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‘Sculpting Rights: Essays in honour of Ossie Fernandes’

Sculpting Rights: Essays in honour of Ossie Fernandes

To commemorate the life and contribution of Ossie Fernandes’ (Director cum Founder of HRF), HRF organized the first annual Human Rights Lecture on 12 November 2016, Chennai. In that occasion, a volume of essays Sculpting Rights: Essays in honour of Ossie Fernandes was released.

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Ossie Fernandes was a multi-faceted person. A year has gone by but it is still difficult to grasp the breadth of his vision or fathom the depth of his involvement – much less capture the varied facets of his personality in one slim volume. It would probably take more volumes, and a lot more time, to do justice to them or his keen foresight and penetrating analysis. The task is made more challenging by his penchant for working behind the scenes and crediting everyone but himself for the initiatives and writings.

Ossie’s engagement with human rights can be traced at least to his student days. Post college he took active part in several campaigns, till in 1993 he founded the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation, more widely known as HRF. He served as the Director and Managing Trustee of HRF from inception till he passed away on 3 November 2016, In the intervening 23 years, HRF was fashioned by him to provide support to people’s struggles at the grassroots, engaging with the state at all levels and consolidating success into law. He was equally at home in the sweat and toil of mobilising the community, the messiness of public life, the precision to draft constitutional amendments and navigating the nuances of state policy.

Ossie, and by extension HRF, were engaged in a variety of human rights issues. –  child rights, child labour, juvenile justice, female foeticide, custodial justice, coastal action, Dalit rights, local government, right to information, housing and education.  His painstaking documentation and evidence building prior to building public opinion through people’s tribunals followed by engagement with the state based on citizen’s manifestos, alternate Acts, constitutional amendments and policy briefs – all developed through consultations with the communities, civil society organisations and other stakeholders – are now standard operating procedure for the many human rights defenders who he tutored and mentored in his own endearingly irascible way.

That he found time for deep engagement in, and to make seminal contribution to, each is in itself remarkable. What makes it extraordinary is that most times his initiative, involvement and engagement took place when the issues were off radar or deeply unpopular. He built broad-based multi-sectoral, interdisciplinary civil society coalitions to successfully address specific issues in the face of a passive-aggressive social environment and a hostile state – though courts tended to agree with him. Many of these positions are now ‘mainstream’ in the development sector, with even the state grudgingly adopting some of them.

This volume is a collection of articles and reminiscences of those who were closely associated with Ossie on the themes that were close to his heart. The reminiscences depict a part of the richness of his contribution to human rights discourse and practice – from his passion for research and mentoring to his trademark modus operandi of creating large civil society coalitions to address specific issues and legal intervention. Some are more personal than others. The articles too weave the personal stories, but in addition they lay out the contemporary context of his work and the challenges that remain. It is our hope that they will inspire many more to carry the struggle forward with the same passion and commitment.

The spirit of freedom beckons, we’ve travelled but part of the way
The winding path darkens, hushing what we must say
The voices of struggle sharpen, they can’t wait another day
We must make it happen, and we will, come what may.


Annie Namala
Managing Trustee


Albertina Almeida Advocate
Annie Namala Managing Trustee & Director, Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation (HRF)
Gandimathi Director, Legal Aid for Women (LAW) Trust
Geetha & R. Diwakaran Advocates
Gnanapragasam Deputy Director, Campaigns – Amnesty International
Jesurethinam Director, Social Need Education and Human Awareness (SNEHA)
Joseph Victor Raj National Convenor, Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL)
Miloon Kothari Convenor, National Campaign for Housing Rights & UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing
Nandita Haksar Human Rights Lawyer and Writer
Dr. S.S. Rajagopalan Educationalist
Dr. V.A. Ramesh Nathan General Secretary, NDMJ-NCDHR
Ranjani K. Murthy Women’s Rights Activist
Ravi S.K. Senior Manager, Policy & Advocacy, Action Aid India
Prof. Shantha Sinha Former Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR)
Srinivasan Social Activist
Justice H. Suresh Former Justice, Mumbai High Court
Thomas Jayaraj Director, Centre for Child Rights and Development  (CCRD)
Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi Former Chairperson, Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women & Former Vice Chancellor, M.S. University
Vijayashanker Senior Coordinator (Legal Research and Training), HRF
Team HRF: Chithra, Halcyon Fernandes, V Indira, M S Porkodi, Ramanan, Revathy, Sakthivadivel, Sowmia, Tamilarasi, Uma, S. Vijayashanker