The Williamson Medal has long signified the attainment of outstanding achievement at Franklin & Marshall College. This year’s winner, Aditi Malik ’09 of New Delhi, India, continues that estimable tradition of scholastic accomplishment.
As the winner of the College’s most prestigious academic award to a student, Malik has spent her undergraduate years putting her knowledge into practice. By applying her studies beyond the classroom in activist roles, she has expanded the cause of human rights both locally and internationally.
Her involvement has taken her from prisons in York County to tribunals in Cambodia and even back to her native country, where she examined death penalty cases and incidents of death in police custody.
“We still have the death penalty in India, but the government claims there have only been 55 executions since independence in 1947,” Malik says. “I researched this with Amnesty International and found that many local newspapers spoke about executions in the area, but national newspapers never carried this information. The reality is there have actually been over 700 death penalty executions within India, but the national figure still says 55.”
Malik’s main research area is genocide, an interest that crystallized during a research project in Cambodia. Although the genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge ended there in 1979, she was troubled that 30 years passed before a tribunal was established to investigate it.
Her personal convictions about human rights issues have evolved as she has become more aware of complex gray areas. “I went into this thinking human rights violations are wrong, end of story. We need to put an end to them now. Something I learned at F&M, especially through my work in anthropology, is that human rights are very much culturally constructed ideas. Part of the problem in enforcing international human rights is that a lot of states look at them as Western conceptions and they don’t want the West imposing ideas upon them as they might not agree.”
Malik’s thesis research looked at humanitarian intervention and the tension between human rights and national sovereignty. “We may have good intentions and say genocide is wrong no matter what, but there are states that say this is our own business and this is our own culture. My project was really looking at whether there can be reconciliation between state interests and individual wishes. And I found that there really wasn’t one; it’s something I hope to look into more in graduate school.”
Susan Dicklitch, director of the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement and an associate professor in the Government Department, turned out to be the perfect mentor for Malik’s developing research interests and activism. Dicklitch provided Malik with abundant support, opportunities and a significant role model. Together, they even co-authored an article submitted to the Journal of Human Rights. Dicklitch also encouraged Malik to pursue graduate school. Malik will attend Northwestern University in the fall in preparation for an academic career in a research university in India, where she plans to conduct research on India’s human rights policies.
For others interested in becoming involved in protecting human rights, Malik offers this advice: “Before you form a strong opinion, study the subject. It’s important to study it from different points of view. You need to understand why India, or the U.S., has a certain policy toward human rights because all of these nations come with their own histories and their own places. Before you decide that this is how it should be, research where people are coming from.”
The academic accolades that have come to Malik as a side result of her hard work are deeply appreciated, if unexpected. In response to her selection as this year’s medal recipient, Malik says, “I am obviously delighted about winning the Williamson medal. It is a great honor to take with me as I depart F&M. I think I really found my passion here at Franklin & Marshall. I didn’t realize I could make my passion my profession before I came to college, but I do now.”