January/February 2008 issue

International Association of Law Libraries: Mumbai, India

by Ann Fessenden

I represented the American Association of Law Libraries at this year's meeting of the International Association of Law Libraries in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. This was an extremely fascinating journey on many levels.

It provided opportunities to learn about the legal system and culture of India and the lives of the people, to see historic religious and governmental sites, and to meet law librarian colleagues from throughout the world. Since the group was relatively small (about 85 delegates), there was ample opportunity to become acquainted or better acquainted with both international and American colleagues. (Americans made up about one-third of the attendees.)

My husband accompanied me on the trip, which began on Wednesday, November 28. After a quick hop from St. Louis to Chicago, we embarked on an American Airlines flight of approximately 15 hours (direct) from Chicago to Delhi. India is 11.5 hours later that U.S. Central Standard time, so we departed Wednesday evening and arrived (with some delay) after 10:00 p.m Thursday! We spent the night in Delhi, then took a domestic flight the next morning from Delhi to Mumbai. That 2-hour flight was very nice, and included a full meal service with china and linen (even though we were not in first class!)

The Conference didn't start until Saturday evening, so we had some time to rest, to begin adjusting to our environment, and to do a little sight-seeing. We were overwhelmed by the traffic, in which a myriad assortment of small cars and motorcycles jostled for position, getting within inches of each other and honking their horns constantly! This proved to be typical of Indian traffic, and one of our drivers later explained that they drive by "instinct, not by rules!"

Forms of dress were very different for women. Most wore either colorful saris or equally colorful long tunics over matching pants. Both forms of dress included long, flowing scarves. For the most part men wore western dress. One thing that didn't require much adjustment was language. Although the official language is Hindi, English is very widely used in both speech and writing, though we did have to listen very carefully in order to understand English spoken with an Indian accent.

Saturday afternoon we visited the Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales) Museum, a Victorian building which featured historic Indian art, especially from western India.

The opening conference event on Saturday included a colorful presentation of traditional Indian dances, plus a modern "Bollywood" number. Over the next three days, there were presentations by Indian judges, law professors, and practitioners on a wide range of topics, including constitutional and administrative law, human rights, women's rights, legal education, legal literature, and many others. India has a common law system, but with unique aspects based on traditional Indian values.

One particularly fascinating aspect of Indian law was the use of "Directive Principles of State Policy." These are principles that are recognized as being unenforceable, but yet are guaranteed by the Indian Constitution as fundamental rights, and are used as the basis for governance decisions. The cornerstone is Article 21 which states: "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."

It was explained that the concept of "life" in Article 21 has been expanded to include everything which makes life desirable, including economic, social, and cultural rights. Among these are the rights to shelter, dignity, gender justice, health and medical aid, education, and the right to earn a livelihood.

Despite the Indian government's legal commitment to human rights, extreme poverty, homelessness, and unhealthy conditions continue to be widespread. Beggars and peddlers, many of them children, are commonplace, and often bang on car windows when cars are stopped in traffic. In the cities makeshift shelters occupy any available space, and in the older sections of cities and in villages animals run loose and trash is everywhere.

Another extremely interesting aspect of Indian law was the power and functioning of the judiciary. Although their court structure sounds very similar to ours, with a Supreme Court and "High" Courts in each state (though there are not separate federal and state systems), the courts are not limited in the same way by separation of powers or standing.

Courts are free to launch their own investigations or fashion remedies whenever injustices are brought to their attention or they find that rights are being violated. Also, juries are not used; cases are decided by the judges. However, some matters such as domestic disputes and wills are covered by "personal laws" based on various religious codes.

There were also several library tours, including one public and two special research libraries. They felt like a trip back in time. Although the libraries did have some computers, there were card catalogs (one of them with handwritten paper cards). The libraries were dark, dreary and un-air-conditioned. (And December highs in Mumbai were about 90, which is cooler than the summer.) But the public library was packed with people and the research libraries had such treasures as a 14th century manuscript written on palm leaf.

The last day featured an excursion by boat to Elephanta Island, where we visited a cave temple devoted to the Hindu God Shiva the Destroyer. The temple carvings date from the 4th to 9th centuries and the caves are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the island we also saw wild monkeys and freely wandering cattle. (At another site we saw wild parrots as well.)

The travel company that handled arrangements for the conference also offered several optional excursions, and my husband and I had booked the "Golden Triangle" tour which features many historic sites in Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi. We flew from Mumbai to Jaipur to begin our tour, and then had our own driver for the trips from Jaipur to Agra and Agra to Delhi, and our own guide in each location. We saw incredibly beautiful and ornate historic forts, palaces, and tombs, including the Taj Mahal.

The road trip also provided a glimpse of rural Indian life, which appeared to have changed little in thousands of years. We saw women doing manual labor in the fields, drawing water from wells, and carrying huge burdens on their heads. In the villages, we saw people living in tiny structures that clearly had nothing even remotely related to modern conveniences, and crowded marketplaces with wandering animals and a myriad of people, products, and vehicles that overwhelmed the senses!

On the roads we saw every possible type of conveyance -- camel-drawn carts, motor-driven vehicles of every size, shape and age, bicycle rickshaws, and loaded carts pushed and pulled by people. We also saw animals wandering on their own or herded by their owners -- cows, water buffaloes, goats, pigs, sheep, elephants.

Our guides were not only very helpful in explaining the sites, but they were also eager to help us understand Indian culture and religion. We learned much about the dominant religion, Hinduism (80%), about the caste system (which still exists culturally, though not legally), about how most marriages are still arranged, and about how the divorce rate is low and extended families live together. We found India to be a land of contrasts -- from incredible beauty and wealth, to abject poverty and filth. It was an amazing experience!

We had some significant delays on the return trip (including an unscheduled refueling stop in Boston), so the return flight lasted about 20 hours rather than the scheduled 16. We arrived home at last on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 11, very tired and very appreciative of life in the United States, but also very grateful for having had the opportunity to visit India!