Reconceptualising Justice - Sanjna Ullal

University of Toronto Laidlaw Scholar Sanjna Ullal discusses her project into the double-marginalisation of dalit women in urban India, the importance of personal identity in conducting research, and her podcast, Women Advocating for Change.
Reconceptualising Justice - Sanjna Ullal

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University of Toronto Laidlaw Scholar Sanjna Ullal discusses her investigation into the double-marginalisation of dalit women in urban India, the role of personal identity in research, and her podcast, Women Advocating for Change - a space that simultaneously recognizes the struggles many women go through, and highlights their ability to effect change in dynamic ways. 

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Further Reading Suggestions by Sanjna

On the issues of the caste-class-gender nexus:

  • Dalit Women Speak Out by Joel Lee, Jayshree Mangubhai, Aloysius Irudayam.

This was the book I read that initially got me interested in this topic — it really paints a picture of the kind of violence and systemic barriers to justice experiences by dalit women, with a focus on rural spaces. 

  • Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women's Testimonios by Sharmila Rege.

This book takes parts of different dalit women's autobiographies & positions them within certain movements, or uses them to illustrate a variety of struggles, forms of resistance and engagement etc. As such, they stand as testimonios to the experiences of dalit women at large. 

  • The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India by Rupa Viswanath

A fantastic book if you're trying to understand the caste-class nexus, because it provides a historical perspective of the caste system that looks at it as a means through which economic and political power were consolidated — a departure from a purely spiritual/ritualistic perspective.

  • To Be Cared For: The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum by Nathaniel Roberts

A phenomenal anthropological study into the experiences of dalit women living in a slum — though its main focus is on the nature conversions to Pentecostal Christianity for women living in the slum, it gets to the heart of so many other issues & is overall just really well done.

There's also a Human Rights Watch report on the matter, and one can find a bunch of great resources in their Notes section: 

For less formal academic work, I'd also suggest looking into Round Table India ( that features blog posts and think pieces (typically) written by members of the Dalit community. 

There are also other NGOs to check out, like NCDHR (National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights), which has a wing dedicated to access to justice (NDMJ) and another dedicated to women's issues (AIDMAM), or for more academic work, you can look into IIDS (Indian Institute of Dalit Studies).


INTERVIEW EXCERPT: Law’s dead words on a page, really, if there aren’t people who are willing to take up the cause and who aren’t willing to advocate on its behalf. And to know that just by chance I was born into a family where my worth is respected by other members of the society and I was given opportunities, and to know that just by chance another woman like me is in another environment where she has to experiences all of these obstacles. That just doesn’t sit right.

NIKOL CHEN: From the Laidlaw Foundation, I’m Nikol Chen and this is The Good Leader. A podcast where we talk to remarkable individuals in all sorts of fields to learn more about how to lead with integrity and explore what the next generation of leaders is doing to solve the world’s most intractable problems.

You’re listening to a Scholar Spotlight episode - a rubric in which we interview our current and former Laidlaw Scholars about their research and leadership journeys. Today our guest is Sanjna Ullal who is currently doing her second research summer at the University of Toronto, investigating the obstacles to justice for low caste women in Indian urban centres. 

Sanjna just finished her third year as an undergraduate student, doing a double major in Global Health, and Peace, Conflict and Justice studies. She is passionate about justice for marginalized communities, and thinking about ways in which we can reconceptualize justice to better suit their needs. 

Sanjna also has her own podcast called Women Advocating For Change, which she created as a space that simultaneously recognizes the struggles many women go through, but also highlights their ability to effect change in dynamic ways.

INTERVIEW EXCERPT: “I think that there are a lot of obstacles that a lot of women face and that is true but I also think that a lot of women are demonstrating the ways in which they can show resilience, in which they can change their environments, in which they can change these structures, to improve lives for other women.”

Here is Sanjna.

NIKOL CHEN: Hi Sanjna, welcome to the podcast!

SANJNA ULLAL: Hi Nikol, thanks for having me!

NC: Could you please start by telling me what your research is about and what real-life potential it has to solve global challenges?

SU: Sure, so the research that I am doing looks at dalit women. So, dalit is a term that refers to anyone who is “downtrodden” so, it typically refers to anyone who is outside of the Brahmanical caste system, which exists in India, and is associated with particular occupations that are looked down upon by the rest of the society. So, they include things like handling waste management or dealing with the cremation of bodies, and so on. And so because of those occupations, they tend to experience a lot of discrimination, and women in particular who are both part of this group but who are also subject to gender-based crime, because of the very fact that they are women, are considered to be doubly-marginalised within these societies.

A lot of the existing literature that looks at, in particular crimes that are perpetuated against dalit women, focuses in on their experiences in rural parts of India because that is where casteism is supposed to be the most prevalent. But interestingly enough, there has been a lot of migration into the cities recently and a lot of people who are moving into the cities are from lower-caste or dalit for example. So, what I wanted to look at is whether they are experiencing the same obstacles to justice in urban centres that they are experiencing in rural areas. Because not only are they victims to these crimes but they often face a lot of obstacles in even getting charges laid or getting any prosecution. And even if they do get prosecution, the sentencing is super low, so the overall feeling of having your dignity noticed and recognised by the state is one that I think is rather lacking, and so a lot of my research focuses in on the urban experience because I think that’s an area that hasn’t really been touched upon in a lot of the literature. Actually, when I went there this time, I was surprised because there were no NGOs that were working in the city. I was in Delhi - it’s one of the largest cities in India, it’s India’s capital, and there were no NGOs that were working on the issues pertaining to dalit women within the city. All of them were working in rural areas. So, that was interesting - it further substantiated why it’s something that I am interested in. 

In terms of its larger potential, I think the best thing that it can do is sort of shine a light on an issue because there are a lot of people who I talked to while I was in India who are really educated, really aware of a lot of the issues that are happening otherwise, but were really unaware of the casteism that exists in their own cities, because they thought that casteism is obsolete or something that is relegated to the rural parts of India. But in fact, it is the experience of a lot of these women, and I think if we can draw attention to issues and bring them up into the light and show people that there is something that is happening here. It allows for these women not to slip through the cracks. And I think that’s sort of what I am working towards, just to have that space where they are recognised and their struggles and the ways that they show their resilience are recognised, so that solutions can be built forward from there. Because solutions can only happen when you know there is a problem. And right now there is maybe no recognition that there is a problem. 

NC: And how did you become interested in this research?

SU: So, actually when I was in high school, I was in a class that was called Challenge and Change, and there were three assignments that were given to us during that class, and it started off with us exploring the sociological implications for a particular crime. I looked at human trafficking in India and I found that it disproportionately affected women which was surprising to me and simultaneously not surprising. Surprising because there are a lot of ways in which women are venerated in Indian society but I was also seeing that they were subject to some of the worst crimes and so for my final project I decided to look at the double-marginalisation of dalit women and that’s where I initially got interested in a lot of these issues.

I remember going through a lot of these books and reading these cases and seeing just the abundance of evidence that could be used to convict or to prosecute, and then also seeing the abysmal conviction rates and prosecution rates. And that was really upsetting, and I remember that nothing had really affected me more up to that point and so I decided to look at the laws themselves, and I decided to look at the constitution. And within the constitution itself there is equality under the eyes of the law and there are some specific laws that are put in place to recognise the particular challenges of these women. And it was during this process actually that I found out that one of my great grand uncles had been one of the few people who was responsible for drafting the Indian constitution. And it’s kind of funny the way the human psyche works I guess because knowing that I had some personal connection and knowing that this member of my family felt so strongly about these issues and truly believed in an India where people would be seen as equals and where there wouldn’t be casteism and where people could live their lives with dignity, and who really truly believed in that vision. To see it all these years later and to recognise that law’s dead words on a page, really, if there aren’t people who are willing to take up the cause and who aren’t willing to advocate on its behalf. And there are incredible people who are doing that work but they are encountering so many barriers and I think that that’s not right, and I think it’s just something I am very passionate about because I think the ability to live one’s life with dignity is so essential to what it means to be a person, know that there are people who are very much like me because I am also from India and I’m also a woman, and to know that just by chance I was born into a family where my worth is respected by other members of the society and I was given opportunities, and to know that just by chance another woman like me is in another environment where she has to experiences all of these obstacles. That just doesn’t sit right. And that’s why I am so passionate about the research that I am doing, and why I want to continue to do my research and invest myself in advocacy work and law because I think that’s something that we need right now. 

NC: And so you’re in your second summer of research and you were supposed to go to India but then...coronavirus happened. So, could you tell me more about how you’re adapting to this situation, how did your research change?

SU: Yeah so, last summer I was fortunate enough to have the chance to travel to Delhi and so I did get to meet a lot of really incredible people while I was over there who were working for some fantastic NGOs and also some scholars and some lawyers, and so I had a little bit of a base connection in Delhi and it’s coming in handy this summer because I was able to tap into that network and sort of find people whom I can interview. The one thing that I am uncertain of at this point is whether or not I’ll be able to talk to dalit women themselves who have experienced these forms of discrimination that I am looking into. So, that is yet to be seen - I have a few more weeks of research left, and there are some people whom I’m talking to who have offered to put me in touch with some of these women but that will remain to be seen you know depending on access to internet, I don’t want to put anyone in jeopardy by asking them to come to an NGO office or anything of that sort. So, that’s sort of where things are right now, it’s a lot of more relying also on literature that’s been published, interviews, trying to construct an image or a reality from Toronto is challenging but I think I’m really fortunate to have an incredible research supervisor and a really lovely support team who are always ready to share resources and many other scholars who are also trying to do the same work, and so we are all sharing best practices and what’s working for each of us, so that’s been really helpful I think.

NC: And so, just a bit more on the pandemic and we’ll get back to your amazing research, I’d like to know your thoughts on what will happen next. As awful as the pandemic has been and how many people have died, it has highlighted so many issues that previously were not really paid attention to or actioned upon, for example structural racism, with Black people having statistically much higher mortality rates because of it. So, it’s such a unique situation, so many important world changing things coming together at once - what do you think is coming next?

SU: I think it’s really an inflection point...Here is what I think - one of the things that I am worried about is that for a lot of people this has been a very traumatic time, even for people who are better off. I can see that sense in myself of wanting to forget that I’ve been inside for 3 or 4 months and that I’ve seen so much devastation and I think there is this impulse that we want to return to normal and to want to have things go back to normalcy and I feel we would be doing ourselves a great disservice if that was our end goal because I think that as difficult as it is, we really need to think about this time and we really need to think about what has come out of this time and what it has shown us about the society that we live in, and whether we really want to go back and live in that same society or whether we want to use this terrible and devastating experience to really try and set some building blocks to ensure that this doesn’t happen again because who knows, maybe in the age of globalisation we will at some point have another pandemic but my hope is that the people who are affected by that pandemic, there isn’t a community that is disproportionately affected by that pandemic, or there aren’t people who have to day in and day out put their lives on the line because they are forced to. So, I hope that we can at least try to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

NC: And apart from being struck with this pandemic, are there any moments from your research journey or your leadership journey that stand out to you and that have been particularly memorable to you?

SU: When I went to India there was this one day when I was walking in this bazaar, so it’s like a marketplace and it’s also a neighbourhood. And it was the first time I had been sort of left on my own to explore and to do whatever research I needed to do and to find the people I needed to. And this place was teeming with life - people selling their wears, going about their day, children running around, and it was a really wonderful thing to see and as I was sort of walking through, I heard a woman scream. And initially I was worried, I thought something had happened to her and I peeked around and I saw that she was in fact going into labour, and what followed was probably one of the most incredible things because people stopped whatever they were doing, it was like that tiny microcosmic space came to a standstill as people ran into her home, picked up her bag, called her partner, and then proceeded to call her an autorickshaw to get to the hospital because the ambulance wouldn’t have been able to either make it in time or to come into that space. And to see the instantaneous community support that she got in that moment and then to see it all fizzle away the moment she left, everyone went back to what they were doing. 

And it really spoke to me because it made me realise in situations where there isn’t necessarily the best infrastructure or government services aren’t the most efficacious, community is the single most important thing. And I thought in that moment about a lot of dalit women who experience discrimination and who experience violence at the hands of their community members. And it puts so much more in context for me because their community is their life source and if they are experiencing all of these troubles at the community level and they aren’t able to access state services, their day to day existence becomes far more difficult. And it really made me reconsider what I perceive as justice because before that point, it was: conviction rate - amazing, they go to jail for X number of days/months/years - cool, that’s justice. And when I thought about it: but these women have to go back to their communities when that’s all over. And if they are blamed for what has happened, or if they are continuously shunned, their life has not improved. There is no justice there. And I think that sort of shifted my focus to a more comprehensive idea of what justice is, and it was funny because it was one of those things that I hadn’t intended on thinking about or hadn’t intended on researching. But it was something that just came out of the opportunity I got to actually be in the spaces I was researching or that I was interested in. 

So, I think that was one of the biggest moments for me and I think it went back to when I think about leadership, it’s that it’s so important to know the ground reality. Especially if we are interested in international issues. It’s so important to be immersed in those communities and to understand community-level needs before we can talk about how we can change things. Because had I not seen that or had I not thought about that, my approach to advocating for these issues would have been very very narrow and seeing that and experiencing that broadened my horizons. 

NC: So could you talk a bit more about the concept of researcher identity in conducting research, what conflicts you’ve discovered, and what you’ve learnt from your experience of being a researcher?

SU: Yeah, that one is really interesting because when I was thinking about sort of the research process and I was thinking about the questions that I would ask, I did not consider myself as being involved in that process, which sounds funny but I wrote those questions and I thought about that process and thought “This would work the same if anybody else did it.” And I felt a certain level of comfort in that because I knew I that I was an Indian woman or could be perceived as such, even though I’ve grown up in Canada and I have a Canadian accent, I felt as though I didn’t have to worry about anything really in terms of dynamics or in terms of understanding myself really. 

It wasn’t a question that entered my mind until I actually got to India and I was sitting down with a publisher and he said: “Listen, I’m going to be very frank with you,” and I was like “sure” and he said: “I want to know why an upper caste, upper class expat is interested in the issues of these women.” And when he said that I sat there and I was a little stunned. I wasn’t offended, by any means. It was funny because having grown up in Canada, I had never used my caste, I’m not acutely aware of what it is, it holds no meaning to me. If someone asked me how I identified, I would not have used a single one of those identifiers - those aren’t a part of how I perceive my own identity. But when he brought that up to me, I realised that when I was entering these spaces, that is how I was going to be perceived. I was not going to be seen first as another Indian woman, but I was going to be seen as an expat or someone who is foreign. I was going to be seen as someone who is upper class, upper caste, and it suddenly made me so much more aware of how I should conduct myself and how I should create space when I am talking to a lot of these women because I realised that the way they see me and the way I see me aren’t necessarily the same thing. And having brought in my identity as a person into my role as a researcher, I think allowed me to move further in a way that is much more conscientious and far more aware of my environment.

NC: And, moving away from your research project, you actually have your own podcast - Women Advocating for Change - could you tell me a bit more about your idea behind the podcast and some of the most valuable & impactful things that people who you interviewed told you?

SU: Yeah, so the idea for the podcast came when I was in my first year, and it was largely born out of a couple of things. One - I wanted to do something that I didn’t have to rely on as many other people for. Because there were other projects that I was really interested that ended up just taking such a long time because I was waiting on other people, so I was like “OK, what is some small way to do something that I think is meaningful.” And so I said - maybe this. And then I heard, actually the person whom I interviewed first, speak and her name is Marina Nemat, and she is an advocate but she was actually arrested during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. She was only 16 years old, she was held in a prison and tortured for two years and two months, and she eventually was able to leave the prison and has worked as an advocate against torture practices around the world. And I got to hear her speak when I was in First Year, and I just thought that she was so incredible, like so tenacious to be able to live with some of the most horrible experiences and memories, and to try to turn that into a platform for creating change. And I thought about all the ways in which women are doing that, they’re really using the positions that they have, the experiences that they have to move forward. And it was actually around that time when Dr Ford in the US, she had come out with… she had been talking about the fact that she was sexually assaulted by someone who was about to be sworn into the Supreme Court. I remember in all of that, hearing her name just being associated with victimhood. She had done this incredible brave thing, she had talked about it and she had tried to really create impact and awareness, and she would for the rest of her life be known as a victim. And I found so much injustice in that because I think that there are a lot of obstacles that a lot of women face and that is true but I also think that a lot of women are demonstrating the ways in which they can show resilience, in which they can change their environments, in which they can change these structures, to improve lives for other women. I feel like we don’t have spaces to talk about that incredible work that they are doing and to recognise that it is possible to change things. And so that’s why I started the podcast. I interviewed these two other incredible women as a result of it, one of whom is a Senator here in Canada, Senator Marilou McPhedran, and she has had such an incredible career - she has worked as an activist, she has worked in non-governmental organisations, she was a lawyer, she also worked in academia, and now she is in politics. And one of the things that I learnt from her was just the incredible array of ways in which you can create change. Because I think for me, coming into university, I thought that there was a fixed path that I was trodding on. You know, there is one particular career that I am moving towards, and then hearing from her, I realised that there are so many different ways in which you can impact issues which you care about, and it doesn’t have to be one particular thing - you can occupy several spaces at once. And I thought that was amazing. And another person whom I interviewed, her name is Ruchira Gupta, and she is an activist and she advocated against sex trafficking and human trafficking. She started out as a journalist and what I love about her approach to these issues is that she puts the people who are affected first. Her whole approach is based around consultation and understanding, rather than coming up with her own idea of how to make change and trying to impose it. To really think about the local situation and to empower those women, and to hear about what they want for their lives, and to try to make that possible. I think that’s so important in leadership, in particular it’s to think about the people whom you are servicing, whose lives you are trying to make better, to put them at the forefront and to think about all the ways in which you are positioned to facilitate their needs and their goals. And I think that’s something that I learned from her. 

NC: And if you could interview anyone for your podcast, who would it be? 

SU: Oh that’s so hard, I mean right now probably, this is very clichéd, but I think it would be very cool to interview Alexandra Ocasio Cortez because she is just so cool, so yeah, very cliche. She really has been such a source of inspiration and hope for a lot of people who had otherwise lost hope with electoral politics and the like. I think she’s reminded a lot of us that politics is still important and those issues should still be contested and it’s really possible to fundamentally change things and not only is it possible but also necessary. 

NC: Who are some of your favourite leaders? 

SU: Honestly I think the people who are protesting right now and the people who have not necessarily a single person but I think the people who have been doing this work for a really long time and who have been working day in and day out and have taken on the emotional labour to change these systems that have been working against them every step of the way and who do their work without recognition without you know all of the fanfare, those are the people I am truly really inspired by and I think it’s really important to remember that even though this is a moment that is hopefully going to move into a larger movement, it has existed for a long long time before us and I think if we can continue to stand in solidarity with those voices and listen and move forward as best we can, then that is the best thing that we can do and I think those are the people who we should take more time to appreciate and recognise however we can. 

NC:  And finally why do you think it’s important to become a good moral leader in the world today?

SU: I think now more than ever it is really important to stand up for things when it’s hard and the sort of crises that we are facing right now are reminding us that these systems are in place not only out of you know malintent but because of the silence of millions of people who have let these exploitative and extractive policies reign for so long. And I think that right now we are uniquely positioned to fundamentally change the way in which we interact with one another and really allow for hopefully a new generation where someone’s ability to live their life with dignity is taking first and foremost as a struggle that we are all invested in. And I think that right now we all need to step up and make sure that we are part of that change to ensure that it happens. Because silence or disengagement will mean that some of these things won’t change and that would suck. Not eloquent but it’s true. If we have this opportunity and this momentum and traction and everyone’s focused on creating change then what better time is there really to step up and recognise too that we can step up in ways that are not always seen by others, and oftentimes are the ones that are the most important - how we choose to carry ourselves on a day to day basis, how we choose to talk to people, how educated we choose to be. Because ultimately, some of that is a choice, and some people don’t have a choice - they are reminded every single day of you know their struggles and also the types of resistance and I think it’s just really important for all of us to join in that and to share of the burden. 

NC: Yes, as you said, that would definitely suck indeed. Now is certainly the time to step up, we should have stepped up a long time ago but nevertheless, as you pointed out earlier, our current situation is an inflection point. Thank you so much Sanjna for coming on our podcast and sharing your brilliant research and leadership journey!

SU: It was really such a pleasure, and I’m so glad we had the chance to chat!

NC: You can connect with Sanjna and find out more about her research on the Laidlaw Scholars Network. You can also find Sanjna’s podcast Women Advocating for Change at

Follow the Laidlaw Foundation on Twitter and LinkedIn to find out when we release our new podcast episodes, and if you would like to find out more about our programmes visit 

You can find all the references, further reading suggestions and the transcript of this episode on the Laidlaw Scholars Network.

Our music is by Broke For Free and Tours. 

Thanks for listening.