Lifting the last veil of colonialism

Jan 27, 2006

Kettering professor takes a visiting faculty position with the International Institute for the Sociology of Law (IISL) to help graduate students from around the world better understand how political issues impact law and justice in post-colonial south Asia.

By most accounts, India is a relatively young nation: in 1947, after years of imperial control by Great Britain, India gained its independence following a harrowing struggle. But for a nation that depended so heavily on the rule of Britain for many years, this new found independence proved to be a difficult but important lesson.

For years, Britain viewed the people of India as second-class citizens in their own country, working to build an infrastructure that fed India's natural resources to England while depriving the indigenous population opportunities to enjoy the fruits of their labor. After the departure of the British, the government of independent India faced the challenges of framing a constitution that reflected the new, egalitarian aspirations of the people, institutionalizing the rule of law and providing access to legal institutions.

Dr. Badrinath Rao, an assistant professor of Liberal Studies at Kettering University and native of India, views his homeland and south Asian countries of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal with a researcher's eye. His area of expertise focuses on understanding how larger political issues in post-colonial societies of south Asia impact the institutionalization of law and justice. In 2005, based on his research, he became a two-year visiting professor of the International Institute for the Sociology of Law, which is located in Onati, Spain. This institute works to create links and collaborative relations with various European and non-European universities. The IISJ also provides facilities for seminars, workshops, visiting scholars and library research, and has become an important base for the global network of scholars on law and social science issues.

Rao's appointment to the IISJ is important to the organization given the current cultural, economic, political and religious environment in India and other south Asian countries.

"The broader issue," he explained, "is to examine how to institutionalize the rule of law under new constitutions and governments emerging from post-colonialism. The situation in south Asia is further complicated by its mind-boggling religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity. Also, all south Asian countries have to overcome feudal vested interests opposed top the rule of law and social justice."

Rao also said that as countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan emerged from colonialism as independent nations, leaders, under pressure from the global political community and citizens within their own borders, began to understand that new constitutions were necessary to establish legitimate, internationally recognized, independent governments. In India, for example, officials framed a new constitution that drew on the best features of the British, American, Canadian and Australian constitutions. Rao also said that Sri Lanka took the same approach as India in developing a new constitution. But Pakistan and Bangladesh started out as secular republics and later adopted Islam as the state religion. "In all of these countries, because the state has not vigorously enforced the rule of law, securing justice remains a distant dream for most of the citizens," Rao said. "Corruption and inordinate delays," he noted, "have added to the woes of citizens and alienated them from the state and justice system."

This scenario is what fascinates Rao and has led to his selection as a visiting faculty member of the IISJ. Many countries today in south Asia have begun attempts to institutionalize a rule of law that supports all citizens.

"Things are changing," Rao said. "After more than five decades of independence, people are becoming more aware of their rights and the rule of law is becoming entrenched. For example, the judiciary, mindful of popular aspirations, has repeatedly intervened in favor of lay people and protected them from the excesses of the state. In India, public interest litigation (PIL) has emerged as the main bulwark against the transgression of the state. The Supreme Court of India has entertained several PILs and provided much needed relief in several instances."

Given the challenge of institutionalizing the rule of law in post-colonial societies, Rao hopes these positive changes continue. One example is Nepal. "Citizens in that country have gone to the judiciary and have achieved some legal relief of problems," he said, adding that people in Nepal, "are starting to place some trust in the system. Today, those who live in south Asia are thinking more and more about equality and social justice, and I think this is an important and very positive step."

India is also well underway in revising its constitution. Rao said the National Commission for the Review of the Indian Constitution has submitted its reports and it is gradually undergoing implementation. "The whole thrust is now on making the entire law enforcement and justice system responsive to the needs of the people," he said. "There is all-around awareness that this task is absolutely central to India's emergence as a new knowledge superpower."

As a two-week visiting faculty member for 2005 and 2006 at the IISJ, Rao teaches a course each December titled The Sociology of Law in South Asia, which is based on a non-western context to help students sharpen their understanding of theory regarding this subject. Objectives of this course include

  • providing a broad overview of the complex interplay of social structures and legal institutions in the countries of south Asia; and
  • offering a nuanced analysis of the impact of socio-economic, political, and cultural forces and structures on the institutionalization of the rule of law in post-colonial south Asia.

Rao's passion for this subject also extends beyond the classroom. In recent years, he has presented papers and attended conferences on this subject at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and at the University of Helsinki in Finland to name just a few. He is also a member in the Association for the Sociology of Religion and Research Committee on the Sociology of Law. He is working on a definitive book-length treatment of this subject tentatively titled "The Myth of 'Equal Respect': Minorities, Multiculturalism and Globalization in India."

To learn more about this subject, contact Dr. Badrinath Rao at (810) 762-7810.

Written by Gary J. Erwin
(810) 762-9538