Arundhati Katju ’17 LL.M.
2016–2017 Human Rights Fellow
India has long struggled with the tension between the rule of law and traditional Indian values. Arundhati Katju ’17 LL.M. has found herself many times in the middle of that struggle as a criminal lawyer—one of the few women in that practice area in India.
Earlier this year, in a case that has garnered attention around the world, she drafted a petition to India’s supreme court seeking to overturn the country’s colonial-era sodomy law. While it’s unclear when the court might rule, the latest step could mark the culmination of a winding, 15-year legal battle. She also represented a young transgender man whose parents forced him to discontinue his education.
Katju was drawn to criminal law while attending the National Law School of India University. During internships that put her in close contact with activists and leading human rights lawyers, like Prashant Bhushan, she worked on such issues as the biased implementation of capital punishment and police protection for domestic violence victims.
After graduating, Katju practiced law for five years with one of India’s top criminal lawyers, Sidharth Luthra, before establishing her own firm in 2011. She continued to do white-collar defense work, but also took on more than 100 legal aid cases representing impoverished people against criminal charges.
“In these cases it’s easy to conflate poverty and moral reprehension, so I worked hard to ensure that courts enforced the procedural safeguards,” she says.
Now part of the Human Rights Fellowship program, Katju says she was drawn to Columbia Law School in part because of its highly regarded faculty members who focus on gender and sexuality issues, some of whom have been involved in important LGBT cases. Katju says she wants to spend part of this year reflecting on the direction of her own work, as well as thinking about how to strategically structure complex litigation in India when she returns.
“I also want to use this experience to add a more academic aspect to my practice,” she says. “A big part of why I came is so when I go back to India I can write about, and maybe teach, criminal law and criminal justice.”