Earlier this year, Ashok Kumar became the first recipient of the Remala Family Scholarship, which covers his 100% tuition fee to pursue an LLM at Seattle University School of Law. He completed his undergraduate law degree from the Institute of Law, Nirma University, where he was an IDIA Scholar.
In this interview with Anuj A, he shares a few thoughts on the struggles of inclusivity, the importance of being authentic, and his journey thus far.
You once said that it might take a village to send someone to study law - was this a learning you made during your undergraduate days?
For my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate enough to get full support from IDIA. So, in one sense, I did not have to seek support elsewhere. Of course, without IDIA even my undergraduate degree would not have been possible, everyone at IDIA was always there to help me.
Here in the US, the financial stakes were very high. Financially it would not have been possible for me to come here without help. So, alongside IDIA’s support, I requested help from my community, from people who were well established.
I met them and told them about my plans, and the fact that I got the chance to study at Seattle University as the first ever recipient of the Remala Family scholarship.
Most of them were so pleased to hear this that they immediately pitched in to help me in my journey.
For me, this was a surreal experience – individuals whom I had never met in my entire life, people who my entire family has no connection with whatsoever, all of them came together to support my journey. I believe this collective effort underscores the growing recognition of the significance of equitable access to quality education.
Were you hesitant to ask for help?
Initially, yes. I thought I would take a loan and manage. But even that did not turn out to be possible. Seeking help was the only option I had. Otherwise, I would have to drop this scholarship, something I did not want to do.
You know, a lot of people’s expectations were also resting on me. The very day I was selected, so many people came to know that a farmer’s son from a remote village had been selected for a scholarship to pursue masters from United States. The news was super viral on social media. At one level I was anxious whether it should become so viral or not. Politicians were calling me and congratulating me!
The thought of backing out and potentially disappointing not just myself but also the aspiring students who looked up to me was not an option. These young students believed that someone like them could make it this far, and I did not want to let them down. I did not want them to think that just because they did not have the financial resources, they would not make it.
I am glad to tell you that wherever I went, I was met with enthusiasm and support. People were so happy to hear about my journey, that it was almost as if they were supporting me for their own self-benefit. The thought was that if someone from our community is going forward, in the end it will benefit the entire community.
It was actually a wonderful experience for me to witness people standing by my side and supporting me without even personally knowing me.
Now that you are here, how has the experience been?
If you ask anyone in my family, I don’t think they will be able to actually realise how big a deal this is. I come from a very small village – for me to come to such a big city in such a different country is something I can’t believe myself!
I will be very honest in saying that even now there are times when I pinch myself in the night just to ensure that this is not a dream. That this is actually happening. It is all unbelievable for me.
Going back a year or two, when did you think about applying for an LLM?
I knew that I wanted to do an LLM but not right after my law degree. I wanted to get my finances in order first. While I was practicing in Delhi, I came across this opportunity through IDIA and thought that I would apply for it.
I think that if one can build expertise in a particular field of law, then one can gain some financial stability. And once you are financially stable, you can help a lot more people. I also knew that I could use my own practical experiences to help.
For instance, in my village I would often help my father run his ration store. Now, villagers are entitled to a certain quantity of free or subsidized rations. This is monitored via Aadhaar and would involve either biometric verification (via fingerprints) or a one-time password (OTP) on their mobile phones or both.
But there would be so many times when their fingerprints would just not be detected. Or their mobile phone number would not be updated to receive the OTP. So, they would have to go away on that day, and come back some other time. Again, they would try by rubbing oil on their fingers, but it would not always work. Instances like this made me realize that, often times, policies are made without realising the practical problems faced by the marginalized and underprivileged people.
Another example was while I was studying law and Covid struck. It was assumed that everyone had access to a working internet connection and hence online classes would work. But for me, I would have to run around my farm so that I could find a spot where the network is good. In order to get stable internet connection with my phone, I had to build a a chhappar (makeshift-shelter) to attend classes and complete my assignments.
Again, it is a problem of representation, of not having people who could offer practical insights.
You have been here for not too long now. What are the things that seem completely new and alien to you?
Honestly, for me everything feels like it is new. I struggle to use things like a microwave – never in my life have I used one of them. I have never used an oven. So, for any small thing, I have to look up YouTube and search for, “How to cook this in an oven?” (laughs) or search for, “Can I keep utensils in the microwave?”
Secondly, the food. There are so many things that I don’t even know how to eat some of the foods. I have to Google, “How to eat bagel?”. Or I look at how others are eating and I try and do the same.
From an education perspective, some things are similar to my undergraduate days. I like that the classrooms are centered on class discussions. But academics apart, I find these other things more difficult to adapt to.
When I joined Nirma University, I had a similar experience at first.
I still remember that my longest conversations in English would be with my IDIA leaders, “Yes ma’am, I come here” would be it. But at the orientation in Nirma, my batchmates were speaking such fluent English. This was a world I did not think was real.
Of course, I eventually realized that English was just a medium of communication (but is also very important in the legal profession) but that struggle resulted in a lot of questions to myself. Am I supposed to be here, do I belong here?
What was the answer?
For the first few months it was just about survival. I would try and do more than just attend classes. For instance, I would watch TED Talks and be more motivated to understand and learn English. Then I would ask my friends and seniors to help me.
Academically, I knew I was able to handle the course load. It is the other things that are more difficult.
At Nirma, it was the first time I ate pizza. I remember going with my friends and thinking, “This is such a large roti [Indian bread]” (laughs) I asked them “Where is the sabji [vegetables]?”
Slowly, I learned.
I am very proud to say that by the time I graduated, I was no different from my classmates. The main motto of IDIA to get people like me in the mainstream, and this was true in my case.
It is only then that you realize that you are supposed to be here. That the struggle was necessary. And that your presence was necessary.
For instance, in the classroom, you need people who have experiences like mine, people who have seen how things work in small villages. Think about caste discrimination – those who have come from big cities may have never seen this at all. They might know nothing about it. But when we speak from our experiences, we know that caste discrimination is still prevalent.
These kinds of different experiences are required for any good debate.
Will you continue working with IDIA?
Absolutely, I will continue to contribute to IDIA’s cause in whatever capacity I can. I am very much emotionally connected with IDIA, it has become like family to me now.
As an undergraduate student, I would participate in IDIA sensitization activities, and try to mentor some students. When one of these students would make it [to a law school], it would give me so much joy. The feeling of saying, “Apna bacha bhi select hua hai [One of our children has made it!]” was truly surreal.
How can law schools be more inclusive?
Administrative support is crucial. You need that moral support as well. For instance, when I was applying for the LLM, my university supported me during my LLM application process, helping me in any way that they could. They told me, “If you need any help whatsoever, we are there for you.”
Secondly, the IDIA team at Nirma really helped me, they are the reasons because of whom I was able to survive in law school. Some of the IDIA volunteers and scholars I would like to thank are Runjhun Pare, Prajoy Dutta, Kartikeya Singh, Lokesh Vyas, Danish Ghani, Namrata Dubey, Yash Mittal and Sajjan Singh. Of course, the complete list of names is very long to mention.
These people were my family in Nirma.
Law schools need to have people who can make people like me feel comfortable. Law schools need this to build and nurture a community like this in order to become truly inclusive.
Are you optimistic?
I am very optimistic. Life has been very kind to me and given me so much. If someone from my background can achieve what I have, then others can too. God has given me the right opportunities at the right time. So yes, I am filled with hope.
Any message you would like to give to current or future IDIA scholars?
Remember that people are always willing to support you, provided you ask in the right manner. People would randomly come to help me all the time.
Be yourself. Be confident. That is the most important aspect. If you will try to hide your identity then there is no point in being there. Be yourself, and be proud of who you are. And you will be able to do anything. Great things are waiting for you.
The author is co-founder at Amicus Partners