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The Curious Case of Bureaucrat Turned Activist Lawyer, Abha Singh

Abha Singh left Civil Services to become a human rights lawyer Her husband YP Singh also quit IPS to become a full time lawyer IPS daughter Isha Singh practised law. Will she follow in their footsteps?
Indian Masterminds Stories

Coming from a family of civil servants and also married into one, it is surprising that Ms. Abha Singh would quit Civil Services suddenly and choose to become a full time lawyer. After making a choice to go through the extremely tough UPSC journey, and enjoying a successful career in Indian Postal Service as director thereafter, it is indeed strange that she would want to give it all away to pursue a career in law.

Not really, says the firebrand lady, a regular on popular prime time debates on news channels. She made a conscious decision and her goal was clear – to help the needy get justice from an unjust system that usually favours the powerful.

In an exclusive conversation with Indian Masterminds in Mumbai, where she resides and practises, Ms. Abha Singh spoke candidly about her journey from bureaucracy to Bombay High Court, and the life choices she has made on the way, and why.

Abha Singh with her mother Tara Singh in the centre, a guiding light for them all

BECOMING A BUREAUCRAT

Becoming a bureaucrat was a tribute to her mother, who was an MA in History in the year 1961 from Allahabad University, but was not allowed to work as per the custom then, in their Rajput family. The two sons of the family became IAS officers, but Ms. Singh’s mother, despite being brilliant in studies, was dissuaded from giving the UPSC exam. It was this lady who mentored both her girls to give UPSC and join civil services, right from their childhood.

Ms. Abha Singh cracked the exam in her first attempt and joined Indian Postal Service while her sister Meenakshi Singh joined IRS and is a Tax Commissioner now. “My mother lived out her dream through us,” Ms Singh said.

QUITTING THE SERVICE

However, she quit her job after 20 years of service when she started feeling hemmed in by the office walls and the limitations of a government servant. “I started feeling I could do so much more being on my own and not having to follow the code of conduct rules,” Ms. Singh said.

Being an independent lawyer offered her a bigger canvas to work on and a wider spectrum to be of service to society, where people could reach out to her and she could help them in their fight for justice.

With husband, former IPS officer YP Singh

DONNING BLACK ROBES

Both she and her husband, former IPS officer YP Singh, started attending law classes together while they were posted in Mumbai, in the evenings after work. Eventually, both quit civil services to become lawyers.

“I noticed my husband brilliantly arguing his own case in the Supreme Court and winning it against no less than Kapil Sibal. When we returned to Mumbai, I went and got a law classes form from the Mumbai University and gave it to him. He joined and I followed suit after a year,” Ms. Singh said.

It was Mr. Singh who was the first one to quit civil services after being disgruntled with the system, as he felt he was being targeted for his honesty and bravery to take on powerful politicians and call out their corruption and misuse of power. And, soon, with gentle nudges from her husband, Ms. Singh also took the plunge.

“My husband kept telling me that I was deprived of my freedom of speech and expression for the last 20 years. He would always ask me to leave the government job and don the robes of a lawyer,” she revealed.

Ensuring justice is delivered: With widows of manual scavengers in her Mumbai office

TURNING ACTIVIST LAWYER

Soon, the couple came to be known as the ‘activist lawyer couple’ for fighting cases for common folks against the powerful. They also became renowned for filing PILs against any form of injustice in society.

Ms. Singh gave an example: “When the little girl was raped in Jammu, I organised a protest with the help of some NGOs. Police did not give us permission to use loudspeakers. I filed a PIL in Bombay High Court which gave an order that police cannot do that. Only in marked silence zones, loudspeakers can be disapproved, the Chief Justice said. My right to dissent PIL is a landmark.”

Proud mom with daughter Isha Singh, IPS

RUNS IN THE FAMILY

The passion to be the voice of the silenced people runs in the family. Son Aditya Pratap, too, is a lawyer in Bombay High Court, fighting for humanitarian causes. Daughter Isha Singh is undergoing training at the police academy in Hyderabad now, but her heart lies in a case she had fought pro bono and won, just before joining IPS.

It was for getting compensation for widows whose husbands died cleaning a septic tank. “Although the court ordered 10 lakhs for each widow, Isha keeps calling me up to enquire about the FIR, whether action has been taken against the culprits, and whether the widows are being given vocational training and the children scholarship, as per the court order. She keeps requesting me not to leave the case halfway and see that it reaches a logical end,” Ms. Singh said.

Ms. Isha Singh did her law from National Law School, Bangalore. After passing out, she refused a campus placement, a corporate job, and instead joined her mother’s NGO, RannSamar Foundation, to work for human rights. “We are passionate about justice and believe in standing up for the truth. Cannot see injustice being meted out to anyone.” Ms. Abha Singh said.

Will Isha also follow in her parents’ footsteps and some day leave civil service to practise law? Ms. Singh replied: “Isha loves the legal field but right now she is happy undergoing IPS training. She wants to work on the criminal justice system. She has seen the anomalies as a lawyer and now she will try to plug them to ensure police work is more people friendly.”

Three litigating lawyers stepping out of home together: (from right to left) Abha Singh with son Aditya Pratap and daughter Isha Singh

A BORN FIREBRAND

Bringing back the conversation to herself, Ms. Singh said that she is a born firebrand, alluding to the superlative people use to describe her – firebrand lawyer, firebrand activist. “I have always been outspoken and bold, and never shied away from speaking the truth – values instilled in me by my parents, especially my father who was an upright police officer. He used to tell me, ‘darr ki age jeet hai’ while my mother used to say ‘the road to truth is never easy, learn to put up with discomforts’.”

Interestingly, all her siblings entered civil services. One of them, Mr. Rajeshwar Singh, left his joint director post in Enforcement Directorate (ED) to join politics, and is now an MLA from Sarojini Nagar constituency in Lucknow, while his wife Ms. Laxmi Singh, IPS, is Police Commissioner in Noida.

All four civil servant siblings in one frame: (from left to right) Meenakshi Singh IRS, Rajeshwar Singh, Ex Joint Director ED, now MLA from UP, Abha Singh, bureaucrat turned lawyer, and Rameshwar Singh IRS

WALKING THE TALK

So many roles, yet Ms. Abha Singh manages to juggle them quite well, having learnt to compartmentalise and manage time effortlessly. A human rights lawyer, a doting mother, a supportive wife, a talk show regular… she plays a variety of roles with different shades with ease, that makes her an instantly recognisable face, especially on TV. Pleasing to those fighting the system, antagonising to those in positions of power.

But, that’s what fame brings, as Ms. Singh would know only too well. Enmity! Still, the fire in her continues to burn, as, every day, she makes the choice to continue walking on the path less travelled.


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