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CLAT- Putting things in perspective and the way ahead

CLAT- Putting things in perspective and the way ahead

Bar & Bench

The aim of this column is not to rave, rant, viciously and rambunctiously criticise, bicker, or threaten litigation and mass agitation. My objective is to attempt at putting things in perspective, in the context of the 5 seasons of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) which we have had till now.

By Saurav Datta

The aim of this column is not to rave, rant, viciously and rambunctiously criticise, bicker, or threaten litigation and mass agitation. My objective is to attempt at putting things in perspective, in the context of the 5 seasons of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) which we have had till now.  No doubt, the need for writing this was precipitated by the brouhaha and the alleged fiasco surrounding CLAT 2012, which was conducted by National Law university, Jodhpur (NLU-J) on 13th May 2012.

To begin with, I would exclude from the purview of this article the examinations conducted in 2009 and 2010, because they primarily tested anything but reasoning ability, which is undoubtedly the foremost criterion in determining who should make it to law schools, especially those of exemplary repute.

What should the CLAT ideally include?

I lay no claims of being an evangelist in the field of law school test preparations, but can state with candour and certainty that whatever may be the varied patterns adopted in the entrance examinations, two parameters are indispensable : One- ability to reason, to apply logic and common sense. Two- and equally important – a candidate’s level of understanding of different subjects, and topics included therein. Any paper which dispenses with these two parameters would indeed be a travesty.

Why “understanding” and not merely level of informativeness (read: how much of mere information one has been able to cram and retain)? Because, law school, and the legal profession demands engagement with the issue(s) on hand or at stake, and not just a mechanical handling of the same. And the testing of this understanding is not to be limited to certain stereotypical pigeon-holed criteria- such as “static GK”, “science- based questions”, etc.

Rather, a candidate’s understanding of issues related to matters of law, policy and governance, at the domestic as well as international levels, needs to be tested.

As for reasoning in general, and legal reasoning (now the term being used is “Legal Aptitude”) in particular, what needs to be tested is whether a candidate is able to apply common sense and critical reasoning (mostly deductive logic) to a particular set of hypothetical fact situations and questions based on them. Prior knowledge of law should not be a requirement in this regard. However, this is not to discount the fact that a basic understanding of elementary legal terms and concepts (mainly those which feature regularly in discussions and debates in the popular media and public domain) is essential.

The other subject areas- Maths, English, Logical Reasoning (mainly Critical Reasoning and not Analytical Reasoning) haven’t been as vigorously contested issues as General Knowledge and Legal Reasoning have been in the present, hence I shall not be addressing those here.

Critical Evaluation of CLAT 2008 and CLAT 2011  

1. 2008 : It still remains one of the most balanced papers prepared till date. There would, of course, be people who shall dispute the raison d’être of testing a bit of prior legal knowledge, but the bottom-line is this: no one complained about the paper being faulty, or worse, misleading (the main case against CLAT 2012), because the pattern of questions did not match with the stipulations explicitly stated in the admission notification.

. 2011– The organisers undertook the bold and radical step- of bringing about a paradigm shift in the paper pattern, with the twin objectives of one- making the paper more egalitarian, and two- preventing the entrance examination from falling prey to the same maladies plaguing the IIT-JEE (that it has fallen into the vice-like grip of hundreds of coaching centres- which perpetrated and encouraged rote learning and the situation is so grim that trenchant criticism of the erosion of credibility of the paper is not entirely misplaced).

The paper tested a candidate’s awareness and understanding of relevant and pertinent aspects of current affairs, and ability to reason, and think on one’s feet. Though there was no deviation from the instructions in the admission notification, the sudden change in the pattern- testing of concept, and not merely mechanical application.

For e.g.,

a) they tested one on contextual vocabulary instead of merely asking antonyms and synonyms;

b) the passages in the section on reading comprehension were long, and prevented one from just lifting portions from the passage to give answers; one had to have total conceptual clarity of what the crux of the passage was all about;

c) the legal reasoning section was such that those who had gotten rather too acclimatised to the usual mechanical application  of principles of law to given fact situations found themselves on sticky shift.

There was a huge outcry, because the overall pattern had taken the wind out of the sails of thousands of candidates who had taken things for granted, and when confronted with a new pattern, found themselves totally at a loss. However, this outcry was more due to the anguish of not making it, rather than one arising out of any kind of unfairness which could be attributed to the organisers of the paper.

One unforeseen and undesirable consequence which the authorities had neither foreseen nor could reckon with was this- because of the apparent confusion and the kind of fear psychosis which set in among the candidates (nothing unusual- sudden change, for better or for worse, is always followed by tumultuous consequences), there was a mushrooming and proliferation of test-preparation institutes, and self-proclaimed, or hype-created “CLAT mentors” and “CLAT gurus”, each providing and guaranteeing magical remedies and miraculous results.  Barring a very few, most of these players fell far short of even minimum standards in so far as quality and expertise were concerned.

The blitz of self-trumpeting, hype (mostly self-generated), utterly irresponsible and misconceived stunts like issuing grand “predictions” or putting forth fervent “prayers”, and all kinds of efforts at sensationalism, produced the following pernicious consequences:

I. These experts, gurus, and mentors appropriated the task of interpreting the paper pattern, and started making all sorts of predictions, most of which were devoid of even an iota of reason. And many law school aspirants fell for these- little realising that playing into the hands of such Pied Pipers would be the beginning of the end of their law school dreams. This is not to say that no one should guide students; this is not to say that students should not have faith in their teachers and mentors. It is not about erosion of faith, but the dilution of one’s own objectivity and this does not come without a heavy cost.

II. This follows from point no. 1 above. Since many of these test-preparation players and messiahs had neither the sufficient expertise or understanding about the examination, or had not kept pace with the changing times and patterns of the paper, in many cases, the “guidance” and interpretation being provided actually became a kind of ruse to gloss over their own inadequacies. And it is not the candidates’ fault that they were unable to see through this.

Result : very few actually trained students in understanding and application, in figuring out what exactly the paper looks to test, and how to test, and to prepare accordingly. All talks of strategy and tips remained nothing but hollow talks only. The method of preparation continued to be tied down to a very myopic and therefore incorrect viewpoint. Instead of being guided in developing a conceptual understanding, candidates were goaded into cramming up mere facts.

I shall come to the examples of the deleterious effects of such a faulty method in subsequent paragraphs.

3. CLAT 2012: At the very outset, with all due respect to the Convenor, Hon’ble Mr. Justice (Retd.) N.N. Mathur, I must beg to differ with the stance he has adopted- that there was nothing wrong with the paper. I humbly, but emphatically state that such a stance amounts to stonewalling of valid questions and arguments, and glossing over of indefensible wrongs. The gravest flaw in the paper was that there was a deviation from what was stated would be tested, and what was actually tested.

 Two contentious issues:

a) General Knowledge: If the notification had clearly stated that nothing apart from the events covered in the mainstream media within a given time period would form a part of the syllabus, then the authorities ought to strictly adhere to it. This was simply not done. There were many questions based on general GK- such as which is the longest national highway, or the largest gland in the human body, when did India join the UN- to name only a few.

This has got nothing to do with the legitimacy of such questions from the point of whether they are pertinent and relevant to a law school entrance examination. Of course they are. BUT, if clear-cut stipulations have been laid down, then any deviation from the same will be a transgression, and when this comes at the cost of the career prospects of thousands of candidates, there can be no defence whatsoever.

b) Legal aptitude: the notification had stated that no prior knowledge of legal reasoning would be required/tested. In the paper, there were questions involving assertion and reasons, which, many have contended, does require prior knowledge of certain principles of law. The question remains moot- because there is no uniform rule that prior legal knowledge would be indispensable here, and the argument that such questions can be solved accurately with the help of only common sense and logic, is equally forceful.

Regarding those questions which had only a fact situation and no principle, it would not be correct to jump on to the ‘complaints and lambasting bandwagon’. Such questions have featured in some of the past years’ papers of NLSIU, and not ALL of them require a knowledge of legal principles. What is required is application of common sense.

Leaving all other arguments aside, on the above two counts at least- the CLAT 2012 authorities cannot absolve themselves of the liability, and it is hoped that the stalemate which has resulted, shall be favourably resolved.

The road ahead

Here are three examples the manifestations of the faulty approach that I had spoken about earlier:

a) In current affairs, if say, bringing to justice those perpetrators of communal riots was in the news, a student was told to read and memorise only what happened within a particular time frame (one year). What if it is about Modi’s complicity in the Gulbarg Society massacre (the incident happened in 2002, the Supreme Court took up the case in 2010, and the SIT report was submitted a month or so back. Does it mean that a candidate would learn that Modi is being tried in ‘X’ case, but would not be required to know what the case was about, since the incident took place more than a year ago?

b) The Arushi Talwar murder case is featuring prominently in the news, and assuming that the deceased’s parents are convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence- does it mean that a candidate shall not be asked what the term ‘circumstantial evidence’ means, since that would fall into the domain of “legal knowledge” which the authorities have said will not be tested in the examination?

c) The largest gland in the human body- the liver. WHO in his or her sane mind would claim that this question was based on “science” and hence was outside the scope of the syllabus?

The fallacious distinction between ‘general, elementary GK’ and “static GK”: one candidate who took the CLAT this year expressed her indignation at why there was a question on Rousseau- who was the political ideologue of the French Revolution. Her stand was- the French Revolution took place outside the time-frame as specified in the examination notification, hence that comes under “static GK” and hence that was outside the prescribed syllabus, and so on. Very rarely does one get to hear of more specious arguments!

It would be premature to comment upon what the pattern in 2013 will be. It would be criminal to “predict” and “hope” and lead the aspirants for 2013 into another vortex of hollow claims and illusions.

Prudence demands, and necessity dictates, that candidates keep the following in mind, and follow them to the T:

1. Understand this- there is never any “prescribed syllabus” or strict boundaries of what all can be asked in a competitive examination. So, it becomes imperative to understand HOW particular subjects are tested, instead of going by merely “what all comes in the paper”, drawing up a list (more often than not based on misconceived ideas) and then proceeding to mug it up by rote. That is a sure shot recipe for disaster.

Be objective and apply rationality, prepare for every kind of eventuality and pattern, instead of taking anyone’s words as the gospel truth and then living to repent later.

2. Get to the heart of the matter- be it GK, Current affairs, or legal reasoning. You must get a strong grip on the conceptual understanding about whatever you are reading, and only then should you go on to memorise. DO NOT get into the “static vs current GK” rigmarole- it is stupid and often misleading, as many candidates have realised to their detriment now.

3. There is something called basic or elementary knowledge- in the fields of GK as well as legal principles, and you MUST be well-versed with the same. A substantial part of it is based on an understanding of what all is happening around you- go back to the examples of the Arushi Talwar case or the Gulbarg Society carnage.

4. In reasoning, practise keeping in mind every kind of conceivable pattern; and if in the examination you find a pattern totally different from what you have practised throughout the year, do let it knock the wind out of your sails. Rather- remain confident that you have the ability to reason, and have a clear understanding of the concepts involved- and just proceed to answering accurately.

The CLAT is not some kind of mysterious monster that has to be slain. It is, and remains a very simple examination based on clearly enunciated fundamental parameters (notwithstanding the occasional aberrations in some years)- reasoning ability  and understanding of concepts. Anything else which it is being made out to be- is far from the truth, and is based on flawed premises. Just sincerely take care of the pennies, and the pounds shall take care of themselves.

Image from here.

Saurav Datta, a graduate of NUJS (Class of 2007), was the National Product Anchor of LST, and has been training law school aspirants since 2002. He is presently based out of Mumbai, where he is involved in academia, editing, research, and he continues to train LSTians and mentor law school aspirants.

NB: Views expressed are personal of the author and does not reflect the views of Bar & Bench.