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India: Arunachal’s first woman judge is in court

Nov 17, 2013

This achievement of Arunachal’s first woman judge is remarkable considering she belongs to the Miju Mishmi tribe, which is dwindling in numbers, writes Abdul Gani.

Tezu: She was just another regular girl, carefree and full of life. She had a happy childhood, growing up in a neighbourhood nestled amidst the pristine Himalayas. As an adolescent she was not really sure of her life plans or ambitions, but today she has created history and brought glory not just to her family but to her community as well. Meet Jaweplu Chai, 40, the first female judge in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Even before she made the headlines for her appointment as the additional district and sessions’ judge at Basar in West Siang district, Chai had distinguished herself by topping this year’s Grade I Arunachal Pradesh Judicial Service (APJS) examination. This achievement is certainly remarkable considering she belongs to the Miju Mishmi tribe, which is not just dwindling in numbers – it barely constitutes a population of 30,000 – but is generally perceived to be one of the most backward in the state. Chai, in fact, is the first woman lawyer from this community.

Her journey from being a youngster not quite sure of her abilities or ambitions to a confident and accomplished career woman, has been an interesting one. The youngest of 16 siblings she had never been entrusted with any real responsibilities at home. Moreover, being a sports buff, she was happier spending time outdoors with friends rather than slaving over her school books. What changed her attitude was her mother’s absolute insistence that her children pursue quality education. Once Chai understood the importance of this, there was no looking back. She reveals, “I had no plans of joining the legal profession. When the time came to pick a professional stream, I was keen on pursuing medicine – an MBBS degree followed by a post-graduate degree in surgery was what I had in mind. But when I got admission into law and began college, I realised that I had made the right choice.”

Her various academic achievements over the years only proved that she has indeed made the right decision. For higher studies Chai moved to Shillong, the picturesque capital of the neighbouring state of Meghalaya. She did her Bachelor of Arts from Shillong College followed by a Bachelor of Education from the Post Graduate Training College in that city. She then went on to acquire an LLB degree from Shillong Law College in 1998.

Over the next 13 years, Chai built up a good practice at the Guwahati High Court Naharlagun Permanent Bench and Session Courts, until she was selected as a session’s judge in her home state. She says, “I am glad that through my profession I can help people get justice and that too without inordinate delays. There is nothing more satisfying to me now than this.”

While she is comfortable with the responsibility she now shoulders, developing this maturity to cope with it was not all that simple for her. In fact, when she was preparing for the state law examination Chai felt weighed down by the burden of her family’s expectations. She recalls with a smile, “I was so fearful of letting my family and my people down that the stress began to affect my mental and physical health. That’s when I paused, took hold of myself, and decided that I couldn’t buckle under pressure. I needed to be strong and unafraid of what life had in store for me. As a judge I am ready for all the challenges that come my way and hope to make a difference especially in the lives of the local women.”

This long-time resident of Tezu, the headquarters of Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit district, feels that the law has a major role to play in ensuring the safety of girls and women. In fact, she is convinced that it is only through greater awareness on issues related to gender crimes that social attitudes can alter. As she put it emphatically, “The law needs to be enforced most stringently when it comes to such offences.” Expressing her particular concern at the manner in which practices like witch hunting continue to plague women even today, Chai is of the opinion that only education can be the game changer.

Of course, while ensuring women have greater access to speedier justice is a priority for Chai, she is also committed to being objective and upholding the law, so that people’s faith in the judicial system is restored. She says, “I may have become an example of women’s empowerment in my state and my presence in the courtroom may give women a feeling of security. But as a judge I am conscious of the fact that I have to be neutral and enforce the law in that spirit.”

A lot of Chai’s sense of fairness is inspired by the traditional justice system of her tribe. The Kebangs (village councils), which have been dealing with disputes in villages across Arunachal Pradesh for centuries, are known for their success in resolving local disputes with ease. “Many complicated cases are solved through the Kebangs. The best part of this process is that the decision is almost always arrived at with the mutual consent of all parties involved and so there are no grievances that surface later on. Relations remain cordial and the cases get disposed off expeditiously,” observes the woman, who attributes her success to the unconditional support of her family, especially her mother and sisters. At the same time Chai has witnessed, during her career, cases where the opposing parties have approached the Supreme Court for the most minor disputes, leading to great deal of monetary loss as well as personal strife.

Chai knows that she has a tough task ahead as she presides over different cases in her courtroom. But despite the challenges, she continues to be optimistic. “Using my position, I would like to try and eliminate all the biased practices that women are being subjected to in the name of customs. I want to tell those who are fighting against atrocities and injustices not to get bogged down by their suffering. At the same time, I also want to advise them not to take any unnecessary risks and be vigilant at all times. Every woman can’t be a Mary Kom [champion female boxer and Northeast icon]!” comments Chai.

This is one woman who believes that if one is true to oneself and raise one’s voice against injustice fearlessly, God and the law will be on your side!

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