After a year and a half spent defending prisoners in capital punishment cases in New Delhi, Ragini Ahuja ’16 LL.M. decided to exchange the courtroom for the classroom to develop new, more effective ways to advocate for her clients.
“I took this time off to understand the tools needed to look at capital punishment from different perspectives,” says Ahuja, who received her law degree from the University of Delhi in 2012. “Not just through a litigator’s lens, which can be limiting.”
An LL.M. Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School for the 2015–2016 academic year, Ahuja is using her time in Morningside Heights to study the broader issues surrounding capital defense work, including the effects of mass incarceration and the resulting mental health issues.
“Many of my clients on death row are in solitary confinement, and for me it feels like an excess of state power to completely alienate someone from all possible human contact,” she says. “To have this notion of life where you think you can keep somebody away from all manner of human interaction and contact—and it’s OK to do it—that’s extremely disturbing to me.”
Ahuja adds that the capital punishment cases she works on point to broader governmental and abuse-of-power issues within India, and she questions certain government practices, ranging from news and book censorship to the banning of beef consumption. “Sometimes the state decides it’s in its best interest to use these kinds of means to do away with people and issues it has some kind of discomfort with,” she says.
After graduation, Ahuja will return to India armed with an enhanced skill set tailored for challenging some of these practices.
“I’ve found it reassuring to know that the Law School recognizes the importance of human rights work and provides an environment, through this fellowship, where advocates can develop the skills and strategies they need,” she says.