You may sympathise with his visual impairment till the time you see him from a distance. But the moment he starts speaking, all your sympathy will transmute into a jaw-dropping surprise. His confidence, conviction and knowledge about his field emphasise that excellence entertains no barriers.
Meet Pankaj Sinha, one of the most prominent disability rights lawyers of India with many headline making landmark judgments to his credit including concessional railway e-tickets booking case and driving license for deaf case. He has represented International Jurist Organisation (IJO) in UN Department of Public Information 58th Annual DPI / NGO Conference, 2005, held in New York. He has also represented IJO in the annual meeting of Academic Council United Nations System (ACUNS), 2005, held in Ottawa, Canada. He has recently been a panelist at the ICON-S 2016 Conference held in Berlin, Germany on “Borders, Otherness and Public Law”.
His achievements reiterate that there is huge difference between having sight and having vision. Despite facing restrictions because of lack of sight, he is not restricted to himself. He runs an NGO named “PACE’’ which is actively contributing in the field of education and health. He has also edited a book named “Indian Laws Protecting Children” based on juveniles published by Human Rights Law Network (HRLN).
WeCapable brings to you excerpts of the interview which our team had with Advocate Pankaj Sinha.
WeCapable: Please tell us about your background; your birthplace, childhood and education.
Pankaj Sinha: I originally hail from Bhurkunda, a small town in the Ramgarh district of Jharkhand. I was initially home educated by my cousin under my grandfather’s guidance. My cousin used to draw letters on ground with the help of a stick and I used to identify them. My grandfather promised my cousin that he would give him five rupees per day for teaching me.
Later on, a home-tutor was appointed to educate me. I orally learned a lot but she was not able to make me learn writing. So, I was taken to a nearby school named Shishu Vidya Mandir. Thereafter, I joined St. Michael’s School in Ranchi till 5th Standard. After 5th standard, I was shifted to Delhi where I attended J.P.N. Senior Secondary School which is run by the Blind Relief Association. I was there till 12th standard. I did my graduation from St. Stephan’s College and law course from Campus Law Centre, New Delhi.
WeCapable: Was getting into a reputed college like St. Stephan’s as per your career strategy?
Pankaj Sinha: No, I never really desired for it. I wanted to pursue law right after school, but my father rejected the idea and persuaded me to do graduation from St. Stephan’s. As I was not getting convinced, he did a deal with me that I would be paid 5000 rupees if I made it to St. Stephan’s. The amount was so huge that it worked like a motivation for me and I got into St. Stephan’s. Now when I look back, I understand my father’s concern for me. What he looked for me back then, I wasn’t in a position to look it for myself.
WeCapable: Many visually impaired students face problem in finding a suitable writer for examinations — especially the entrance exams as they are conducted for very specific subjects. Did you face any issue of this sort?
Pankaj Sinha: I never faced any problem in finding writers for myself. With the kind of personal rapport I shared with my friends, they were more than happy to come and write the exams for me. I always had friends who would easily agree to help me.
WeCapable: Why did you choose law? Were there any apprehensions in our mind about the suitability of the legal field before you pursued it?
Pankaj Sinha: As I mentioned, I always wanted to do law but after St. Stephan’s I became more determined to pursue law. My parents were not convinced about my career decision. They had many apprehensions and questions in front of them considering my disability and my nature. They kept on constantly telling me that law is not a suitable career choice for me but I was determined. I never thought disability was a problem for me. I never treated disability like a stumbling block or hindrance ever.
My father initially even refused to pay any fees for the law course. In fact, just to convince me that law is not an appropriate field for me he called a lawyer at home. The lawyer was trying to convince me that the field is not suitable for me. He kept on repeating that it’s very difficult to make money in this field even for a normal lawyer let alone someone who can’t see, but I discarded his suggestions. I simply asked my father to help me receive good education as I was confident that I would manage the rest once I am well-educated. It was my conviction and my determination that I finally won my father’s heart so he agreed to my decision and gave me the admission fees for Law College.
I was confident of not just pursuing law but succeeding in it. I wanted to do social work through law. For my own sustenance, I thought of working alongside my legal practice in some government job. I wasn’t aware back then that I can’t work while enrolled in Bar. Nevertheless, I am satisfied the way life panned out for me. I have done what I could.
WeCapable: How did you start your practice after completing studies in law? What were the challenges which you faced once you decided to go for legal practice?
Pankaj Sinha: After completing the law course from Delhi University, I joined Mr. S.K. Rungta for one year. Post working at Mr. Rungta’s office, I started my independent practice in the juvenile court.
When I went to the Juvenile Court as an independent lawyer for the first time, I tried to sense what was happening. I realized there were tables, chairs and people were sitting but I wasn’t aware as to how they were really practicing. I decided to put my table beside other lawyers to start off but the already practicing lawyers started protesting against me. They didn’t allow me to put my table.
So, I started looking for a place. There was some space near the juvenile lock ups in the Court premises. I decided to put my table and chair there. When I did that, I got a call from staff member of the Judge who asked me to remove my table and chair. I didn’t remove it. Later, the judge called me and herself asked me remove it. I made the Judge aware of my status that I didn’t have any place to sit and other lawyers were not allowing me to place my table.
She said, “no no, you go and sit there (with other lawyers)”.
I requested her to talk to other lawyers but she refused. Thus, I also refused to remove my chair.
She then said, “I will have to take some action against you.”
To this, I replied by asking her to take action against those lawyers as well who had not let me sit validly. I then moved an application that our conversation had happened. Finally, she convened a meeting of all the lawyers, and I was accommodated. This is my story of entering into the Juvenile Court.
WeCapable: Did you face difficulty in getting your clients?
Pankaj Sinha: Once I started practicing there, the first case which came to me was that of a bail. I wasn’t confident about the process, so I advised the client to go to another lawyer. Why would I let someone know that I wasn’t confident about the process? (laughing). This made me feel that I missed a golden opportunity to start with. After that, a rape case came to me and I took up that case and I won it. The success gave me a confidence of doing well in my very first case. Initially, I wasn’t being paid much as I didn’t know what fees I should charge. Further, people started taking me for granted as I took their cases sometimes for nominal fees.
So, I decided to raise my fees at par with the best lawyers in that Court irrespective of who the person is. I experienced an increase in the number of cases suddenly. People started perceiving me as a good lawyer. Within 8-9 months, I had more than 40 cases all across the Delhi’s lower courts. I later joined HRLN as I believed that it would expose me to variety of cases in a small span of time which would help me to move to High Court soon. My vision was very clear. Money was never my utmost priority.
WeCapable: Lawyers wait for years to get a chamber in the High Court premises. Was it easy for you to get your lawyer’s chamber?
Pankaj Sinha: I never knew I would be allotted a chamber someday. When I was with HRLN, one Delhi High Court Judge named Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul got really impressed with my arguments and desired to allot me a chamber. He inquired about my enrollment whereabouts from the registrar and Delhi Bar Association Secretary. Both of them couldn’t find any details about me as I was not a member of the Delhi High Court Bar Association.
Later, I did take up the membership when chamber allotment was being proposed. However, there was a technical glitch which was raised during the allotment committee meeting. Justice Kaul was also transferred in the meantime, but he played a vital role in resolving the issue before going. So, when the second allotment committee followed up my case, I was allotted the chamber. People keep on thinking that the chamber allotment was because of the disability quota but I wasn’t even a member back then let alone applying for the quota. It was actually the argument before Justice Kaul that paved way to this chamber where we are sitting right now.
WeCapable: How challenging it is for a person with disability to survive a rigorously competing legal field? What are your suggestions to students and future lawyers, especially for the ones who are affected with disability?
Pankaj Sinha: I can tell you it is cut throat competition here and I cannot say that just because I am a person with disability I should be given some kind of priority. I don’t consider myself a special case. This field doesn’t cater to such feelings and before entering this field one should be well aware of this fact. If things are not according to us, we have to mend our ways to suit to the environment and make the environment accessible for our own self. I have been a part of many important cases so far. I have been in the panel counsel of Delhi Government, Punjab & Sind Bank, Delhi High Court Legal Aid Cell, etc. Certainly, I am not allotted these cases or appointed as a panel counsel because I am a person with disability. At the end of the day, it’s your merit which speaks for you.
I have never taken refuge in my disability. I have always desired to be known in my fraternity as a lawyer who has substance in his work and not as the one who is suffering from some kind of disability. I strive towards excellence in the same way as any other good lawyer would do and I wouldn’t settle for average just because I cannot see.
WeCapable: You are a prominent name amongst the lawyers who work for disability rights. Did you always aspire for this?
Pankaj Sinha: Honestly, I hardly knew about existence of laws related to disability when I entered my law college. The first case I did on disability was of three customs officers. All the three had some kind of disability, and they were not getting promotions for last twenty years. It was then that I started thinking about the problems faced by the persons with disabilities.
WeCapable: Please throw light on some important cases which you have been associated with, especially in the field of disability.
Pankaj Sinha: I have done disability related cases for many organisations including Sambhavana, National Deaf Association and even individual cases of persons with disabilities. One very significant case I did was that of the life insurance scheme for government employees. Under the Central Postal Life Insurance Policy, there were some disparities against persons with disabilities. Employees having any disability were only getting an insurance of one lakh rupees as against non-disabled employees for whom the sum ensured was ten lakhs rupees. Employees with disabilities also had to pay extra premium. The judgment finally went in favour of persons with disabilities.
Another important case was with respect to the driving license for deaf. That case was done by me and later argued by Mr. Colin Gonsalves (HRLN) as well. This was an interesting case because in my two months of research, I found only one paper where the Delhi Police wrote that even deaf can drive with the use of an extra mirror. That’s the legal part of it but for this case I also went for a practical experience. I took help of a person who is deaf and asked him to drive a car.
He drove the car throughout the day and then he asked me through his daughter if he was driving finely. I just said to that man that he will get his driving license. Being an important petition on disability, I knew a lot was at stake for me as well. Nevertheless, we succeeded in the matter. Now a deaf person can take a driving test and on being found competent, he/she will be allotted the license.
Yet another important case was that of e-ticketing. Previously, when a railway ticket was booked from the railway counter, it was booked at a concessional rate. However, when the same ticket was booked through the internet, passengers were charged full amount. The result of the case is that the government has done away with the past practice and we get concessions while booking the e-tickets as well. In fact, the government has also sanctioned a budget for this purpose. There are many other positive judgments as well on disability rights including the one where Delhi University was directed to ensure that the study materials for all the courses were made accessible to the visually impaired students before they introduce their four-year undergraduate programme. Similarly, I have also fought for the cause of leprosy affected people.
WeCapable: We have talked about your professional life. Tell us something about your family life.
Pankaj Sinha: In my family, I have my wife and a son. I had a love marriage in the year 2012 which was also not a usual one. My wife was working as programme officer in HRLN’s RTI Department and I was there as a lawyer. She kept on listening about my achievements through office colleagues and probably she developed a soft corner for me. We decided to pursue each other but our parents initially did not agree for the marriage as we were from different castes and I was suffering from a disability.
Our relatives did try to frighten me, but we hardly paid any attention to it and decided to move ahead and marry. We planned our marriage all by ourselves – booked the venue, distributed invites to the relatives and friends, etc. By inviting all relatives and friends, probably, we built some kind of societal pressure on our parents’ minds that they finally agreed to marriage and came at our wedding and things went well. (Laughing)
WeCapable: Persons with disability face confidence issues due to discrimination. This restricts them from mixing up with the able-bodied people. What is your opinion about it?
Pankaj Sinha: All these things depend on the kind of relationship you build around you. Even at St. Stephen’s, amidst most students belonging to the creamy layer of the society, my friend circle used to be the largest one. My room was always filled with friends which usually I never observed with other blind students. Even today when I am practicing, people keep on coming to me. I never really treated my own self any different. I believe one should be ready and prepared to come on road and face the realities of life. In a country like India, you will always face some kind of discrimination or the other – be it caste issues, faith issues or disability issues. If one is not prepared, life will be difficult. It’s totally up to the person how he sees himself in the mirror. What you perceive, it reflects back upon you.
WeCapable: Indeed, that’s how the life should be treated Advocate Pankaj Sinha! Thank you for your precious time and speaking with WeCapable. We are sure our readers will learn a lot from this interview.
Pankaj Sinha: Thank you!