IDAP Interview Series: Interview IX with Rajesh Asudani

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In this IDAP interview, we interview Rajesh Asudani. Born into a family with four blind siblings and limited means, Asudani has displayed immense grit and determination throughout his life to beat the odds against him. Despite having an academic record par excellence in his law college and many awards and honors to his name, Asudani began his career as a railway announcer. Not one to lament, Asudani quickly turned the tide in his favour and secured a job of an Assistant General Manager at the RBI.

Asudani speaks to us in great detail about how financial constraints deterred him from studying in a national law school and from practicing law in the courts. Unlike our other interviews, Asudani’s frank and insightful answers show us that despite having fire in one’s belly, limited resources can significantly deter one from fulfilling his/her potential.

As readers may know, 9 IDIA Scholars from marginalized communities have secured admission to top law schools this year. These students have fought against all odds to reach this position and we at IDIA do not want our scholars’ potential to be limited due to financial constraints. You can play a significant role in ensuring the same by supporting our students.

This interview was conducted by Rahul Bajaj and transcribed by Anusha Reddy and Veda Singh (IDIA intern and second year student studying at Jindal Global Law School). The interview has been edited for clarity.

Picture of Rajesh Asudani addressing a gathering

Image from here

  1. Firstly, can you provide our readers with a brief background of your schooling and educational qualifications? In addition, given that accessible technology was not readily available during your days in school and college, was braille your principal means of acquiring information?

I belong to a family where 5 out of 8 siblings were blind from birth. I’m the youngest of all and I have two brothers and two sisters who are blind as well. When I started studying, there was precedent as my brothers and sisters were already studying in the local blind boys institute in Nagpur. Naturally, I was also sent there in the year 1982 and I completed my 7th standard from that institute in 1989. Thereafter, I went to a mainstream sighted school.

The year 1988 was a watershed year for me. My two elder brothers Ganshyam and Vinod, figured in the general merit list of SSC matriculation. For the first time in India a blind person made it to the general merit list of the state examination. People took notice of the fact that blind people can also perform. As you know, media was restricted to newspapers and government channels of radio and TV back then. We were featured in the national news and the films division of the government also made a documentary on the Asudani brothers.

When it comes to me, however, I was not a very bright student initially. I remember in my fourth standard I scored a big zero in my unit test examination. But gradually, my interest picked up, particularly in my fifth standard when English was introduced as a subject. I only I learnt the ‘ABCs’ in my fifth standard (laughs). Moreover, when Ghanshyam and Vinod figured in the merit list, it provided me an impetus to excel. I studied hard and in my 10th standard examination in 1992, I was ranked second in the order of merit, in the state-wide general merit list.

After my 10th standard, I pursued arts. I was interested in science but at that point, in India particularly, there was hardly any assistive technology or scope in science, making it impossible for blind students to pursue science 25 years ago. Today, however, people are able to pursue such subjects.

I topped the Maharashtra state in the field of arts in my 12th standard examinations, after which I turned to law. Till the 10th standard, braille played a central role. After 10th, however, I did not use braille, but instead used tape recorders. My sister used to record hundreds of cassettes for me. This continued during my LL.B. as well as nobody in my family had pursued law before. In LL.B., I topped the university and received the highest number of gold medals at the university convocation.

  1. As someone who pursued a significant portion of his educational qualifications in a small town in a developing country, what special challenges did you face over and above those faced by your counterparts in more developed regions and countries?

Good question! Being in a small town definitely has its own set of challenges. I remember in 1994, when I graduated first in order of merit from 12th standard, I wanted to study law and wanted to do so from the newly opened NLSIU. I gave the entrance examination. Then, I heard that the fees will be around INR 1,00,000. I belonged to a family of meagre means to put it plainly. My father was a small-time retail shopkeeper. They had migrated at the time of partition from Pakistan, losing everything. They set up a small shop in Nagpur. They made ends meet with great difficulty. It was impossible for them to pay the fees and we did not know of any fellowships or scholarships back then – it was not the internet age.

So, simply, it had to be given up. I took admission in Nagpur University Law College. Studying in a small town precludes you from exposure. University life was not very stimulating, to put it euphemistically. These were additional difficulties apart from the challenges of blindness, and did restrict me in many ways.

  1. Anyone who looks at your academic profile can make out that you were an exceptionally meritorious student in all your academic pursuits. In light of the lowered expectations that society generally has from the disabled, you would have been held in high regard, even if you had only been an above-average student. This being the case, what was the motivating force behind you excelling in ways that are in many senses, unprecedented for a student with a disability?

As I told you, my journey started from a big zero. And then I went on to acquire the highest gold medals in the convocation of Nagpur University. My brothers motivated me as they were the first blind merit students of the country. I took it to heart that I had to excel. I had to go beyond them. Our parents never discouraged us – they said “Whatever you want to do, do. We will try to support you.” My father was a great theist and he believed in the design of god. Despite having 5 blind children, he assumed that there is some divine providence in all this. I think my family’s support is what kept me going.

  1. Given your academic credentials and intellectual ability, you could have studied at any university of your choice in India and beyond. This being the case, what are the factors that weighed with you in your decision to pursue your higher education from your home town? More broadly, what advice would you have for other students with disabilities whose decisions may also be constrained by similar factors?

Monetary constraint was the first factor. Apart from that, there was a lack of knowledge, as it was not the IT era. I could not gather sufficient knowledge about scholarships and fellowships that I could have availed of. Thirdly, I will admit very frankly – while I had very good family support, it however adversely affected my development of independent skills. Although there were hostel facilities in the blind school, our parents did not admit us there. Someone would accompany us daily to my school and back. Family support is good but it sometimes inhibits the independent development of the child. Being the youngest, I was adversely affected by over-support from my family, and therefore, I did not venture out for my graduation or post-graduation to a university outside my hometown.

As far as advice is concerned, I would state that you should choose the best universities. These are formative years and anybody doing graduation or post-graduation should not waste time by studying in a mediocre university. Because if you get a stimulating intellectual environment, there is nothing like it, and if not, there is no greater loss. For the rest of your life, you will lament that lack of intellectually stimulating environment.

  1. In light of the fact that you came first in your LL.B. and LL.M. exams and even secured 13 gold medals, why did you decide not to pursue a career in the legal professional and instead chose to work at the RBI? Would your decision have been different today, given the advent of adaptive technology?

Good question, let me be brutally frank. I still remember the day when I graduated from law – 7 April 1999. My mother asked me if I would be practicing law and I said no. Then, she simply asked why I had wasted five years.

It was a conscious decision. I wanted to practice law – even my teachers said I can argue and use my skills in the courtroom. But then it was the 20th century, computers with screen reading software was a rarity in India for the blind, and it was not very well developed. Job Access with Speech (JAWS) was still in its initial versions and was very expensive. I had laid my hand on computers, but no systematic computer education was given to me till then. There were hardly any institutes. Nowadays, in every city you will find some institutions for the blind imparting computer education. I was computer illiterate and computers and technology were expensive. It was not mainstream for a blind person to be technologically savvy and use it for independent reading and writing in 1999.

Secondly, if you want to practice law, you can’t just go to the court room and take up cases. You need to be an apprentice of a good lawyer. At that time, it was not possible for a blind person to work independently. The only option at that time was to hire an assistant and take him everywhere for an internship, apprenticeship, etc. At that time, I could not afford it and was financially impossible for me. Therefore, I consciously decided not to practice.

  1. One common phenomenon that we have observed in the academic journeys of many students with disabilities across India, is that those of them who are driven and hardworking, tend to perform significantly better than their able-bodied counterparts. To what extent is this attributable to the fact that they may be competing against highly mediocre peers, given their decision to pursue less challenging courses or study in less challenging environments, because the limitations flowing from their disability; and to what extent is this attributable to their own brilliance? In other words, how much credence should we attach to news stories that depict students with disabilities as accomplishing remarkable feats?

Everybody is different. So, it is very difficult to generalize. But, whenever I come across any story where a blind student or a disabled student has done well, I think that credence must be given because everybody’s set of challenges are different. Disability is a supervening challenge, in addition to which, there are individual challenges. Like in my case, I faced financial challenges – had I been able to hire an assistant, I would have practiced.

One chooses their vocation or studies or surroundings. It is not that they settle for less challenging jobs or less challenging things in life but for them, maybe it is the optimum challenge. It is true that to a certain extent people want to be in their comfort zone, which is human tendency, however I would not say it plays a very vital role. But yes, there is a tendency that blind students particularly do not want to venture out of their comfort zones. I remember an example: there was a student of mine who passed out of 12th and took admission in LL.B. After 15 days, he came back and again took admission in B.A. Marathi medium simply because he was unable to follow what they were saying in the classroom. As a knee-jerk reaction, he came back to his comfort zone. That happens very often but I feel that wherever it is happening, it is our job to guide the students properly and encourage them to just step out of their comfort zone, be it for just two steps, even if they can’t walk the whole path. At least, two steps they can take out of their comfort zone and see for themselves, whether they can do it or not. Support systems must exist at the social and institutional level – everyone might not get the kind of family support, in the way that I did. So, organizations, NGOs, and the government should institute some support mechanisms where a person is guided, accessible resources are prepared, books are scanned, etc.

  1. You participated in a meet in 2011 to provide suggestions on the new law for persons with disabilities that came into force very recently. To what extent, do you think, is the law likely to bring about a significant change in the quality of life of the average Indian with a disability?

I would say that even the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 has changed the lives of such persons, to a considerable extent. The 2016 Act tries to improve upon it, but apart from increasing the number of disabilities and changing the language to rights based language, this law like the earlier one, also lacks an enforcement mechanism. That is the sore lacuna of this law. For any law to be effective on the ground, you require good enforcement mechanisms.

  1. Could you speak briefly about the suggestions you had advanced and how in your view would the new law have benefited from their incorporation?

One suggestion of mine which found place and I believe will change the game as far as education is considered, is the provision on education which is extended now till 18 years, from the earlier provision of 14 years. I had in fact suggested that it be till the completion of secondary education, because for a disabled person education is a problem. Many a times, education may begin at a later age for disabled persons. So, if you set up a bar of 18 years, it may happen that till the age of 18 also, a person is still in primary or secondary school. However, my full suggestion did not find favour with them.

Another recommendation of mine was on reservation. I had suggested very straightforward language, based on the judgment of the Supreme Court, i.e., while calculating the percentage of reservation, the whole cadre strength must be considered. However, if you read Section 34 of the new Act, the language is muddled up – on one hand they speak about the whole cadre strength but on the other hand they speak about identified posts. As the language is not clear, I have apprehensions that this may create problems.

Another suggestion was on making assistive devices duty free. Assistive devices play a role in mitigating the disability of a person. In a way, it is a right to life which you are enhancing by providing such assistive devices. Therefore, they should be duty free.

  1. For a lot of students with disabilities, despite their exceptional academic qualifications, finding a job that is commensurate with their skills and abilities is often a great challenge. You stated in your interview with the Times of India that you found it hard to get meaningful employment, which is why you sat for the RBI exams. To what extent was this a challenge for you, i.e. to get meaningful employment despite your academic credentials? Did you seek out employment opportunities outside your home town and metropolitan cities as well or was it only in Nagpur?

It was a great challenge when I passed out from LL.B. and M.A. and then went on to do NET. I wanted to be a lecturer. I appeared for several interviews in Nagpur as well as outside. But then again, prejudice comes with blindness, which is very much there even today. Apart from prejudice, back then the posts in colleges were particularly sold – there was a market and hence, a price tag. Even now, I believe this is the case. Interestingly, UGC conducts NET for all subjects, as a qualifying test for lectureship. Why then can it not give placements? Universities are under the UGC and so it can be like the civil services – once you qualify NET, according to your preference and availability of vacancies, you can be given placements. But it is not going to happen in this manner. 

As a person, by nature I am not rigid. My advice to all is that it is very good and noble to strive for your dreams, but then you need to keep your options open. Which is what I did. My first job was that of an announcer in the Indian railways. I joined Indian railways at Kanpur Central. On one hand, I accepted the highest gold medals in the university and on the same night, I took a train to Kanpur to join as an announcer – Class III post. Gradually, I kept applying for lectureship posts but the same experience was repeated over and over again. Then, I applied for Reserve Bank and MPSC and was selected for both. I finally joined the RBI. 

In my time, law firms were hardly in existence, except maybe for a few in Mumbai and Delhi. Joining a senior counsel was the obvious choice if you wanted to practice. Now, as you said, options are open. I don’t have firsthand experience – let me offer a disclaimer. But I feel joining a law firm will give a person wider exposure and interaction along with practical knowledge.

  1. Even those disabled individuals who do get employed are often unable to get meaningful work that can keep them productively engaged. Is that a challenge that you have faced?

Definitely! I face this challenge on a day to day basis. Getting a job is one thing but getting a job commensurate with your talent and interest in another. However, in the present context I would say that getting a job is the first priority. Howsoever, poor or rich a person is, one needs to stand on their own feet. Then, one should try to get commensurate work also. I’m trying, not only for myself, but for all visually impaired bank employees. We have established a nationwide association – Visually Impaired Bank Employees Welfare Association. We have prepared a report based on our surveys and RTIs and submitted it to the minister of DoPT. It is a multifactorial problem – not limited to the persons involved, it includes the staff, superiors, subordinates, bank policies, among other factors. This problem exists not only in banking, but in all other professions as well to some extent. Even in the teaching profession, people may find some things are not accessible or some work which is given to them is inaccessible. But I would say that teaching, remains the most accessible profession until now.

  1. Do you think that academia is the most accessible career path? We had asked Mr. Rungta to share his views on the three main career paths that are open to a young law graduate with a disability which are: working for a senior, joining a law firm and joining academia. He believed that academia should be the last choice and should only be taken up when one does not want to take risks and does not want to step out of one’s comfort zone. Do you agree?

I disagree. I think academia is a legitimate choice. If you want to take risk or don’t want to – are factors that cannot be judged. We cannot adopt a judgmental attitude. Firstly, for academia you need to be inclined. You cannot force yourself to go into academia, for if you do, you are then doing injustice to your students. The same rationale applies to practice as well. If you are not inclined to practice, it will be a problem. Ultimately, for most people it boils down to monetary security, which is the first thing to be taken care of. Once we leave aside the monetary factor, it comes down to inclination. We cannot take a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

  1. Despite not remaining intimately connected with the legal profession, you have won a case against Nagpur University for its failure to reserve seats for persons with disabilities and drafted many petitions to facilitate judicial recognition of the rights of the disabled. To what extent have your attempts in this respect been successful and how do you view the Indian judiciary’s role in the empowerment of the disabled more broadly?

Advocacy is dear to my heart. I always support people who want to fight for their rights. When Nagpur University came out with advertisement of lecturer posts (assistant professors) in 2011, it touched a sore nerve in me. They did not reserve any posts for the disabled. They did, but in a very awkward way. The clause read that one or two of the posts advertised are reserved for persons with disabilities. Secondly, preference shall be given to the persons with disabilities, all things being equal. This clause upset me very much, it was not in consonance with Section 33 of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. Reservation should be clearly laid down: which post is reserved for which disability and there is no question of giving preference, i.e. it should be outright reservation. It is not reservation if you say 2 posts are reserved for PWDs. Which post? Which disabilities?

I applied for the post of assistant professor in law and then filed a writ petition. I filed it myself because there was no advocate knowledgeable in disability law in Nagpur and one of my classmates encouraged me to apply it myself. She said I will be able to argue better. I filed it myself, skipped office and attended 6 or 7 hearings. The point I was making about the practical experience is: When I appeared for the first time before the judge, I naturally felt nervous, as would anyone else, but I gathered my courage and stood up. The first sentence the judge said was “remove objections”. I was at a loss to understand, as I had never practiced law. There is no harm in admitting: I simply did not understand. He postponed the hearing to the next date and then I learnt about what he was referring to, and could argue smoothly thereafter. Practical experience is much required, and there comes the role of your senior or law firm.

I was successful in my case and Nagpur University did reserve the post of assistant professor in law itself for a blind/low vision person. They had to accept that reservation must be proper and for a particular disability.

Indian judiciary is good, but the problem is that this judgment will not apply across the cadre. Again, Nagpur University advertised some posts and committed a similar blunder. So, who will go again and again against a body in the court of law? Alternatively, courts can issue a general directive that any direction should stipulate the reservation for persons with disabilities in very clear terms – something I think a PIL could accomplish.

Judiciary has by and large been positive about securing the rights of persons with disabilities, barring a few instances. A few disabilities were not enumerated in the earlier act such as dwarfism and so in particular cases, judiciary gave relief. Of course, it did not lay down that these will be disabilities per se, but relief was given. Wherever people have agitated and filed cases such as in the case of Delhi, they have succeeded. People have secured reservation in Delhi University through prolonged litigation. But in other places, barring a few metropolitan cities, there is a lack of activism and the judiciary will not take cognizance on its own. However, when approached, the courts have by and large, favorably disposed cases.

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Click on the links below to read other interviews in the IDAP Interview Series:

(1) IDAP Interview I with Justice Zak Mohammed Yacoob

(2) IDAP Interview II with Judge David S Tatel

(3) IDAP Interview III with Shweta Bansal

(4) IDAP Interview IV with Haben Girma

(5) IDAP Interview V with Jack Chen

(6) IDAP Interview VI with Richard Chen

(7) IDAP Interview VII with David Lepofsky

(8) IDAP Interview VIII with Senior Advocate S.K. Rungta

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