Monday, September 19, 2016

The Trailblazer

Written by Vaishnavi Pallapothu and Sneha Sridhar 
Geeta Madhavan is the first woman in India to receive a Ph. D in Law on International Terrorism. In 1997, she crossed off an important milestone of her life when she was awarded the 'Doctoral Scholarship for Advanced Research in International Terrorism' by the The Hague Academy of International Law at the Hague, Netherlands. She was the only person from Asia to be awarded in that year! In addition to being an avid blogger, Ms Madhavan is also a teacher. She teaches at University of madras and Dr. Ambedkar Law University as a guest lecturer. Her specialization lies in International maritime law and International law and Nuclear Energy. Ms Madhavan is also noted for publishing numerous articles, papers and even published books on international issues such as terrorism, maritime laws, human rights, refugees. Upon invitation from the US government, Ms Madhavan was invited to take part in an 'International Group Project on International Security Issues'. She has also attended the prestigious and well-known Salzburg Seminar and Wilton Park Conference at Brighton, UK. To top it all off, she is also a practicing advocate at the Madras High Court and is a partner of the legal firm, Madhavan & Associates. She is a founding member of the Chennai based, Centre for Security Analysis.      
On 27th April, we had the privilege to interview Dr Geeta Madhavan at her quiet household in Besant Nagar. When we first learnt about her, we must admit that we were completely clueless about her and her achievements. After reading up about her biography, we went to the interview with a lot of curiosity. 

If there was one word to describe our rendezvous with Ms Madhavan, it would have to be eye-opening. She provided such insightful answers to our questions. She was patient and thoughtful and she answered our questions with enthusiasm. After burning through the initial apprehension and hesitation, we were delighted to be able to speak with her freely even after the interview. She spoke to us about her hobbies and passions. She also gave us advice, which as students, I think we will go home and take to heart. 

Excerpts from the interview:

Law on international terrorism seems like a very specific and unique topic to do a Ph.D on. What inspired or motivated you to pursue a thesis like this?
When I was doing my Masters in International Law, I did my dissertation on International Drug Trafficking and Control and while I was working on that subject, I discovered that there was some kind of a nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism. Terrorist groups were using drug trafficking to generate money, so they could buy arms, recruit people and so on. After that, I finished my Masters on Law and subsequently thereafter I got married and took a six year sabbatical from my work. Only when my son went into regular school, did I decide to register for the Ph.D. But even before that, my interest only developed towards terrorism, because during this period the erstwhile prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by an attack by the LTTE in Sriperumbudur. So in that sense, I realized that terrorism had already come to India. Before that, we had what we call domestic terrorism. This means the people resorting to terror were citizens of India, whether they liked to be called that or not. The problem was internal. But this was the first time a terrorist group from another country committed an act of terror on our soil. That was when I realized the area had expanded, that it was no more going to be problems of terrorism within one country.

Coming from India and especially back then, when career choice was pretty binary with either engineering or medicine, what was your family's reaction for choosing this field?
I was one of those people who was very lucky to have found somebody who has always been extremely supportive of me. My husband has done so much to stand by me and he has always been there for me. My son has also been incredibly supportive. When I got into the thick of my Ph.D, my son said he was proud of me and adjusted to all the times when I could give him all my attention. He and I would actually sit together and study: I would do my work and he would be doing his work. My mother, of course, asked me 'how long are going to keep studying?'

Who is your biggest inspiration? Is there somebody particular who made you develop an interest in this field?
There is never one single person who affects you. Like, my father, he was very ambitious for me. I'm an only child and he always gave me the freedom of thought. In my time freedom didn't mean physical freedom, it meant intellectual freedom. My father was very supportive throughout my schooling and college. He gave me very tough timetables to live by and I had to follow it. Even my summer vacation had a timetable. So discipline, ambition and drive came from my father. The idea of deadlines, punctuality and keeping myself focused came from a lot of people around me. And then of course patience and perseverance, I think, comes from my husband. I don't think a single person ever acts as an inspiration; a lot of people contribute to it.

How was your experience at The Hague Academy of International Law?

The Hague Academy is King Solomon's mine for anybody doing International Law; it's a pool of gems. When I went there in 1997, I was very fortunate because I was the only one from Asia; I was selected as one of the three as you know. The campus town was very beautiful. I used to be at the library at 10:00 am and I used to work till 5:00 pm, that's when they closed the library. Then from 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm, I used to go to the beach, because the sun sets at 10 o'clock in summer. I would just chill with all my friends and hit the pub at night. It was one wild roller-coaster ride, in the sense that it was fun, it was intensive work and balancing both was really amazing. Now, coming back to the Hague Academy, the library was just fantastic. The environment is so research friendly, it encourages you to read and learn more. If I ever had to run a library, that's how I would do it. The systematic borrowing is amazing there and even if we can't do it in public libraries, I wish at least school libraries would try to use that system. The campus is also really beautiful, it's got trees, flowers, ponds, black and white swans. When you enter, you are so calm and happy and it makes you work very hard.

You have a PHD and you also write several articles, papers and reviews for various platforms. Do you think there is a significant difference in terms of content and tone while writing each of these or is your approach the same for all of them?
Yeah, of course. When I write for international legal journals, it is obviously much more technical with more legal terms and conversation. When I write for newspapers, I have a hard time trying to simplify it and yet somebody recently told me “I read your article, I read it again and I couldn’t understand it”. That surprised me because I thought I had really simplified it.  That was an eye-opener and next time, I will try to make it even simpler. You will probably find some of my journal and newspaper articles on by blog and they are very heavy, tedious and didactic but you can also find some simpler ones like what is piracy and what are the myths about terrorism that I think even school children can understand.

What do you think is the main reason for the existence of terrorism?
Terrorism has been a part of human history for a very long time. The people who commit acts of terror have been doing so for a long time and for various reasons. Religious, ethnic and political reasons for example. But international terrorism has changed over time and what started as an opposition against regime has moved onto a lot more intensive, virulent and frightening form of terrorism. Today, civilian casualties are much more higher than it used to be before. Terrorists want larger and more theatrical actions thus mostly target innocent civilians who have no direct connection to the regime. They find it much easier to hit the softer targets since the leaders are usually heavily protected. To gain attention, they target the public spaces like subways, train stations and markets. That is why you find that even the USA only refers to the world trade centre incident and not the Pentagon one. They won’t mention it because the Pentagon is not considered a civilian target.

What do you think the future of terrorism looks like? How relevant is it in today’s world?
It will be there. You can only counter it and you cannot eradicate it. The cycle of terrorism starts with recruitment, it grows, it gets flushed with funds because of support, it becomes more and more ruthless to that point it thinks it is invincible, it takes on the state or country and ends up being annihilated. Every group somewhat goes through a similar cycle and you find that when one group is tamed, another one is usually rising someplace else.

Why do you think research on terrorism is important for the future of our world?
I consider my research to be important because it focuses on how countries under the international law can tackle terrorism and how to come together to tackle it. Even if it takes a long time, the countries should take steps and start working towards it. Unfortunately, many countries have their own selfish political interests and that is why we are where we are today. There is a mutual consensus for piracy: pirates are considered enemies of all mankind so any country can act against a pirate. Until we (all countries) agree that terrorists are enemies of all mankind, and not sponsor or fund or train them or even give them logistic support, we cannot eradicate it.

*Edited for length and relevancy to answer