The state domicile in the ‘National’ Law School

The state domicile in the ‘National’ Law School

On May 4, the contentious National Law School of India (Amendment) Act 2020, which provides for 25% horizontal domicile reservation for Karnataka residents in the prestigious National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bangalore, received the Governor’s assent.

NLSIU thus joins the list of other major NLUs like NUJS Kolkata and NLU Delhi, that have been made subject to such a policy by the state legislature concerned, in spite of vehement opposition from law aspirants, students and alumni.

The proposal, first laid down in 2016, was met with staunch opposition. Initially modelled to reserve 50% of the seats, the proposal had earlier been rejected by the Governor. A mere change in the quantum of seats reserved, however, does not address the concerns behind the opposition in the first place.

Considering the limited batch size of 80 in the undergraduate program and how hotly contested each of those seats are in the annual CLAT examination conducted nationwide, the amendment shall have a grave effect on aspirants and the University itself.

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The trend of domiciliary reservations points to a systemic failure of the National Law Universities (NLUs) in general. The term ‘NLU’ is a misnomer. The Central government is hardly involved in setting up and funding them. They are set up by an act of the state legislature. State funding in most cases is limited to an initial grant to set up basic infrastructure with further funding being notional at best.

This has largely been the case with NLSIU, with the University being largely self-financed on the basis of endowments and student fees. The reciprocity-for-funding justification for state domicile is thus particularly questionable in the context of NLSIU, which compared to other NLUs, has received little largesse from the state in its latter years.

The universities are now held hostage, forced to increase the fee burden on students (NLSIU saw a 25% fee hike last year in face of student protests) and pander to “the-sons-of-the-soil” political rhetoric. Attempts at ‘nationalisation’ of these institutions, to bring them on the lines of IITs and AIIMSs by introducing appropriate legislation in Parliament, have till now met with failure. The Centre has also remarkably refrained from declaring NLUs as ‘Institutes of National Importance’ on par with IITs, NITs, and IIMs.

This unjust exclusion deprives these young institutions of key support and irrationally denies the legal profession the equal priority that is accorded to engineering, management and other professions.

Coming to the issue at hand, undoubtedly, NLSIU owes its existence to visionaries from Karnataka who acknowledged the need for a national institution dedicated to excellence in legal education, and supported its founding. Yet, it is important to emphasize that NLSIU and other NLUs built on its model were conceived as ‘national institutions’, to engage in ‘nation -building activities’.

They were never envisaged as state-centric entities. In fact, it started as a Bar Council of India initiative, as acknowledged in the NLSIU Act. No state-centric mention is found in the objects clause of the NLSIU Act either. The state legal education framework already exists as part of the faculty of law under every state university.

The late Padma Bhushan awardee Prof NR Madhava Menon, founder-director of NLSIU (also regarded as the founder of modern legal education in India), had shared this stance when asked about this issue. He opined,

I am not in favour of it for the simple reason that it was conceived as a national institution. Doing anything to dilute that would not be welcome. Even otherwise, Karnataka students are coming in on merit in adequate numbers. It was not a demand from Karnataka when it was started. If the government wanted, another campus could have been built. But NLSIU, being a model institution for the rest of the country, should remain a national institution.”

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The more concerning aspect of the new amendment is its anticipated impact. The national character of NLSIU, and the socio-cultural diversity that follows as a result of having students from all over the country, is an immeasurable asset. Its importance in legal institutions cannot be emphasised enough. Generations of alumni have praised the enriching experience of residing and interacting with students from diverse backgrounds.

Education goes beyond classrooms, it extends to understanding and learning from diverse perspectives, and appreciating differences and diversity.

Unfortunately, this diversity, which is far from being at ideal levels in the first place, if further compromised by the amendment. Diluting student experience in such manner will be to the detriment of precisely those whom this amendment seeks to serve.

One of the grounds on which domiciliary reservations are usually justified is the perceived inability of candidates from backward states to compete on a national level. It is argued that such reservations will ensure that relatively disadvantaged candidates in the state concerned can gain admission to educational institutions in that state.

However, the structure of horizontal reservations jeopardises this goal. As per the present amendment, the only qualifying criteria is that the students availing these seats should have previously studied for at least 10 years in a state-recognised institution. No other intra-state regional or socio-economic factor is given consideration. Looking at past data, the students likely to benefit most from it would be from the urban elite of the state, who have the resources to make it to state merit list.

A 2016 study of student demographics of NLSIU found 29 of 37 students hailing from Karnataka to be from Bangalore itself, and the rest too from other major cities. Only 25 of them knew Kannada and none of them knew any other local language like Tulu or Konkani. The same pattern can be expected to repeat in the state domicile.

And this would come not just at the cost of students from other metros, but instead more to the detriment of students from tier II and III cities all over the country, whose number has steadily been growing at the university. As all top NLUs adopt state quotas, the most adversely affected stakeholders are students hailing from other backward states and regions of the country, who lack access to such quality institutions. Such domicile-quotas only reduce their prospects.

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Another ground on which domiciliary reservations have been justified is the expected contribution of graduates to the development of the state concerned. This argument assumes that alumni hailing from the state will choose to work in the same state. This assumption, however, might not hold for the field of law in general, and NLSIU alumni in particular.

The legal profession is now increasingly adapting to a nationally integrated economy. This is especially true of the law firms that majority of students get placed into, which coordinate offices across the country. NLSIU alumni in particular have found themselves pursuing professional excellence in myriad fields all over the country, and the world. A local practise is a relatively less-desired option even for a local graduate. The benefit of the amendment would be thus minimal at best, with assured deleterious effects instead.

Forcing through such measures may affect the University’s repute, and lead to undue resentment against students who gain admission through this quota. This is because domiciliary status alone is not closely correlated with social and educational backwardness as it is in the case of students coming from historically disadvantaged backgrounds availing legitimate community-based reservation.

It is also an unfair criticism to level that NLSIU has not contributed at all back to the state. There already exists a healthy intake of students from Karnataka. They have even been Rhodes Scholars and Student Body Presidents. The University boasts of an excellent student-run Legal Aid Clinic, that caters to the impoverished sections of the local community. It even ran a legal aid campaign during the recent Anti-CAA protests in the state, which also saw wide-spread student participation. The various Research Centres at the University have also done commendable work in state-centric issues ranging from the environment to public education. All of that was and continues to be done without compromising on the University’s diversity and its national character.

If the intent is to secure more dividends for the state, a more productive approach would be to increase funding for such research projects and support initiatives such as the legal aid program, Continuing Legal Education (CLE) activities for lawyers in lower courts, and Public Education Initiatives instead.

The authors are students of NLSIU Bangalore.

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