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RIP Lotika Sarkar: Pioneering feminist & lawyer but teacher foremost

Lotika Sarkar: Pioneer (photo via FeministsIndia.com)
Lotika Sarkar: Pioneer (photo via FeministsIndia.com)
Prof Lotika Sarkar, 4 January 1923 to 23 February 2013

Lotika Sarkar had several firsts to her credit, apart from being the first Indian woman to graduate with a doctorate from Cambridge and to take professorship at Delhi University. She was one of the signatories of the open letter to the Chief Justice of India that triggered reforms of rape laws in the eighties and one of those who took leadership in exposing the practice of female foeticide through amniotic fluid tests.

She often stated that the membership of the Committee on the Status of Women and travel through the length and breadth of the country sharpened her understanding of gender discrimination, which prompted all her subsequent public policy interventions.

She took premature retirement from the University of Delhi to be one of the founding members of the Centre for Women Development Studies.

While Lotika Sarkar’s contribution to the cause of the rights of women is notable, her contribution as a teacher is exceptional.

Despite her multitude of other roles, Prof Sarkar never side-lined her responsibilities as a teacher. She was a teacher who taught enough to excite, to reflect, to question but never to take over.

You could never write a research paper for Prof Sarkar passing off the opinion of another as your own. She would not just, like we do today, throw an academic misconduct policy or charge of plagiarism at you - she would also persistently ask, “But why do you think so?”

Her probing and persistent questions would get students to realise that appropriating the work of another was both dishonest and painful. And if the pain of justification and defence had to be undergone, it was better to undergo that pain for something you created yourself; with such pain would also came the pleasure of creation and ownership.

With this realization she helped her students to internalise the values of intellectual integrity and of doing the right thing, irrespective of consequences, because it is the right thing to do.

It is ordinarily believed that the classroom is the designated place of operation of a teacher and her teaching responsibilities are primarily to her students.

But Lotika Sarkar’s teaching activities were neither limited to the classroom nor to her students. All those who came into contact with her, in the university and outside, learned from her.

They learned the values of dignity, integrity, humour and grace; learned to stand up for their beliefs; learned to be themselves and to be happy about it. This large family of friends, admirers, students and votaries celebrated her life in a collection of essays entitled Engendering Law - a celebration which did not cease after publication of the essays.

Lotika Sarkar belonged to an era which believed in relationships not networking. She cultivated friendships for the richness they gave to life; and nurtured friends by helping them believe in themselves.

She is survived by all those who feel she made them who they are by giving to each of them a bit of herself.

It is with eternal gratitude that I, on behalf of her innumerable students, bid farewell to this pioneering feminist of the law academy; to a teacher who revelled foremost in the successes of her creations and who did not cease to give till the very end.

By Amita Dhanda, Professor of Law, Nalsar Hyderabad


Photo via FeministsIndia

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