2010 Asia JusticeMakers Fellow
Bijaya Chanda spent her childhood days in and around Calcutta, India, moving throughout the region to follow her father’s career. She attended various schools, universities and institutions, gaining an exposure to a diverse array of personalities and experiences that would help develop her zeal for social activism.
While initially drawn towards the field of Life Sciences at the University of Calcutta, she changed her course and took up Humanities. This prompted her interest in law, and specifically, human rights law.
As a student she began to follow the case of Archana Guha, the head of a girl’s school who was detained by police for political reasons in 1974. Archana was rendered nearly paralyzed due to police torture while in custody, and was released on medical grounds three years later. She subsequently filed a lawsuit against the police who had tortured her. While studying the case and attending hearings, Bijaya met prominent human rights defenders and criminal defense attorneys. She began to better understand the plight of the accused in marginalized communities of Calcutta.
These relationships catapulted her into the field of criminal justice, to which she has dedicated her life for the last 15 years. The bulk of her time has been spent with MASUM, a human rights NGO advocating within West Bengal. She provides legal assistance and defense counsel to prisoners in correctional homes throughout the region. She regularly witnesses detainees being denied legal protections and early access to a lawyer, enduring physical and emotional torture.
Under the Indian Constitution every detainee has the right to be informed of the grounds of their arrest, to consult and be represented by a legal practitioner of their choice, and to be brought before the nearest magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. Despite the formal recognition of these constitutional rights, many police officers and prison officials remain ignorant of their existence. This has resulted in a disproportionate number of citizens being denied access to legal representation. Furthermore, many detainees remain unaware of their legal rights. This alarming situation is compounded by the high level of adult illiteracy in India (61%), making it difficult to deliver broad education on legal rights.
Bijaya is using her $5,000 JusticeMakers Fellowship to educate legal stakeholders and prisoners in West Bengal on the rights of the accused. She is mobilizing and training a team of 15 skilled local lawyers to educate underprivileged remand prisoners in five sub-jails of Kolkata to demand their basic legal rights. Specifically, this group of attorneys will deliver trainings to the detainees and their families in the local language, focusing on the rights of the accused and the process through which they can contact legal aid lawyers and human rights organizations. Bijaya will identify two prisoners from each training program, in the hopes of preparing them to train other members of the community after their release from jail. The lawyers will also instruct local law enforcement authorities, court officials and corrections officers on how to best uphold the legal protections of the accused.