From the Salman Khan hit-and-run-case to PIL on the right to dissent, lawyer-activist Abha Singh fights against all forms of injustice

Giving up a flourishing career in the civil services, Abha Singh donned the black robes to combat social injustices, as well as become a strong proponent of #MeToo movement, and the rights of disabled persons. HerStory speaks to the lawyer and activist who is not afraid to take on the powerful.

Lawyer and activist Abha Singh

Abha Singh left a promising career in the Indian civil services to start her life and career as a lawyer in 2012. After 20 years as a bureaucrat, it was time to speak up against injustice and the various issues plaguing the country, and Abha decided becoming a lawyer was the right way to go about it.

Both Abha and her husband, YP Singh, who was previously in the Indian Police Service (IPS), are lawyers. He too left the Service, after exposing corruption during his stint in the CBI, and started a career as a lawyer to fight for those who were wronged by an inefficient and corrupt system.

In a conversation with HerStory, Abha explains why she believes the decision to leave a promising career as a bureaucrat was the right one.

“When my husband quit the IPS, I was upset. But he left for a cause. Once he quit and established himself, he kept pushing me to quit too. He told me that I needed to get onto bigger things. He told me that the Services deprived me of the freedoms of speech and expression and becoming a lawyer would change all that,” she says.

Together, the couple take on the mighty and the powerful – hoping to cleanse the system and ensure that justice is not denied to those seeking it. They had completed their Law degrees while they were in the Services and so it was easy to start off as lawyers at the Bombay High Court.

Taking on powerful people

One of Abha’s high-profile cases has been the Salman Khan hit-and-run case. When the Bollywood star was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in 2002, few were aware of the fact that Abha was one of the main people behind the verdict. She had filed a petition alleging that the Mumbai police was shielding the actor and delaying investigation in the case.  

The case involving Salman Khan was her first. Since then, she has gone on to participate in a number of cases involving celebrities and those in power. Prominent among them are the AIB Knockout Case, the unlawful arrest of two girls in Palghar for their innocent comments on Facebook, her fight for stay against the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which wanted to demolish the ‘Puncham Pyao’ water fountain opposite the Bombay Gymkhana, and many more.

“I have never hesitated to take on powerful people, my case against the proposed Bal Thackeray memorial in Shivaji Park, Dadar, Mumbai, being one. We sent a petition to the BMC Commissioner that it is a heritage site and hence, a memorial cannot be built on the property. A lot of people advised me against the move, but I stood my ground and won,” she adds.

Paying it forward

Her social activism and work as a lawyer go hand-in-hand.

“When we were protesting peacefully against the Asifa incident, the police stopped us from using loudspeakers. How could we reach out to 500 people without resorting to them? I filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) under the right to dissent and received a positive order. I am also working on the rights of disabled persons… all these are ways by which I attempt to give back to the system,” says Abha.

Interestingly, Abha does not take any fees for all these social causes and most of her work is done pro bono. She uses her pension to contribute to social causes, especially the running of her NGO, RannSamar Foundation (named after her father and father-in-law).

“The foundation has adopted a village in Uttar Pradesh to empower girls and women. We offer training in computers, vocational skills like tailoring and spoken English courses. We have also organised computer courses in Tally in a Lucknow jail to help convicts join mainstream society and get a job after they complete their sentence,” she adds.

Through RannSamar she also offers free legal assistance advocacy to helpless women and slum dwellers who have been unfairly persecuted by local authorities and builders for land that is rightfully theirs.

Raised to fight the good fight

Her feisty and fiery attitude (she’s called the bluntest lawyer in the Bombay High Court) comes from a childhood where accent was placed on honesty and good values.

“My father was in the police force and my mother was the first one from her village to pursue a Master’s degree. She couldn’t work but she wanted her daughters to soar high. I went to Loreto Convent, later to JNU, and joined the Services. My sister is a bureaucrat too and works as Commissioner of Income Tax. My mother is largely responsible for who I am today, she taught me the values of honesty and hard work.”

When it comes to women’s issues and gender justice, Abha is always vocal about the right to protest and speak up. She was recently invited by Columbia University to speak on the #MeToo movement in India. “My point is you may talk about business or economics, but if you can’t make a woman feel safe at her workplace, then it’s of no use,” she says.

We ask her about the ongoing controversy surrounding the accusation of sexual harassment against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. She is emphatic when she says the CJI cannot be a judge in his own case. She elaborates, “When the PoSH Act 2013 says you should have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), why was this case not referred to it? If the complainant has taken the lead by filing an affidavit, she should be given a fair hearing. The proper procedure would have been for the CJI to recuse himself from the case.”

Abha points out how harassment of women, be it at home or in the workplace, is a constant feature in our society.

She adds, “Harassment of women in the community has become rampant. Young girls come to me and insinuations have been made. Men are men, and women, however accomplished and economically independent they are, are still vulnerable.”

Former bureaucrat, lawyer, activist – Abha Singh has many epithets to her name. But one thing that ties them altogether is her incessant fight for justice, her will to right many wrongs and work for the underprivileged.

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