Interview with Sanjukta Basu

Sanjukta Basu is a writer, photographer, lawyer and a feminist scholar. She has worked as Communications Consultant for non-profits working on women rights, and held a legal practice. She is currently a Columnist on various print and online media. She writes on women, politics, minority rights, and social issues. She is pursuing a PhD on Women and Gender Studies. The auto-ethnographic doctoral research deals with gender based trolling of Indian women, radical right politics and women’s political participation. In 2009, she was awarded the TED Fellowship for her blogging and digital activism efforts. 

Q. It is a pleasure to have you with us here today. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Okay, so some bit of myself is already out there on Google search. I am a 43-year-old single woman, never married. I studied law. I’m one of India’s few feminist photographers. I’m a writer and started with writing blogs, and then moved on to writing for media. I recently co-authored a book with one of India’s ex CBI, joint director, Mr. Shantanu Sen. It is his life memorial contextualized with the current Indian politics. Apart from that, I’ve also co-authored a few chapters in some of the political books related to India’s latest political movement that has happened in the last five years and experiences of travelling with Karwan-e-Mohabbat which is run by Harsh Mandar. And for some reason, I try to be a lot of things. I’ve also dabbled my hands in making short films. So it’s one of those curses, jack of all and master of none. Jack of all means you have a bit of creative talent. So that’s me, I have no qualms in saying that I have a bit of talent in a lot of things. But my drawback is I don’t follow through with the things I start. I finished my law in 2002 and then I practiced for about a year and a half. I took up jobs, which were related to my legal profession but then I moved on to become a writer because I always had a flair for writing. I also was very much into the digital media which was very new at that time. Digital Media started in India around 2004-2005 which was also around the time when I also started my career as a working woman. So I had my job, and I also had internet access and that’s how I eventually thought that I was good at communication. So I took up communications for nonprofit sectors. I worked as a communication manager in the nonprofit sector, which has got nothing to do with my law degree. Currently, I am a freelance writer, and I’m also pursuing my PhD in Women and Gender Studies alongside. I did masters also on the same subject.

 I make a lot of comments on Twitter. My political opinion gets all the trolling on Twitter. I’m very dedicated to my political opinion on Twitter and it takes a lot of my time, so it’s definitely a part of my life. 

Q. In a few interviews in the past, you have been given the title of the feistiest troll Slayer on social media. What are your thoughts on it? Did any of your legal skills help you in becoming what you are today?

Well, so my legal degree and my knowledge of law help me in every step of my life. I take a lot of risk by making a lot of political opinions but I’m always soaked because of my legal knowledge. I’m able to choose my words wisely so that I don’t get into legal trouble. I know till what point it is your freedom of speech and when can crossing that line become slander or sedition or defamation for the other person. So as a lawyer, it helps me immensely. I’m also able to strike back at people, for example, if there is some abuse, I’m able to tell them how that abuse is actually illegal and can threaten them with legal consequences because I know that it’s easy for me to approach the court because I wouldn’t have to keep paying the lawyers’ fees, as I can present my own case. So of course, the legal profession helps me in every step of the way. Recently, I took up a fight with Times Now channel and got a judgment in my favour from NBSA. I presented my own case there. Initially, I had a lawyer who sent the legal notice and agreed to do it pro bono. But after that, I had no lawyer. I can take the risk of fighting because I have a legal background, and I know my rights and I know my duties. So far as the troll Slayer is concerned; the thing is that I am someone who does not ignore the troll. I get about 500 to 700 mentions on Twitter per day so obviously, I don’t read all of them. I have quality filters on my notifications. But some of them I do give back, sometimes by using abusive language, sometimes by being polite, or being sarcastic and sometimes in legal language. We always knew the Internet had various kinds of hateful conduct but this particular Twitter trolling has increased in the last four or five years. I keep telling other women also to not ignore them because trolling is exactly like the street harassment that women go through. When we go out on the road, we might be walking our way and somebody standing in some corner, making a lewd remark or grope or pinch, etc. So trolling has become that kind of a thing these days and if you ignore them, they will only be emboldened. That’s exactly what happens to women when they go out. Because we feel ashamed and embarrassed by somebody making a lewd, obscene remark at us, and so instead of giving it back to them, we kind of just hurriedly walk away. 

Q. How would you describe your life in law school? What all extracurricular activities did you indulge in at law school? How would you describe your life at law school? 

To be honest, it was not too happening or interesting. I spent my first year in Campus Law Centre (CLC) which was a full time, morning to afternoon college. Since it was very far from R.K Puram where I was living, and I had to travel all the way to CLC in North Delhi. I shifted to LC 2, which was an evening class. My classes were very interesting and I really enjoyed everything I studied. I liked the faculty at Delhi University Law and the study materials. There was not much social interaction, and since it was in the evening, one was always wanting to go back home quickly. During the daytime, I would work, as I had taken up a few jobs here and there. I had a lot of time in my hand and most of the times, I would write and read. But to be honest, I was not a very social, outgoing or an outspoken person. I mean, somebody who would see me today would not even remember me from Law College. Things changed drastically because of the Internet and blogging because the whole world opened up. 

Q. Did you develop a knack for writing in law school itself? How did you make this transition after completing law?

Oh I had a knack of for writing even as a teenager when I used to write my diaries. I would always imagine that somebody someday, will read these diaries, and will be like, Oh, this is her diary; just like Anne Frank during the times of the Holocaust. I always had this ambition to be famous. I used to think, one day I’ll be famous, and people will find these diaries, and then they’ll know about my life. So, I had this thing for writing from a very early age. 

Transitioning to writing and blogging was not a very conscious decision. Because after Law College, I practised at the High Court and Tis Hazari for one and a half years, but it was a struggle. Nobody in my family was from a legal background. So when you don’t have anybody in the legal background, it’s a challenge. The big law firms don’t hire you. Law firms will hire either if you can get good judges or if you can get good cases. So, one needs to have connections in the rich corporate world or connections in the judicial world to be valued in the law firms. Otherwise, if you’re just a middle class, government employee’s daughter or son, you don’t have much value in the law firms. Your other option is to really work hard in this very male-dominated court environment. One has to start with the Criminal Code and be prepared to deal with all kinds of criminals. One needs to be tough to make it on one’s own. Since I didn’t have any connection I struggled for one and a half year. I then got restless to earn more money, to be independent, to stand my own feet and get my first car. So I took up a job in the legal profession in an NGO, a women rights organization, as part of the legal team. It was a yearlong project. Once it got over, I went to the next which again had something to do with law. I joined the Manupatra research team where I, along with the team, would read a lot of judgements and make headnotes for the same. After that, I took up a job in the field of securities law dealing with Stock Exchanges, SEBI and FEMA, FERA kind of laws. And then I took up a real estate law job in Bangalore. In all, I stuck around in the legal profession for quite some time. Although in between I had sort of dabbled between the corporate sector and NGO but law was the thing. But one thing which remained constant was this blog that I had started in 2004 after reading one magazine, I think, Hindustan Times. I was very excited about it since I have always been extremely passionate about writing because I thought it was cool that it allowed me to write my diary which could be read by people in real-time. Through Blogging, I got feedback quickly with people already telling me, oh, you write so well, or you are so bold. My first few blogs in 2004 were all about my personal issues with men folks, heartbreak, romance, my sexuality and all of that. That was so new for the tech generation at that time, no women would talk about their boyfriends and their love life and here I was talking about sex, romance and love on my blogs. So, I instantly became popular for doing something that nobody did before. So, the transition as such was very slow, and it was not conscious. It is just that I kept writing on my blog and eventually I guess by 2006-2007, I realized the parallel life that is so different from law, but one that is very, very important to me. I almost cannot now make a choice between which one is more important for me – my profession as a lawyer or as a writer. That’s what Chetan Bhagat did too. He started writing and quit his job. I consider doing all of that. But I am a scatterbrain – I have my hand into too many things and I don’t do one thing at a time. I think in 2009 finally, I made a complete switchover when I quit my real estate job and moved back to Delhi and took up a job with a campaign called Bell Bajao against the domestic violence issue. I guess I was a good fit to the organization because I was well versed with the domestic violence law, because of my law degree and I also had a great flair of writing, as well as in using digital technologies. So blogging and social media for the NGO sector was very new at that time, they did not even have Facebook pages. They did not even know what Twitter was. And I launched the internet component of the campaign which was a breakthrough. This, I think, was the major switch. And since then, I have been with the NGO sector with the communication side, and law had sort of taken a backseat until recently when I did my Times Now case, which, now again, gives me this push to be a lawyer. I really miss being a lawyer. I really miss my robe and miss the courtroom. I have been eagerly waiting to go to the courtroom. Had it not been for the COVID lockdown, I would have liked to adorn the robe again and go to the court. In fact, I filed an IA in the Sudharshan TV case in the Supreme Court, and I really wanted to approach the court myself. 

Q. You work as a photographer, a columnist, a writer, and also as a feminist scholar. What exactly does a typical day look like, in your life?

I don’t do all of this at the same time. I mean, these are into phases. So, therefore, maybe, on a typical day, I’m doing just, maybe one thing. I have interest and talent in a whole range of things but I’m not a multitasker. I have phases, I have zones. Once I start working on let’s say, a photography project, for days I will be doing my photography project. I would mentioned 2 of my photography projects: one is women with tattoos, and the other one is gender and public space. For both the projects, I travelled to different cities of India for about 15-20 days, taking photos, meeting women and taking their interviews. So a typical day when I am doing such a project is full of these activities. But when I’m not doing photography, then I might be just at home and writing, for example, if the political scenario of the country is very heated, then I probably would be writing two, three columns a day, because my editors would be asking for columns. Some of the most common activities on a day to day basis will be Twitter, reading the newspaper, cooking. Reading news makes me very angry and Twitter is like this vent out place. Sometimes I also do video blogging since that is becoming quite popular these days. And then I also enjoy my leisure time watching something on TV. Thing is I don’t have a routine in my life. I also study for my PhD. My topic for PhD is gender-trolling so Twitter also becomes part of my research. Whenever I’m looking at Twitter, I’m also taking screenshots, making my notes. 

Q. How important is it for a law student or anyone for that matter to go out and voice his or her opinion?

That’s the least we can do. I keep telling everybody you don’t have to go out on the street and protest but raise your voice wherever you are, even online. It is our responsibility to let the world know that whatever happening is not right, that there is a resistance, an opposition. If journalists are the fourth estate, lawyers are also another pillar of democracy. I have done a little bit of legal journalism with the famous publishing house, ELT, Excise Law Times with Mr. RK Jain. Now legal journalism has taken off in a big way. I think lawyers have a great role to play in this moment in India’s history, which is going through a great journey, whether you are on this side of the political spectrum or that, right side or left side, people are fighting, war of ideas is on. We really have the responsibility to make our voices heard in this war. 

Q. What advice you would like to give law students opting to choose a career purely out of passion the just mere convention/pressure?

Well, you know it’s tricky. Sometimes it’s not just a student who needs courage but it’s also about the parental pressure and also the peer pressure. It’s not easy. The first thing I tell people about my introduction is that I am a single woman, I’m 43 years old, and I’m single. I say that because I think it’s a brave thing to be single in this country. Those kinds of social pressure are what we have to challenge and fight. I guess the freedom of chasing any dream comes from being free from responsibilities. Responsibilities are not coming from your heart, and are not your own dreams but are imposed by parents. Job, marriage, children, house, mortgage, those sort of things. We are already looking at a future where there is no job security. Every industry is doing away with tenured jobs. Everybody, from journalists to lawyers, to doctors, to engineers, is working on a contractual basis. So the conventional format of education, job and marriage is broken, I would strongly advise the new generation to first chase your dreams and postpone marriage and children related pressure and responsibilities. Try your hands at different things also. Now if you get a campus selection, and then you are straight into a job, then you don’t even have the courage to take risk of quitting and trying out something different. How will you even know what you are good at? Or what is your true passion? So you have to take that risk. I gave a TEDx talk on this, how my CV looks bad, “she keeps quitting, she’s not stable, she’s not bankable.” So I know it looks bad, but eventually, if you want to make your own path, something for yourself, doesn’t matter what you CV looks like it. It is important for you to try out different things to even know what you really like doing. Once you get that courage to be experimental, you would automatically be able to chase your passion and your dreams. 

(NOTE – This has been reproduced from a telephonic conversation between Sanjukta Basu and Abhishek Jain)

Find out more about Sanjukta Basu – 

Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.

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