications for internships are open round the year. We organise internships for two cohorts of interns every year—one in summer (from March to July) and one in winter (from September to December). In the future, we look to expand to doing research work, and will accordingly be hiring research interns.

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