Reimagining the Justice System at the Local Level

This following post is excerpted and adapted from the AIF Clinton Fellowship Endpoint presentation that my co-fellow Ayushi Parashar and I presented titled: “Reimagining the Justice System at the Local Level” on June 23rd, 2020. It was a pleasure to collaborate with a co-fellow who was also working on gender issues in Dharamsala at the NGO Jagori. Exploring how our experiences converged and diverged from each other’s and what new models and learnings we could glean from each others’ experiences was eye-opening. And to share the knowledge we have learned from our work with both our co-fellows and the larger AIF community was a truly gratifying moment. With that being said, I present the written form of our Endpoint presentation, which I should say has been adapted for the purposes of this blog post.

What images come to mind when you hear the word “court?” 

You probably imagine something like a typical courtroom. In this picture you’ve constructed in your mind, there is probably a judge in black robes presiding over the chambers of the courtroom, a gavel in hand somewhere. In this rendering, there may be some jurists sitting on one side of the court. And there is probably a defendant and a plaintiff, sitting opposite of each other with their respective lawyers and with their eyes firmly fixed towards the judge.

If stereotypical portrayals of courtrooms in our popular culture- in films and shows- are any true, which is probably unlikely, these rooms are usually rife with tension, drama, and intrigue.

Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird on trial

Now how about if I showed you this image?

Nari Adalat in Uttar Pradesh

At first glance, it looks like it’s just a group of people, mostly women, gathered in a circle and chatting. While it may look like nothing important is going on here at first, there is in fact something important & honestly quite revolutionary that’s taking place here.

In these circles, the women are convening together to form a “court.” These courts are called Nari Adalat, Nari meaning women, and Adalat court. Combined together, they mean “women’s court.” This is a court that looks different from the court that we know of- likely different from the court we imagined in our earlier exercise- but they are nonetheless still important in carrying out justice.

Essentially, the function that these Nari Adalats serve is that they take up cases in the local, community-level, and mediate disputes on anything ranging from child custody battles to other serious grievances such as domestic violence.

Sometimes, these court sessions are held in indoor office spaces and other times in outdoor grounds such as this one in Uttar Pradesh.

There is something really intimate and poignant about the fact that everyone comes to sit on the floor, together, in circles. It suggests, here in this particular space- we are all more or less equal- that the hierarchies between men and women- between the mediator and those who’ve come to air their grievances- are essentially dissolved.  

As the Nari Adalat example demonstrates, community-driven initiatives are powerful means to tackle gender inequities in our society. I myself got a chance to sit in on one of these sessions and was blown away by the fact that a group of interested parties could come together, in a small circle, and through constructive dialogue & mediation, arrive at some agreed-upon consensus- toward some ideal of justice.

Me, with the WED & Helpline staff at Lench’s Nari Adalat

Jagori was just a few towns away from where I worked in Dharamsala- but it felt like it was a world away- so different and removed from the Tibetan community that I was familiar with. The visit to the local Nari Adalat in Lench forced me to come outside of my Tibetan-Dharamsala bubble and to reckon with the revolutionary, women-led efforts against gender-violence that had been underway for years- much to my ignorance. 

Sometimes, in the process of inspiring and enacting change, you must leave the world you know and enter other worlds and realms. The Nari Adalat model of justice was this other world, this other realm that I was entering into and I left it inspired to think about how we could transport versions of this world- of this vision of justice- into the Tibetan world I was well familiar with.

And it left me reflecting on how maybe justice, at the end of the day, is really just communities coming together and supporting one another. This kind of justice is more interpersonal and more collective. And maybe-and some might dismiss this as naive and too idealistic- if justice was carried out in these kinds of moments together- in a larger scale-then just maybe society will progress away from a world that depends on external, powerful authorities to enforce what is right and wrong- and instead move towards a more collective, self-empowered version of justice. 


1. Mahila Samahkya-Uttar Pradesh. Nari Adalat.

2. Scott Myers, Great Scene: To Kill a Mockingbird.

You can view our full presentation here: 

Tenzin is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is conducting gender sensitivity training in schools and settlements to further women’s empowerment within the Tibetan refugee community. Tenzin was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but raised most of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Tenzin’s Tibetan heritage has largely informed her interest in themes of exile, displacement, statelessness, how these elements converge both on the socio-political and the personal, existential level. She is interested in questions of how place constructs our identities, sometimes both grounding us and alienating us, especially in the context of diaspora and exile. In addition to having studied in India for two years during elementary school, this will be Tenzin’s third visit to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Her first visit to Dharamsala was in summer of 2013 when she interned for Tibetan Women’s Association and then after graduating from Bowdoin College in 2016, she enrolled in Sarah College for Tibetan Higher Studies for two years where she studied Tibetan language and Buddhist Philosophy. She is eager to make a third return to Dharamsala as an AIF Clinton Fellow and assist the CTA in addressing gender equity and gender violence in the Tibetan community.

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