Interview with Tarunabh Khaitan

The winner of the inaugural Letten Prize talks about using his research to fight discrimination and the battles between power and democracy

October 11, 2018

Tarunabh Khaitan is an associate professor and Hackney fellow in law at Wadham College, Oxford, and a Future fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of A Theory of Discrimination Law and his work was quoted by the Indian Supreme Court in its historic ruling decriminalising homosexual conduct. He also drafted the anti-discrimination and equality bill currently being considered by India’s parliament. Last month Professor Khaitan was presented with the inaugural Letten Prize, given to a young researcher conducting excellent research of great social relevance. It comes with NKr2 million (£188,676) prize money.

Where and when were you born? 
A small town in eastern India in 1981.

How has this shaped who you are?
There were few books and no internet: information about law school was acquired by chance when a city cousin passed down her unwanted prospectus. Witnessing caste and sectarianism and hearing my mother speak of her struggles to become the first woman in her family to go to university, while resisting an early marriage, were early lessons in discrimination. The sense that I got lucky has never left me, and has ingrained in me a deep awareness of the societal structures that forever limit what some of us are able to do and to be. I treasure my small-town values of loyalty and civility. And, having grown up haggling with vegetable vendors, I still like to drive a good bargain.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I worked hard at the National Law School in Bangalore, but did a host of other things too. As I was brought up in a small town, the possibilities were suddenly endless. I tried to do everything in Bangalore I thought I had missed when I was a child – I learned to swim; took lessons in drama, dancing and French; read voraciously; actively engaged in student politics; volunteered for non-governmental organisations; and made friends for life. 

Tell us about your time as a student at Oxford.
I arrived in 2004 on the Rhodes scholarship and thrived in the university’s rigorous intellectual environment. I learned to question everything, including my own deeply held beliefs. Bangalore shaped my politics; Oxford made me a scholar.

How do you feel about your work influencing the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalise homosexuality?
The court’s decision was a product of two and a half decades of activism and advocacy by thousands of people, including activists, scholars, lawyers, politicians, celebrities and ordinary people. My contribution was influencing the court’s interpretation of the non-discrimination guarantee in the Indian constitution, something I have been writing about for nearly a decade. I was honoured to have played this role. The judgment was a moment to take pride in the admittedly imperfect institutions of democracy. That said, there is a lot still to be done, and fighting discrimination remains a monumental task in India, as elsewhere.

How did you get involved with drafting the anti-discrimination and equality bill? 
India does not have a comprehensive law regulating discrimination against women, Dalits, religious minorities, disabled persons and other disadvantaged groups, meaning employers can fire a woman for being gay or a landlord can deny housing to Muslims. I started working on a draft bill with various activists, academics, lawyers and policy experts. I then worked with opposition MP Shashi Tharoor’s office to produce the bill that he tabled in parliament in 2017. While it wasn’t exactly the bill I would have wanted in all respects, it was close enough for me to endorse it.

Is it important to you that your work has ‘real world’ impact?
First and foremost, I am an academic. Producing scholarship through a rigorous intellectual process that can withstand the harshest scrutiny is my primary professional commitment. That said, given the flawed world we live in, how can one not feel an urge to improve it? My work relates to the operation of unjust power, including its ability to produce and perpetuate intellectual discourses that normalise and legitimise this power. The academy has often been complicit in this effort to sustain the unjust status quo, but it also has the ability to challenge and expose power. It is no coincidence that universities are among the first set of institutions – alongside the judiciary, media and NGOs – that autocrats target as they strive to secure their grip.

How has your work shaped your worldview?  
In my previous work I learned that power reacts to each legal regulatory effort by becoming subtler and harder to detect and resist. In studying the rising tide of authoritarianism in some democracies, it seems that there is a similar pattern. Latter-day autocrats have learned that a full-frontal assault on constitutionalism and democracy is no longer viable. Therefore, constitutions are being killed with a thousand cuts. Power is most effective when it is subtle, almost invisible, and when it co-opts those it operates upon.

How did you feel winning the Letten Prize?
Very excited. Letten Saugstad [the late professor of biological psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who established the Letten Foundation] was a remarkable woman, a refugee and an innovative and excellent scholar of medicine, whose contribution to scholarship was recognised late – in part, I am told, because of her gender. She worked tirelessly to encourage and nurture younger scholars, especially in Africa. I was pleased to be awarded a prize imbued with a spirit I identify so closely with myself.

How do you plan to use your prize money?
By launching an Indian Equality Law Programme at Melbourne Law School, to nurture early career scholars working in the field. The programme will fund one doctoral student and up to 10 visiting scholars over a period of three years.

What do you do for fun?
I read, walk, play cards and ski. I will choose hanging out with friends over most things.

What saddens you?
Human potential that remains unrealised because of a person’s circumstances. And cynicism in the more fortunate.


Philippa Lloyd has been appointed vice-principal (policy and strategic partnerships) at Queen Mary University of London. Currently director general of higher and further education at the Department for Education, Dr Lloyd will take up the new post in January. She is a physicist by background and was an editor on Nature before becoming a civil servant. “Philippa’s knowledge and experience will be critical in ensuring that Queen Mary is active in national and international discussions about higher education and policy issues more widely, and will help shape and develop our strategic purpose in the years ahead,” said Colin Bailey, the university’s principal.

Barbara Shollock will be the inaugural head of King’s College London’s new department of engineering, which will open in August 2019. Professor Shollock will join King’s in January from the University of Warwick, where she is academic director of Warwick Manufacturing Group and the Tata Steel research chair in surfaces and advanced characterisation. Professor Shollock said that it is the “right time for King’s to establish a vibrant and innovative engineering teaching and research environment”. She added: “We will educate the engineers of the future to take a creative approach to

Mary McAleese, former president of the Republic of Ireland, is joining the University of Glasgow as a professor of children, law and religion. She is taking up a joint appointment between the College of Arts and College of Social Sciences and will start later in the academic year.

Glyn Davis has joined the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University as a distinguished professor after stepping down as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne last month.

Rita Gardner is the new chief executive of the Academy of Social Sciences. Dr Gardner joins the body from the Royal Geographical Society, where she was director from 1996 to May 2018.

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