Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date

September 2007


Forthcoming in Human Rights Review, v. 8, no. 3, 2007.


Judicial activism is a contested phenomenon, with the liberals and even the conservatives championing it while denouncing its particular manifestations. In this article, I examine the recent judicial practice of one of the most activist judiciaries in the world, from India, where progressive politics is often, and sometimes always, associated with an activist and benign court. Indeed, the Indian Supreme Court has a global reputation as a torch bearer on human rights. In this article, I adopt a social movement perspective to understand the actual impact of the court on the struggles of the poor for livelihood, resources, values and identity, enacted through struggles for the recognition and realization of economic, social and cultural rights. After an analysis of the record of the Supreme Court of India, I conclude that the Court has increasingly shown a bias against the poor in its activist rulings, and made judicial activism a more problematic device for social movements in India to rely upon. To explain why this is happening, the article introduces two ideas; first, the emergence of the judiciary as an organ of governance and its attendant problems; and second, the internally biased nature of the rights discourse which tends to reproduce binary arguments for either increasing State capacity or for increasing choice of goods in the market place. The article concludes by exploring lessons from the jurisprudence of other countries and international law, and urges the Indian Supreme Court to reinvent a jurisprudence informed more by the social movements of the poor.

Rajagopal bio.doc (22 kB)
biographical information the author