By Ipshita Sengupta
Most ‘national law university (NLU)’ brand of institutions in India are in-residence programmes which, in theory, place a lot of emphasis on the development of robust community spaces that will contribute to the ‘all round development of each and every student’. The practice, however, seems to be demonstrate quite the opposite. A culture of intolerance is gradually creeping into the law school environment, both in academic and administrative matters.
The dark side of law schools
Recently, faculty members of a leading NLU submitted a petition to its Academic Council highlighting declining academic standards and irregularities in academic policy making and recruitment procedures. They also raised pertinent questions about discretionary retroactive re-grading of students as well as the deviation from UGC norms with regard to faculty emoluments. The student body joined cause expressing concern about the departure of qualified and experienced faculty members and the ‘inability to find suitable replacements’. Following the Academic Council meeting, the Vice-Chancellor indicated that the faculty will be consulted in such matters in the future.
At the same NLU, sexual harassment charges were filed against a senior official by a junior staff and physical assault charges were brought against a faculty member by a student. While the internal committee hearing on sexual harassment has been postponed for month after the accused was granted medical leave and the complainant filed criminal charges against the accused for sexual harassment, physical assault and criminal intimidation, it is being said that the faculty member has issued an unconditional apology to the student for physically assaulting her and the matter stands resolved as of now. A disciplinary committee instituted to hear this assault complaint had decided to close the matter by issuing a warning to the faculty member after accepting her letter of apology. This decision was reportedly not communicated to the student even though the Vice-Chancellor deemed it fit to share it with the media.
In October last year, following an unfortunate incident of rape of a law student of another NLU, the school administration responded by imposing a curfew on campus between 9 p.m and 6 a.m on all days. A visiting faculty member, also an alumnus of the same school, who opposed the curfew and the arbitrariness of the decision, was terminated from employment soon after. When a Right to Information (RTI) application was filed later requesting a copy of his performance evaluation, the school authorities refused to provide the same on grounds of confidentiality.
The school administration , however, remained silent even as insensitive and biased accounts of this incident appeared repeatedly in the media. Whether the student, who recently quit the NLU, should have received more support from the school authorities, is also a question that merits serious consideration.
Preserving and expanding community spaces
The 2008 Justice KT Thomas Commission that reviewed the working of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bangalore has linked the growing culture of sex, drugs and alcohol in law schools to the ‘permissive atmosphere of the school’ which has ‘emboldened the students to ask for more release or liberation’. In fact, one of the senior faculty members reported to the Commission that NLSIU is preferred by many for its ‘climate of license’.
On the contrary, studies conducted in US law schools have shown that negative law school experiences caused by high cost of legal education, doctrinal teaching methods, excessive competition, adversarial classroom dynamics, loneliness etc, lead to isolation, alienation and psychological distress among law students. One of the ways in which they deal with such stress is through alcohol and substance abuse. Empirical evidence has shown that an open, inclusive and cooperative law school environment can go a long way in creating positive, community-centred spaces where students and teachers have a shared set of norms based on mutual respect and understanding.
Unlike most NLUs, the Gujarat National Law University (GNLU) in Gandhinagar does not even have a student representative body. There is a grievance redressal mechanism in place to allow individual students ‘free access to the Director and faculty members’ and an Appeals Council. However, the 2013 N.R. Madhava Menon Commission instituted to review the functioning of GNLU found that this system is not effective as there exists a ‘communication gap’ between students and the administration and students fear victimisation if they air their grievances. The Commission recommended that a Students Bar Association or a representative body be established to allow students and faculty members to voice their aspirations and concerns.
Similar findings were recorded by the 2011 Justice Qadri Commission Review of National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) which highlighted the crumbling ethos of the ‘law school’ phenomenon in India. The Commission lamented the prevalence of ‘favouritism, abuse of authority, gross academic indiscipline and financial irregularities’ due to centralisation of power and authority in the office of the Vice-Chancellor.
There are countless such examples from India’s NLUs that routinely manifest itself in corruption and nepotism as well as the declining quality of legal education and research. Students and faculty members are either shielded or targeted based on their individual affiliations or group dynamic. How can an inclusive and respectful culture thrive amidst such non-transparency and mismanagement?
The law school experience is defined not only by the formal classroom curriculum but also by a set of institutional practices, which shape a lawyer’s attitudes towards law and society and how s/he chooses to participate in the same. Twenty five years since the first national law school was established in India, the growing pressure on students and academics to conform to a new orthodoxy that seeks to replace democratic debate with ‘politically correct dogma’, represents a dangerous turn for the legal academy. This is a time for deep introspection for all NLUs, who should undertake a systematic review of their functioning and address the malaises that plague their very core and existence. In this context, it is critical that they nurture and preserve diverse and tolerant community spaces rather than sacrifice academic freedom at the altar of an ideologically barren and politically neutral legal education.
Ipshita Sengupta is a legal researcher based in New Delhi.