Law Schools

A broader idea of accountability in law student governance

PaarasPandey_NALSARTwo years ago, Nalsar’s Student Bar Council adopted an accountability policy. It had a formal mechanism of holding student representatives accountable including the appointment of a financial auditor and a grievance redressal officer for each activity-based committee. The auditor had to submit a report on the committee’s functioning at the end of the year.

Even before the policy came into force, if serious misconduct by a Student Bar Council (“SBC”) member was discovered and reported, students could (and often would) convene a meeting of that member’s activity-based committee. Today, some representatives even inform the students, either of their own accord or in response to queries, about the activities of the SBC.

These (formal and informal) mechanisms are creating a culture of accountability within the SBC. What they do not reveal is how the representative body has not once protested declining standards of academic integrity.

Problems such as academic dishonesty among the faculty, high-handed wardens, unacceptable messing and other hostel services, and ridiculous rules of discipline are prevalent in nearly all the NLUs. On a recent visit to the Gujarat National Law University, I saw hostels that resembled prisons  – there was not enough ventilation or provision for drainage and no emergency escape planning.

Accountability usually refers to the duty of people in positions of power to justify or give reasons in support of the decisions and actions they have taken on behalf of their constituents or stakeholders. However, because a student government can negotiate with the administration of a college on more even terms than individual students, and because student grievance redressal mechanisms are either in their formative stages or absent, student representatives must assume a duty to seek explanation from the authorities until important issues are brought to the table.


The Executive Body of NALSAR’s Student Bar Council addressing a gathering of students.

Engagement may even have to be confrontational and in extreme cases, take the shape of civil disobedience. Our ideas of accountability among student governments and representatives therefore, should be broadened to include questions about whether the representative body publicly articulates disagreements with the college administration or builds opinion about any aspect of their functioning.

Paaras Pandey is an undergraduate student in his final year at Nalsar.

Law Schools

NALSAR’s constitution has embraced gender diversity but needs to do more on inclusion

PaarasPandey_NALSARStudents at the National Law Universities (“NLUs”) may identify themselves with a certain class, gender, culture, sexual orientation, language, or region. Their experiences at college, including their academic performance and personal interests, can also be a part of how they identify themselves. Because the student bodies are small and diverse, governance is also shaped by concerns about plurality, diversity, and inclusivity.

Gender in the transit constitution

In instituting reserved seats for women within the Executive Committee (a body of office bearers) for 2014-15 under a transit constitution, the NALSAR administration probably felt that they had addressed inclusion holistically.

Historically, Student Bar Council (“SBC”) politics had been disadvantageous to women and has completely ignored the interests of non-LLB students. I have often been part of the sexist and most demeaning lobbying that happens in the boys’ hostel. It was also often said, only partly in jest, that “in Nalsar, the only thing worse than being a first year is being a LLM”.

So when the transit constitution allowed neither for voting by the postgraduate students, nor their representation in the Executive Committee, there were doubts about how far it went in terms of diversity and inclusion.

To create more diversity at the committee and executive levels, the the Constitution Review Committee (“CRC”) had proposed a ‘review system’ as the mechanism for affirmative action.

Sneha Vardhani (above, taking the oath of office) became the first President of the NALSAR Student Bar Council after the elections for 2014-15. Photo credit: Abhishek Singh

Sneha Vardhani (above, taking the oath of office) became the first woman to become President of the NALSAR Student Bar Council after the elections for 2014-15. Photo credit: Abhishek Singh

Gender inclusion and the proposed review system

It would apply in case of an election in which three-fifths of the members of the Executive Committee were of a particular gender. If this happened, the office bearer positions for which a person of a different gender had secured second highest number of votes would be up for review. Among those who stood second, the one with the highest number of votes would be appointed to the post for which they had contested.

Although the review would be used to substitute a popularly elected candidate, it could guarantee a diverse Executive Committee, and importantly, an approachable one, especially in relation to cases of ragging and sexual harassment.

The CRC believed that ensuring plurality (of opinion) and diversity (in composition) would be a step towards incentivising student participation in self-governance in the NLUs and that different gender perspectives would be invaluable to decision making.

What student governance can do to promote inclusion

Student government however, should also help students who are at an inherent disadvantage when they start at college, by virtue of cultural or other factors that have a potentially disabling effect. For instance, unfamiliarity with written or spoken English can disengage students from learning, especially as it is accompanied by the elitist environments at the NLUs. Student governments should take affirmative action to create support systems to help students overcome these basic barriers to integration into the law school experience.

An alumnus who recently visited NALSAR spoke about the experience of coming from a Tamil-speaking background. During the first year, the alumnus and some others from the same background, found it extremely difficult to understand the teaching. Some senior students organised preparatory sessions to help them with the language and the subjects that were part of the academic curriculum. Not attending these classes was not an option. If the first year students skipped these sessions, the senior ones would come searching, even if they were outside the campus. Eventually, they passed in all the subjects and saw the value in this exercise.

Paaras Pandey is an undergraduate student in his final year at Nalsar.

Law Schools

A review of Nalsar’s SBC constitution is reinvigorating student self governance

PaarasPandey_NALSARIn the early days of my first year at Nalsar, I observed that because the administration tacitly encouraged senior students to handle even grave matters such as ragging, the final year students and especially the members of the Student Bar Council (“SBC”) were considered to be above all rules.

When student self-governance gets co-opted in this manner, absurd hierarchies develop within the student body. Along with this false hierarchy, the absence of grievance redressal mechanisms, the lack of filing requirements for candidates standing elections for these offices, and the students’ inability to directly elect office bearers, added to their disillusionment with the college’s affairs.

The Constitution Review Committee (“CRC”) was established in January 2014 to draft a revised constitution for the SBC that would reinvigorate student self governance at Nalsar through greater participation. It was a nine-member body with one student from the first year, two each from the third and fifth years, and three from the fourth year batch. Its sessions were chaired by the SBC President in a non-voting capacity. Among the members, only three were women and none had ever been an office bearer before.

The body worked by creating five sub-committees, each tasked with re-drafting the SBC constitution’s preamble, representative body structures, social justice mechanisms, financial allocation, and residuary features. The final version of the re-drafted constitution was submitted on May 20, 2014.

At the time that it submitted its report, all office bearers had to first contest at the class-level from any of eight committees – academic, cultural, hostel and campus welfare, literary and debating, mess and hospitality, moot court, sports, and student welfare. In such a system of indirect representation, none of the office bearers were truly representative of the popular will of the student body (as a whole), and therefore lacked the legitimacy to make representations on its behalf. In fact, the office bearers would feel the need to function as agents of their respective batches, because those students had voted for them.

In the CRC’s proposal, the student government would have two tiers – the Executive Council (“EC”) chosen through direct elections and the activity-based committees (“legislature”) chosen by elections within batches. Each committee had to coordinate and manage different spheres of students’ lives.

Every student could be part of the general decision-making body (“GB”) of any two committees. Except for their budget formulation, committees did not have constitutionally mandated functions. Instead, they had to formulate annual plans of action after consulting their GB.

Nalsar's Student Bar Council for 2014-15

Nalsar’s Student Bar Council for 2014-15

The EC could formulate policies or schemes but implement them only with legislative approval. Each office bearer in the EC also had responsibilities such as being the primary point of contact with the administration (the President), monitoring the finances of the committees (the Treasurer), and detailing the minutes of EC meetings (the Secretary). The Vice President would handle the student government’s ‘public affairs and consultation’.

A new post, that of an ombudsperson called the Student Advocate (“SA”), was also proposed. A fourth year CRC member borrowed the idea from the Public Advocate’s post in the New York City Council. The SA would be a non-voting member with the powers to receive complaints against representatives or take suo motu cognisance of a matter relating to inaction, impropriety, or partiality. Once the SA took up a matter, the erring representative or student committee was duty-bound to prepare a report and table it before the Legislature.

In this scheme, every power of a representative had been created only to enable the discharge of a specified duty, which is linked to rights enforceable by the students. Students have the right to be consulted, the right to be informed and seek information, the  right  to  file  individual  and  collective  complaints  with  authorities  and  to receive substantiated responses and replies, and the right to initiate impeachment or recall proceedings against representatives (including office bearers).

Most of the CRC’s proposals were never even explored fully. Many students were unwilling to experiment. Some said that they were opposed to direct elections because it would reduce chances for individual batches to win office bearer posts. This was unsurprising because by the second year, Nalsar’s hierarchy becomes an inseparable part of the students’ identities.

Perhaps the proposals were idealistic, but change won eventually. For the SBC elections for 2014-15, the administration promulgated a ‘transit constitution’, which reflected some of the CRC’s proposals but ignored significant ones. Although the CRC’s draft had not proposed reservation as a means of increasing diversity at all, this new constitution created reserved posts for women in the Executive Council. One welcome change was that voting for the President’s election was opened to the entire student body.

Note: I am grateful to Divya Venugopal for her study “The Elephant in the Room: Dealing with Final Year Disengagement”, which proved very helpful in understanding the causes of and methods to tackle student disengagement.

Paaras Pandey is an undergraduate student in his final year at Nalsar. 

Law Schools

Organise into self-governing groups, NLU students, and influence decisions in your college

PaarasPandey_NALSARThe recurring controversies around the conduct of the Common Law Admission Test (“CLAT”) are merely symptomatic of the state of the country’s premier law colleges.

Perennially short of funds, the universities cannot allocate enough resources towards identifying and solving many of the problems faced by the students. They are unable to attract adequate grants (sanctioned specifically) for paying teachers’ salaries and with the resulting human resource crunch, the regular conduct of classes has become a rare phenomenon, especially for students in their fourth and fifth years.

The management of services related to food, water, sanitation, and housing fall short of acceptable standards. Fees increase every year, compelling more students to seek loans, thus coercing them to consider only corporate jobs once they graduate.

Although the National Law Universities (“NLUs”) are heavily dependent on fees from students, the students have no voice in the day-to-day affairs of these institutions. The parent statutes of the NLUs do not envision student participation in any form.

But students have been able to make useful contributions. For example, some from Nalsar, the Hyderabad-based NLU, advocated with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation to carry out regular garbage collection and disposal. Students have previously raised money to fund scholarships and even attempted tree-plantation and gardening with some success. But these programmes suffer once the individual students who initiate them graduate.

Through student self-governing organisations (“student governments”), students may perhaps be able to have a sustained influence on the day-to-day governance of colleges. They will have to arrive at practical and economically sound solutions to their problems and later, advocate with the administration for the adoption of these solutions through ‘collective bargaining’.

For instance, the academic committee of the student government (the Student Bar Council or the “SBC”) lobbied successfully for the relaxation of the unrealistic hostel curfew (9 p.m., also when the library would close) and that the library be kept open till 11 p.m. on all weekdays. When the college administration noticed a sizeable crowd in the library even late at night, the 1 a.m. closing time (applicable only on the days before an exam) was extended to non-exam weekdays as well. The library and the space around it which once seemed dead at 9 p.m. are today vibrant with student activity till much later at night.

Nalsar's Student Bar Council for 2014-15

Nalsar’s Student Bar Council for 2014-15. Photo courtesy Abhishek Singh.

Admittedly, some of the problems I have mentioned above are a tougher ask for the students to solve but the central rationale for the existence of student governments is much wider than solving problems. Sound decision-making requires deliberation between decision makers and the affected individuals. Student governments could serve as a platform to represent the concerns of students to the administration of the college.

Popular and democratic participation in student governments give their representations legitimacy. A student government would find it difficult to negotiate with the administration if it restricts itself to token representation, or where the representatives’ will is subjugated to the will of the administration, or where the will of a few dictates the will of the others.

Recently, the SBC  requested the administration to institute a committee to review its constitution. The debates that followed after the Constitution Review Committee (“CRC”) presented its draft constitution exposed many fault lines on issues such as the role of gender, reservations, models of election and diversity, but also demonstrated a commitment to tackling problems.

These experiences have showed me that the students of the NLUs can do much to change the situation they find themselves in. Were they to organise themselves into democratic self-governing groups, they could begin to influence decision-making in the college administration. They must become participants in administration through student government models that have popular support. To gain recognition from the college administration and popular legitimacy from their electorates, the representative bodies must be centred on the values of diversity, universal participation, transparency, and accountability.

Paaras Pandey is an undergraduate student in his final year at Nalsar.

Human Rights Law Schools Litigation

Those who can, teach – How law teaching builds bridges and fosters intellectual arenas

AtreyeeMajumder_CraftingLawCareersLaw is a difficult thing to teach. It requires the teaching of large concepts that vastly influence how governments and authority work or should work. Skills needed for the application, implementation, and adjudication of legal provisions are important and need to be taught as well.

The law classroom, I had felt, was less effective in teaching law than the practical experience of having to work out a legal argument to fit a real-life situation. This slipping on of the real-life shoes however, is not possible without a basic skill-set, one that is complex and diverse. Different law-teaching systems have had different visions about this skill-set.

The four legal professionals who have featured in this series so far have all had some teaching experience. Usha Ramanathan has, during the course of her career, taught at the National Law School of India University (“NLSIU”), Bangalore, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and at the National Law University, Delhi. Arvind Narrain has taught, among others, courses related to human rights and illegal citizenship at NLSIU and several ad hoc courses on human rights, gender, and sexuality for non-law students. Harish Narasappa has taught short courses at the Indian Institute of Management and at NLSIU. Amba Salelkar takes classes on disability law at Vidya Sagar, a Chennai-based non-profit organisation.

Building bridges to law

The challenges of teaching  feature amidst the larger practice of being publicly engaged lawyers. Students from non-law backgrounds, both Salelkar and Narrain say, are not daunted by the law. People in non-profit organisations in particular, where the knowledge of law can significantly reorient practice, seem to come at it with enthusiasm. Narrain has experienced great fortitude among college students coming at judgments on sexual violence containing disturbing details. He says he found in the classroom, key allies for the campaign against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. People who were intrigued or interested came forth and became involved.

Many law teachers find themselves delivering bridges to the world of law to students of politics, economics, management, and development studies. Sudhir Krishnaswamy, who has taught at several law schools and has designed and taught a law and governance concentration in the development masters programme at Azim Premji University, is immersed in this exercise. He says that his primary learning from the programme was that students of non-elite backgrounds were grappling with their first encounters with the law in ways very similar to first year law students. The challenges they faced, too, were similar to the ones faced by law students – in learning to work with law and fact. The diversity of material he used has expanded considerably. For instance, he engages more thickly with legal history, using literature from colonial and post-colonial history in general. These are materials he read himself, but didn’t use in law school classrooms. Krishnaswamy’s long teaching career has shaped his belief that law as a discipline, actively straddles the domain of social sciences and humanities, especially as it concerns questions of language and cognition.

Teaching law without the intention to teach

Law teaching can be seen, thus, along three major lines – teaching in a law programme, teaching in a non-law programme, and teaching law outside the university set-up. It helps me to elaborate on the third aspect first. Law arrives at the ears of lawyers through courts, judgments, other lawyers – seniors and peers, and in the classroom. A good part of the teaching can and may occur without the intention to teach. The professional architecture places some people in pedagogic positions with regard to others. Many in the litigating field would say the senior advocates they worked for, were their teachers or gurus. They did not teach the disciplines of law in the packaged form that is usually delivered in a classroom. Skills and intuitions about what the law can offer in a given situation, and how best to use this avenue to one’s advantage, might however, be best learnt and taught through everyday interactions. Many say they learnt a lot of law listening to court proceedings, especially as interns.

I am surprised at this as court proceedings occur in fragments where the issue at stake may not be clear to a bystander who does not have access to the relevant case file. Matters quickly transition into the next matter of the day, one realm of law to the next. If a bystander – a litigant, a journalist, or an intern – learns from this, it is not intended teaching that she derives from. It is a kind of learning by immersion – osmosis, perhaps. Languages are learnt often by immersion in the social milieu where the language is spoken. Can law be learnt and taught in the same way? Some say it is an effective way.

The other method of ‘unintentioned’ teaching and learning of the law, more predictably, is through books. Law reporters, treatises, newspaper articles, and the Internet are ways in which a legal topic or idea can be learnt and disseminated. There is a vast difference of course between reading a thick tome on jurisprudence in a dark library and opening several news websites at one go and consuming some update on a legal matter as one of the many things the Internet offers for consumption. The written word is common to both modes of communication and receipt and the latter is often an effective way for a non-legal audience to learn about the law. Undergraduate students’ interests are often piqued by legal domains being involved in a matter of contemporary news – for instance, land acquisition in recent months, because of the amendment bill. I continue to learn about the law (being no longer in practice) talking with friends and colleagues who are experts in legal fields, and from the media, especially from commentaries and editorials written by practicing lawyers like Indira Jaising and Flavia Agnes.

The classroom as an intellectual arena

Sudhir Krishnaswamy (left), Amba Salelkar, and Arvind Narrain.

Sudhir Krishnaswamy (left), Amba Salelkar, and Arvind Narrain.

The classroom though, remains an important space. What is its specific role from the point of view of legal professionals who have multifaceted careers? A classroom offers the possibility of a dialogic space. Facts and ideas may be taught and disseminated there. But if the teacher is attentive, it can unfold into a  democratic and dynamic intellectual arena. Like Narrain’s experience where students became long-term associates, for many teachers whose interest in the law is motivated by possibilities of change, the classroom should be an important space to invest in. Salelkar has found the need to press a certain literacy of law, especially constitutional law, to be important in her classes on disability law. She finds it a challenge to veer between giving activists too much hope and too little. Many, she finds, enter the domain of law with great wonder and energy. Krishnaswamy found it a place to toy with law’s relationship with the broad spectrum of social sciences. I have found the acquaintance of teachers who create longer paths of learning to often begin in the classroom discussion. The discussion itself may be of lesser importance but the dialogic space it affirms creates intellectual alliances that might have long-term implications for both parties. The importance of law teaching grows with the possibility of law creating a democratic space in addition to the ones already available in civil society.

(Atreyee Majumder is an anthropologist. She teaches at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.)