Cornelia Sorabji's 150th birth anniversary celebrated

Rani Singh and Rupanjana Dutta Monday 21st November 2016 13:54 EST

The High Commission of India in the UK organised an event to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Cornelia Sorabji, the very first woman of any nationality to study law at Oxford, and also the first female Indian Barrister. The event was organised in collaboration with Somerville College, Oxford, where Ms. Sorabji did her law studies.

The event was very well attended with participation of senior judges, legal practitioners, faculty and students from law schools, representatives from some of the most eminent legal firms in the UK, entrepreneurs, historians, writers, editors and media personnel.

Some of the key attendees and speakers included British Indian entrepreneur and life peer Lord Bilimoria (who is also the nominated representative of the Government of India for the Indira Gandhi Scholarships at Somerville College), Dr Alice Prochaska (Principal, Somerville College), Prof. Anne Davies and Prof. Timothy Endicott Deans of Oxford Law Faculty, Lady Hazel Fox, QC, Judge Rabinder Singh (the first full-time high court judge from Asia), Judge Deborah Taylor, Malcolm Deboo, (President of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe), Prof. Sir Richard Sorabji (official biographer of Ms. Cornelia Sorabji) and Dr Kusoom Vadgama, historian and editor of 'An Indian Portia: Selected Writings of Cornelia Sorabji'.

The Acting High Commissioner, Mr. Dinesh K. Patnaik and other speakers spoke in detail about the exemplary life of Ms. Sorabji who overcame all odds to become the first woman to study at Bombay University, where she won first-class honours. She came to Oxford with the help of a subscription raised by members of the British liberal establishment and later became the first woman of any nationality to study Law at Oxford. Cornelia Sorabji went on to serve as legal advisor to the Bengal Court of Wards, serving sequestered women, and their families, fighting for their education and legal rights.

The event also highlighted the postgraduate law scholarships for Indian students launched this year at Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development Somerville College, in memory of Cornelia Sorabji.

The nephew of Cornelia, Professor Sir Richard Sorabji told Asian Voice, “Well, I think it’s so important that Indian lawers are now being given scolarships to come to Somerville which has such a tradition in law and in women lawers. I think Indian law is extremely interesting, I think it’s constitution is very impressive. I think it’s amazing how much British law they were willing to accept but reinterpreted. So this came out very differently, in effect.”

Lord Karan Bilimoria was smiling as ever, and spoke to this paper after the speeches were over. Standing close to the bright lights with Gandhi also smiling down on him, he said, “Today for us to celebrate Cornelia Sorabji’s 150th Birth Anniversary on international students’ day, 17th of Novermber, when I am speaking at the House of Lords in a debate on international students, when I have hosted an event as the chair of the all Party Parliament Group of international students. It’s ambiguity beyond belief. There is somebody who broke all the glass ceilings with what she did, when she did it in India. In Britain being the first woman to study law at Oxford ever. And she was an Indian woman.”

Once speeches were over and the audience had moved over to the Nehru Hall for a sumptuous dinner, Acting High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Dinesh K.Patnaik stood outside the halls in the central area on the first floor and spoke to us. He said, “We were talking about a personality who opened doors in the world. She was a first woman lawer to study in Oxford. In India, she fought against things when everybody tried to stop her. She got a scholarship to come here when the UK wanted to deny her a scholarship, she got to study in Oxford and Oxford refused her. So she is somebody who always has broken values. But today was not a celebration of the woman Cornelia Sorabji; it is the celebration of womanhood, it is a celebration of never ending, of keeping striving, fighting; and also the fact that in today’s world we need role models. We need role models that we can look up to for the younger generation, for everybody else.”

Dr Alice Prochaska, Principal of Somerville seemed rather happy. She said: “We are very proud to be continuing the great tradition of pioneering Indian women by establishing the scholarship for Indian law students at Somerville College. I very much hope that we will be able to bring many more Indians to Somerville in future as we do already to our Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development. And of the things really great about our scheme is that we expect our scholars to return to India. So we’ve had the support of the government of India and we are looking for more support for people in India with the expectation that what the students do and learn in Oxford will go back to India and help to develop law, to develop society there as well.”

Dr Kusoom Vadgama, speaking to Asian Voice said, “Lived with this woman for 30 years. She decided to go to the most deprived people and help them in a way only she could. She has shown her courage against all odds. She always used to say,’my heart beats with two pulses; once for India, once for Britain.”

The Cornelia Sorabji Law Programme

Cornelia Sorabji, the first female law student at Oxford in 1889 continues to provide a pioneering link between India and the University of Oxford. Cornelia Sorabji was not only Somerville College’s first Indian student, but was also the first Indian woman to study at any British University.

On her return to her home country, Cornelia Sorabji became the first woman to practice law in India and worked on behalf of women living in purdah. Her lifetime’s work as a social reformer centred on support for the poor and for women at every level of society.

Oxford University announced the launch of a new scholarship in September to support Indian students studying law at the world-famous institution, celebrating Sorabji's 150th birth anniversary. On her return to her home country, Cornelia Sorabji became the first woman to practice law in India and worked on behalf of women living in purdah. Her lifetime’s work as a social reformer centred on support for the poor and for women at every level of society.

The scholarship covers up to 50% of the entire cost of the degree, which is usually around £36,000 including tuition fees and lodging.

The first awardee of the Cornelia Sorabji Scholarship in Law, Divya Sharma from Chandigarh, who has taken up her Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) degree- thanks to the generosity of alumni and friends of Somerville.

Divya Sharma

Divya graduated from the National Law Institute University, Bhopal, in 2012 palcing first in a cohort of 85 students. Before Somerville, Divya was practicing corporate law in India for four years and after completing BCL, Divya intends to return to India to resume practising as a transactional lawyer.

“Cornelia Sorabji is a celebrated figure in India. She is a source of inspiration for many young lawyer, including me. Many of my Indian friends and seniors from college have studied in Oxford and a majority of them are from Somerville. I had heard wonderful stories about the College from them and was very excited when I got an offer to study here. I want to go into academia and am hoping that this course will gear me with the requisite knowledge and skills that I need to become a good academic.

“I have wanted to pursue a career in Law from a very young age. I hail from a family full of lawyers and judges and was especially inspired by my grandfathers- one was a lawyer and the other was a High judge in India. As I grew up, I became more determined to follow their legacy.”

Navya Jannu

Through the generosity of Mr Hemant Sahai of New Delhi, the College has also launched the HSA Advocates Award to another Indian BCL student, Navya Jannu, under Cornelia Sorabji law programme.

Navya graduated from Jindal Global Law School in August 2016. She wanted to become a lawyer from a very young age and has had a diverse array of internship experiences in the Indian law sector. After the BCL, Navya aspires to become a practioner and legal academic in India in the area of public, energy and environmental law.

“In the first semester of my undergraduate year, the first book I picked up was Cornelia Sorabji's autobiography. To now be studying at her alma mater and on a law programme in her name is very special to me. India's first female lawyer and first female prime minister came from Somerville and to be a part of that legacy of strong Indian women is something that is really encouraging and inspires me.

“I feel that India is at a stage where it needs intellectual leadership to inform the development of laws, in particularly in the realm of renewable energy. Here the energy-environment binary, as true in most developing countries, depicts a collission between aspirations of an ambiguous government, anxieties of vulnerable groups and environmental concerns flagged by social agents. Law plays a balancing role in this chaotic paradigm. I am grateful to Mr Hemant Sahai for his support in realising my aspirations and remain encouraged by our shared interest in the same law.”

Launch of the programme

Prof Alice Prochaska, principal of Somerville College during the launch of the programme said, "Cornelia Sorabji was a woman of tremendous spirit and courage and someone who paved the way for many Indian students, including (former Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi at Somerville. India is a key part of our college and this scholarship will pave the way for more graduates to follow in their footsteps.”

The college is now campaigning for it to eventually become a fully-funded endowment to support bright Indian students who often win admission to Oxford University but are unable to bear the high costs associated with it. To be successful, the applicant will be expected to demonstrate not only exceptional academic merit but also a commitment ultimately to return to India to put their skills and experience into practice.

While the scholarship is open to any high achieving Indian student, female students will be especially encouraged to carry on Sorabji's ideals. The finalist is chosen by the college from a list of Indians offered admission to the university and on the basis of a 500-word essay on how they plan to make use of the Oxford law degree in their professional life.

The initiative is backed by Dr Kusoom Vadgama, historian and editor of 'An Indian Portia: Selected Writings of Cornelia Sorabji'.

The Cornelia Sorabji Law Programme is housed at the Oxford India Centre and provides a thriving postgraduate and postdoctoral programme for talented Indian graduate students who seek to lead change on their return to India. The holder of the scholarship will belong to the Faculty of Law and the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development at Somerville College.

The Centre was established three years ago as a result of a grant of 3 million pounds from the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development, matched by Somerville College and the University of Oxford.

It offers five permanently endowed scholarships for Indian graduate students and six students have already benefitted from those scholarships since they started in 2013.

From its inception in 1879, Somerville College, founded as one of the first two institutions at the University of Oxford to admit women, had been dedicated to inclusion, explicitly welcoming students from all social backgrounds, any kind of cultural and religious beliefs, and all nationalities. Cornelia Sorabji actually came to Oxford with the help of a subscription raised by progressive British men and women including Madeleine Shaw Lefevre, the first Principal of Somerville.

At graduate level there are currently 26 law students from India. Each year, a significant number of India students who meet the high standards for entry to Oxford to study law do not take up their places because of lack of funds.

The College is actively seeking funding support for future recipients of the scholarship. For further details please contact Development Director Sara Kalim at [email protected].

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