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DISSERTATION

I received my PhD in politics from Princeton University in early 2017. Parts of the dissertation have been published as academic articles, in the Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution and in the IIC Quarterly. I plan to publish other parts as peer-reviewed articles in the next few years. 

My dissertation is titled: ‘After Judgment Day: Under What Conditions Are Court Decisions Implemented?’ It studied the circumstances when courts, working alongside grassroots movements, bring about political change. 

Courts in democracies play a critical role in securing rights and holding governments to account. But their spheres of influence are considered distinct from those of legislatures and executives. Scholars, however, have noted the increasing tendency of unelected judges to pass judgment on matters of governance, development, even democratization. This ‘judicialization of politics’ and its implications for judicial power as well as democratic legitimacy are debated in law schools, political science departments, and the popular press.  A less considered aspect of these judgments is their uneven implementation. Yet, this is central to both court power and legitimacy. Unimplemented judgments reduce the authority of courts, and make their activism less defensible. Conversely, if we understand the conditions when judgments are implemented, judges and litigants can better strategize when deploying the courts for political change.

Scholarship on judicial implementation is limited, with the few studies focusing on the developed world. These typically emphasize political hurdles to implementation. In contrast, I examined judgments of a particularly activist judiciary in a non-Western democracy: the Indian Supreme Court. By focusing on a developing country, other challenges for implementation emerge, such as state incapacity and new kinds of litigants. 

The case-studies measured and explained the implementation of three politically crucial decisions on caste, land, and religious conflict. These were: limiting quotas in public employment for backward castes, overseeing rehabilitation for those displaced by the Narmada dam project, and monitoring criminal justice in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. 

I brought three perspectives to this research: that of a lawyer (with degrees from India and the US), a journalist (with ground-level reportage published in Indian and US newspapers), and a political science graduate student at Princeton. This triangulation made the research original -- providing a theory of judicial implementation, conceptualizing state capacity afresh, delineating the role of movements and popular participation in implementing court decisions, and using original data and interviews to shed new light on three enduring disputes in contemporary India. 

 

The dissertation mixed legal analysis with detailed fieldwork. I conducted four field visits spanning 17 months, including intensive fieldwork in cities and villages in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. To give one example: my third case-study analyzed the implementation of Supreme Court judgments in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. For this case-study, I conducted research at all 11 sites of major anti-Muslim violence, spread across the state. This has resulted in more than 200 interviews, ethnographies, and original data collection (through government records and freshly accessed information). I mixed this love of the field with more desk-driven legal analysis -- wading through hundreds of judgments on areas as diverse as caste and Hindu-Muslim conflict -- to provide the first-ever empirical description of the pattern of court interventions in India. 

My dissertation advisors were Atul Kohli, Kim Scheppele, and Ezra Suleiman.