By Arushi Garg
Recently, in an interview of Professor Upendra Baxi, the Rainmaker explored the condition of legal education in India, and his sustained endeavours to make legal education in India socially relevant.
Professor Baxi’s concern started with his first teaching assignment in India when he realized “with a degree of astonishment, if not horror” what passed off as legal education in India. The basic reason was the focus of Indian education on doctrinal modes of study and the law as it is, coupled with the relegation of the exploration of the law, as it ought to be to optional and “wayside” courses. He drew upon his activist experience in Sydney and Berkeley to have a meaningful dialogue about how to proceed in his attempt to provide a social-science base to the understanding of law.
His efforts received support from both pioneers in the field of legal education as well as from young, upcoming scholars. The idea was to promote a healthy academic environment aimed at legitimating a different perspective as co-equally important as doctrinal research without debunking the importance of the latter. It was in such an environment that the idea of a National Law University (NLU) first emerged.
On the question of the Bar Council of India (BCI) and the NLUs, Professor Baxi was somewhat restrained in his responses. He did talk about being invited to help in the proposal of an NLU by the Ram Jethmalani, Chairman of the BCI at that time. While there was no question of his leaving DU at that stage, he reminded them of how the BCI has a special stake in legal education. Today, he is disturbed that hardly any senior counsels keep this fundamental fact in mind. While the BCI is mostly willing to regulate legal education in India, they are strangely reluctant when it comes to contributing resources.
This point raised by him is specifically important because in real terms, this means that often, law students are incapacitated from seizing the opportunities that are available to them, with many of the brightest minds in the country being simply incapable of financing themselves through international moots, summer schools or exchange programmes.
The direct consequence of the BCI’s general unwillingness to provide aid also means that a lot of institutions that were meant to be centres of excellence are practically privatized bodies, with little regard being given to equity. Mediocrity has been accepted as the norm, especially when it comes to faculty. There is either a dearth of good faculty, or the unwillingness to look for them actively.
The Vice-Chancellor of one of the best-known law schools in the country has been known to respond to complaints of incompetent faculty by saying, “If you can find them, I will appoint them.” Hardly the job description of a law student, but when you hear these responses often enough, slowly, and sadly, they stop sounding outrageous.
The failure to achieve culture of “excellence” that the NLUs sought to create remains the bitterest disappointment of all. Legal education has been broken down to CVs, and unhealthy, cutthroat competition. The average NLU student will learn how to answer the question, rather than solve the problem. A common lack seems to be the ridiculous emphasis on handwriting and presentation in exams—a problem other places have solved by digitizing exams with the help of anti-cheating softwares.
This is not to say all is lost. As a student of these Universities, I can vouch for the fact that I have sat through at least some courses that have changed me in very fundamental ways and challenged me to think in innovative ways about issues of justice and equity. I am sure a lot of other students in my position feel the same way. But this should not take away from the fact that there is a long way to go.
Professor Baxi’s only hope is that these institutes will realize that it is time for introspection, to examine their faculty as well as their original goals in the light of their current structure. In saying this he echoes the hope of NLU students across the board.
When asked about the new generation of legal education in India, Professor Baxi expressed his impatience when it came to ministerial “mission statements” and some “excess known as the Knowledge Commission.” In his words, “What do new generations signify? Growth in self-reflection, wisdom, and capacity to serve the underprivileged. Now by this criteria, there is no new generation – broadly speaking – of legal education.”
This is an apt summation of the crisis in legal education that has hit the country. After all the lofty goals we read about, for the average NLU first year, law school can stand to symbolize very bitter disillusionment. The emphasis on learning by rote, statutory provisions, case names and bench strengths can be stressful as well as meaningless. This is in sharp contrast to most other Universities in the world, where most students are given the option of take-home exams, research papers and at the very minimum, are allowed to take in external material for classroom exams that shift the burden from mugging up to understanding.
The social relevance of the law cannot be restricted to adding subjects to the course even though this is the all-important first step. Understanding and writing about law and poverty in India can be an exercise entirely divorced from internalizing what you learn.
Professor Baxi has talked of realizing the dream of having both kinds of law persons—“those who are technocratically competent and those who can perform the roles of soldiers of justice.” This is the laudable aim with which the NLUs started off, but as of now, this goal remains largely elusive.