Saturday, December 24, 2016

Geeta Madhavan first woman PhD in Law on International Terrorism

As a foremost expert on international terror Dr Geeta Madhavan’s expert 
opinion is sought on various panels and working groups preparing policy 
papers on counter terrorism, piracy and extremism.

Chennai (Women’s Feature Service) - Dr Geeta Madhavan’s class is usually packed to capacity: just as it was when I was a student, hanging onto her every word. She was my first initiation into law - and continues to be the same for many, many aspirants in the field. But here’s what’s different about her. Dr Madhavan, the country’s first woman PhD in Law on International Terrorism, likes to teach as well as take on major challenges – think nations fighting it out over land; think terrorism and attempts to punish it with legalese; think laws governing the high seas… When she had decided to focus her research study on international terrorism way back in the late 1980s, everyone had been surprised; after all, this wasn’t something that India was contending with at the time. Two decades later, she is one of the select few lawyers who have an in-depth understanding of terrorism, maritime laws, extradition, human rights and refugees rehabilitation.

Dr. Madhavan always loved history; she grew up reading about the two World Wars and their aftermath. That paved the way for a keen interest in international law. “After completing my undergraduate studies in English Literature, I opted to do law as my ambition was to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. It was a dream nurtured by my father right from my school days. However, while pursuing my LLB degree in Bangalore I became completely hooked to studying law; international law in particular. Eventually, although I did sit for the Civil Services exam, I also became an advocate and set up my practice at the Madras High Court. As the same time, I signed up for ML in International Law at the Madras University. It was while I was working on my dissertation topic, international drug trafficking and control, that I came across terrorism,” she reveals, during a free-wheeling chat.

In those days, she may have read about the spread of violence and terrorism in Ireland and Palestine, but this phenomenon instantly grabbed Madhavan’s attention. “It was happening in places far away from India and there was no real interest here around this, but I did want to know more and so I went on reading about it. I clearly remember that it was only after the assassination of Rajeev Gandhi in 1991 that we started giving greater importance to international terrorism. This tragedy marked the entry of international terror in the country. The little work done on the subject and the meagre material available on it motivated me to delve deeper and I decided to do my doctorate in it,” she elaborates. Having chosen what most considered an “off-beat path” Madhavan’s choice left many surprised, “Several people advised me to do a PhD on something that would be monetarily beneficial but my heart was set on pursuing this significant issue.” 

Her detailed research and writings were very well-received. In 1997, she was conferred with an award from The Hague Academy of International Law for her Advanced Doctoral Research. “I was the only Asian to have got this honour that year and one among three in the world. After years of hard work, even as I ran a home, looked after my little son and taught as a guest faculty for the ML students in the International Law department at the Madras University, I received my PhD in 2000,” she recalls with a smile.

After her “path-breaking” research at home, she steadily gained a reputation abroad as well. In fact, after the devastating 9/11 terror attacks her opinion as an “an expert on international terrorism” was sought by several international television channels and other news outlets. “Since then, I have been travelling, writing on terrorism and its various aspects. Later, I established a very successful think tank in Chennai as well,” she shares.

In time, India’s unique geographical position and its strategic importance in the Indian Ocean region also drew Madhavan to explore the maritime threats before the country. With our long and vulnerable coastline, I felt a shift in terrorism from the seas was inevitable. Unfortunately, these fears came true with the 26/11 assault. Today, I’m always on the job as terrorism has become virulent; hardly any nation has been left untouched,” she points out.    

Apart from conducting her own research, Madhavan is committed to passing on her knowledge and encouraging young people to take up a career in law. She painstakingly trains young people, giving them copious reading materials besides holding long-drawn interactive sessions – things that she had found lacking when she was in their place. She shares, “I have a passion for the law and I got into teaching it because of it. When someone reaches out to me to study I feel it’s my duty to make it worth their while. Teaching post graduate law students at the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University is very fulfilling. I am proud to say that many of my students are in leading legal institutions in India and across the globe.”

Between her home, her teaching assignment and her work as an extraordinary expert on a threat that has changed the way the world lives today and perceives violence and security, Madhavan has to maintain a delicate balance, one she has been able to strike thanks to her family’s staunch support. “The last eight years have been extremely hectic. I have been a part of several international working groups, preparing policy papers on varied subjects related to terrorism and maritime issues including counter terrorism, piracy and extremism. Balancing home and work and travel has always been tough but it’s also been very enjoyable because I am passionate about what I do. My husband has been extremely supportive, not only in keeping things going at home while I am away but also standing by me when I’m overwhelmed with work. I think if one has a spouse who takes pride in your work then your journey becomes that much easier and rewarding,” she says. 

Of course, her packed schedule doesn’t keep her away from her interests. Says Geeta, “I write poetry and enjoy blogging whenever I can!” Incidentally, these days, she is putting together her collection of poems besides a book on terrorism, both of which are slated to be published by the end of this year.  

Ask Dr. Geeta Madhavan if she has any words of advice for those who may aspire to follow in her footsteps, and she keeps it simple. “Find your niche: whatever it maybe, not just law – dance, music, art– anything! And once you have that figured out, focus on it with all your heart. There is no point doing anything that does not give you happiness. Pursue your passion, and everything else will follow!”

By Kirthi Jayakumar

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