For his tireless and innovative use of public interest litigation over three decades to secure fundamental human rights for India’s most marginalised and vulnerable citizens.
Colin Gonsalves is amongst the most versatile and innovative human rights lawyers of his generation, fighting for the rights and well-being of India’s most vulnerable populations. He is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India and the founder of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), an Indian national network of public interest lawyers. Over three decades, HRLN’s lawyers have engaged in public interest litigation to hold the government to account and secure a broad spectrum of human rights.
Gonsalves’ work has focused on securing rights for India’s most vulnerable people, such as bonded labourers, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, slum dwellers, women and the poor. His most significant victories in the courtroom include the 2001 “Right to Food” case, which saw India’s Supreme Court issue far-reaching orders enforcing a free midday meal for all schoolchildren. It also granted access to subsidised grain for over 400 million Indians living below the poverty line.
In 2016 and 2017, Gonsalves obtained landmark judgments from the Supreme Court that ended the longstanding immunity of the Indian Armed Forces from criminal prosecution. This has had a significant impact in reducing the number of extrajudicial executions occurring in India’s Northeast.
Colin Gonsalves is an outstanding human rights lawyer from India who courageously stands up for the most marginalised in society. He has secured free meals for millions of schoolchildren in India and also built up a strong network of lawyers across the country advancing human rights.
Human rights practices in India
India is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The richest 10 per cent hold around 80 per cent of the total national wealth. Around 250 million people survive on less than 2 US dollars per day.
Severe human rights violations regularly occur in India. Such violations include arbitrary arrests and executions, demeaning treatment, freedom of expression and assembly restrictions, lack of investigations when violence against women occurs, and discrimination against minority groups. Additionally, India's caste system perpetuates inequalities through a hierarchical social system that follows individuals from birth until death. The caste system determines who has access to food supplies or monetary compensation in emergencies. Women, who usually suffer from gender discrimination, are massively affected when belonging to lower caste populations.
Additionally, human rights defenders are at constant threat of being arbitrarily arrested by government officials, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. Modi's government has brandished any criticism on social media, applying an old sedition law that classifies dissident reactions or words as a threat to national security.
Building a successful network of lawyers across India
After graduating with a degree in engineering in 1975, Colin Gonsalves immediately switched his vocation to practising law as he became aware of its importance as a tool to address human rights abuses. After obtaining a law degree, Gonsalves started his legal practice in Mumbai with a focus on securing workers' rights. In the mid-1980s, he and two other colleagues started the Peoples’ Law Centre to provide free legal aid for working class people.
Noticing a complete lack of legal aid for India’s poor, Gonsalves and his colleagues began to visit other states, participating in meetings and taking the first steps to form a network of young lawyers and social activists. In 1989, his Peoples’ Law Centre was renamed as Human Rights Law Network (HRLN). HRLN published books such as Women and the Law and Prisoners’ Rights,' signalling the expansion of the organisation’s mandate from labour law to other branches of public interest law. In 1991, the organisation was legally registered as “Socio Legal Information Centre'' with Gonsalves as its Director. It remains popularly known in India as HRLN, and today counts 250 lawyers, social workers and staff operating out of 22 offices in the country. Gonsalves and HRLN slowly but surely expanded their work to represent indigenous peoples, Dalits (a group of more than 150 million people that suffer from discrimination and cruel treatment under the caste system), slum dwellers, unorganised workers, women and children. They also began to advocate for the advancement of disability rights, LGBT+ rights and environmental law. Throughout its history, HRLN has focused on using the legal system to achieve practical results for the poor and marginalised sections of society, winning over 1,000 cases.
Pioneering public interest litigation to secure the rights of millions
To empower peoples’ organisations to litigate, HRLN started to organise trainings throughout the country, focusing on the steps to access justice in a practical way with or without a lawyer. In 2000, HRLN began working in the field of public interest litigation, a unique development where class action cases can be filed through NGOs and others at low costs and sometimes with dramatic results for large numbers of people.
One such instance was People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs Union of India, commonly known as the “Right to Food” case, which Gonsalves filed in 2001. Outraged by the scandalous situation where excessive amounts of food grains were rotting in government granaries while people continued to die of hunger and starvation, Gonsalves filed a public interest litigation. It led to the Supreme Court issuing over 80 far-reaching orders enforcing a midday meal for all students, supplementary nutrition for little children, adolescent girls, pregnant women and lactating mothers, maternity benefits at the time of delivery and subsidised grain for over 400 million people below the poverty line. Significantly, through this case, the Supreme Court affirmed that the right to food was in fact a constitutional right. The Indian government enshrined this right in legislation through the National Food Security Act in 2013.
Standing up for the marginalised.
Gonsalves and HRLN have used public interest litigations to promote and protect a diverse range of human rights and provide concrete remedies to vulnerable groups. A landmark case regarding high drug prices of essential medicines led the Supreme Court to direct the government to enforce price controls. Many of HRLN’s housing rights petitions have resulted in stay orders on the demolition of slums. In the Parivartan Kendra vs Union of India case litigated by Gonsalves, the Supreme Court held that private hospitals must provide free treatment for the victims of acid attacks, a horrendous form of violence against women in India.
Gonsalves and HRLN’s work is not limited to strategic litigation, and they work on the principle of never turning a poor client away. HRLN has filed several petitions on behalf of Sudanese, Yemeni and Myanmari refugees and has pursued a petition to stop the deportation of 6,000 Rohingyas. Resolute in challenging the death penalty, Gonsalves managed to get a stay order on the execution of 16 persons through a judgement of the Supreme Court in Shatrughan Chauhan vs Union of India in 2013 on the grounds that their clemency petitions had been pending before the President of India for too long. When Najeeb Ahmed, a young university student, disappeared in October 2016 under mysterious circumstances following an alleged altercation with sectarian overtones, Gonsalves agreed to represent his family in their quest for justice.
Over the years, Gonsalves has instilled a sense of public interest lawyering in India through HRLN’s internship programme, which has mentored hundreds of young law students across the country.
Successfully holding the State to account for human rights violations
Activists working to promote and protect human rights in India do so under immense pressure and at great personal risk. Despite this, Gonsalves has not shied away from mounting legal challenges to the impunity of army, police and security personnel for committing human rights violations. Gonsalves and his HRLN colleagues have represented several victims of rape in police custody, torture and extrajudicial executions in the insurgency-hit central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, despite facing intimidation, violence and death threats.
Together with local activists, Gonsalves produced a fact-finding report revealing 1,528 extrajudicial executions committed by the Indian Army in the northeastern state of Manipur from 2000 to 2012 that had not been adequately investigated. This report became the basis for a petition to the Supreme Court filed by Gonsalves on behalf of the victims’ families. The Supreme Court ordered an investigation, and for the first time, army officers testified under oath. In the case Extrajudicial Executions Victim Families Associations vs Union of India, the Court in 2016 issued a groundbreaking decision holding that the police must file First Information Reports and investigate every case alleging killings of civilians by the army. Striking a blow to the immunity given to armed forces personnel operating under the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from 1958, the Court subsequently ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation in July 2017 to set up a Special Investigation Team to scrutinise extrajudicial executions, file criminal charges and report on compliance by the end of the year. The fact that the government had tried to nullify the Court’s verdict through petitions and failed highlights the significance of Gonsalves’ triumph at a time of increasing suppression of civil liberties worldwide.