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LGD 2007 (1) : Upendra Baxi - A Tribute

Upendra Baxi: A Tribute

William Twining,
Quain Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus,
Faculty of Laws,
University College London


I first met Upendra Baxi at a conference on law in multilingual societies in Hong Kong in 1992. I had read some of his writings and heard many stories about him. His reputation was intriguing, indeed confusing: on the one hand, an outspoken commentator on the Indian Supreme Court, actively involved in social action, public interest litigation, and law reform; a powerful voice in condemning violence to women, opposing dam projects, and securing justice for the victims of the Bhopal disaster. Yet, in tandem with this, he was a respected scholar of Indian constitutional law and Western jurisprudence and influential on legal education. He had been Director of Research at the Indian Law Institute, and Vice-Chancellor of not one, but two universities, South Gujerat (1982-85) and when we met, still in charge of the University of Delhi. To Western ears a radical activist as Vice-Chancellor is an oxymoron. Small wonder that Julius Stone categorised Baxi as a Marxist natural lawyer. Others have called him a post-modernist with passion. No label quite fits him..

In Hong Kong I immediately recognized him by his mane __ the wonderful head of flowing white hair that makes him stand out in any crowd. I approached him, introduced myself, and almost at once asked: “Do you enjoy being a Vice-Chancellor?” He smiled, paused and then said: When the gentlemen of the press asked me what my goals were for the University of Delhi, I replied: ‘To make more people smile on campus’”. He paused and grinned: “I have succeeded.” We immediately became friends. I cannot, of course, swear to the exact words1.

Upen’s sustained interest in theoretical aspects of human rights is quite recent. During the past four years he has been one of my “subjects” in a project to make the ideas about human rights of some “Southern” jurists better known to Anglo-American legal audiences. I have chosen four individuals, mainly for their significance, but also because I know all of them and their work quite well. Francis Deng, Abdullahi An Na’im, Yash Ghai, and Upendra Baxi are common law-trained jurists who have kept in touch with their roots as scholars and activists, but whose writings are accessible to Western audiences. All four have been both scholars and activists each of whom has a quite distinctive perspective on human rights. They all belong to the immediate post-colonial generation in their own countries. This project has the advantages of intimacy and the inhibitions of friendship. It has the disadvantage of having to deal with perpetually moving targets, as all four are prolific writers whose thought is continually developing. My advice to anyone undertaking this kind of work is: focus on dead jurists.

Upen is by far the most prolific of this quartet. Since I started on this project, I have received over twenty new pieces by him, some published, some still in draft. There is the promise and the threat of more. The main work on this article was completed in 2005. I have not tried to change this version, which in some respects is already out of date, but I hope to revise and expand it into a reader in which these four distinctive voices can be heard directly without too much intervention from an interloper. Sydney Smith said of Jeremy Bentham (who, perhaps surprisingly, is one of Baxi’s heroes): “ Neither gods, men, nor booksellers can doubt the necessity of a middleman between Mr Bentham and his public….The great mass of readers will rather choose to become acquainted with Mr Bentham through the medium of the reviews ….after the eminent philosopher has been washed, trimmed, shaved, and forced into clean linen.”2 There have been moments when I have struggled with the ebullience and convolutions of Upen’s prose, but I hope that this rather dry washing, trimming and shaving of a small part of his works will stimulate readers to go to the originals, for no clean linen version can hope to catch the power, imagination, and scope of much of his writing.

During his years abroad Upen has kept in touch with his roots in India. Now that he is returning home, he will no doubt continue to converse, speak, write, and agitate. It is probably fair to say that the bulk of his work, especially his earlier writings, was mainly addressed to Indian audiences. I hope that he will still keep in touch with his wider readership outside the sub-continent. Indeed, there is one further service he can do for academic law in this country and beyond. The Indian legal system is one of the most interesting in the world. Unfortunately the sustained study of its history, constitution, legal thought, and legal culture has been relatively neglected in this country for many years. It seems that more attention has been paid recently to Africa, Eastern Europe, and latterly China. It would be an enormous contribution if Upendra Baxi, either by his own writings, or by stimulating and encouraging scholars at home and in UK, could lead a revival of transnational scholarly interest in law in India.

1 Editors’ Note: Baxi’s own recollection is: “When the gentlement of the press asked me what were my top priorities as Delhi VC , I said: ' First I wish to see far many happy faces on the campus and second I do wish to enjoy the assignment!'

2Sydney Smith review of Bentham’s Book of Fallacies 42 Edinburgh Review 367 (1825).