Inter Alia : Of the Oxford India Moot and Other Things

Inter Alia : Of the Oxford India Moot and Other Things

Anuj Agrawal

Amidst the relatively peaceful past few weeks, news reports connected to the recently concluded Oxford University India Moot stood out for more reasons than one. What initially started off as grumblings about the arbitrary evaluation of memorials slowly rose to allegations of poor organisation and rude behavior before finally snowballing into a case of physical assault requiring police intervention. The events that took place found mention on this blog post on Lawctopus as well as this Facebook post. Barring a terse four-line e-mail from the moot organizers claiming that these reports were defamatory, no serious questions have been raised about the veracity of the events thus narrated.

To sum it up then, the Oxford India moot of 2013-14 was a well attended but poorly managed event, organized by the Oxford University Society of India (OUSI) or more specifically the Moot Organizing Committee (MOC), a subset of OUSI. Although organized by alumni of Oxford University, the University itself has clarified that since February this year, the University has had absolutely nothing to do with the moot itself.

In fact, as per the University’s News & Information Office, the University members were “expressly told that they could not attend this event”. Nonetheless the MOC used the Oxford tag to garner as much publicity as possible; deliberate attempts were made to give the impression that the event was linked to Oxford University. For prospective participants, the mailing address in the “Contact Us” section was that of the Faculty of Law at Oxford. For potential sponsors (of which Bar & Bench was a non-financial one), the brochures and e-mails indicated that the event had the tacit support of Oxford University.

Things get all the more interesting once you start going through cached versions of the competition’s website. Right from mentioning the contact address, to an invitation from that very Faculty of Law to participate in the competition, it is clear that the event was projected to be a University of Oxford initiative.

To be fair, there is some element of truth to the Oxford connection. In September 2013 it was the Law Faculty’s Dr. Tarunabh Khaitan who drafted the moot competition’s problem. What further complicates matters is the fact that photos available on the Oxford India Moot site show Oxford’s Dr. Goudkamp interacting with moot court students. Dr. James in fact was shown as a member of the MOC on the competition’s website till last week (the current website is undergoing a “scheduled maintenance”). The University’s take on this is that the photos were taken during other events and not during the moot itself. The captions to the photos however, state quite the opposite. 

Regardless of what discussions took place between the MOC and the University, neither party could have expected things to turn out the way they did. If the University does decide to take action against the MOC and the OUSI, one can only hope that it is of a harsh kind.

Which brings me to the second point, that connected to what MOC member Abhishek Chhabra did. Physically assaulting participants, grabbing and trying to destroy their mobile phones – these are all acts which give rise to criminal liability. The police, in fact, did get involved and when Chhabra was taken to the police station, he was met with his maternal uncle and father. Even then, from the complaint sent to the British High Commission, it appears that Chhabra was far from apologetic. It was only when the potential consequences of his actions were explained did his demeanor change. And how. The rest has been detailed in the Facebook post referred to earlier. A three-line written apology (wherein he identified himself as President, OUSI) and some sit-ups later, he was let go.

Which brings me to the third point. Speak to the people who were involved in this incident that sense of anger and frustration is all too evident. There is also a sense of resignation, of coming face to face with the fact that no law exists in a vacuum and that sometimes, just some times, the legal is not necessarily the correct.

Should the clearly insincere apology been accepted at all? Shouldn’t the machinery of the law been put into motion? Shouldn’t individuals who presumably have a better understanding of the law than a layman have pursued this case to its logical end? Another question, and one that should have been asked in the Justice Ganguly saga, relates to the personal choice of the victim. Is it the  “public” that gets to decide whether a criminal proceeding should be initiated? Is it the “public” that will have to bear the consequences? How important is it to respect and understand the decision of the victim himself?

And while it is all too easy to build up a sense of righteous (and often misplaced) anger, the answers to the questions above are not that simple.

There could be any number of reasons for choosing an apology letter over initiating criminal charges. From parents and peers pushing for a “compromise”, to an unwillingness or inability to withstand the trials and tribulations of criminal proceedings. It was not a simple choice to make and it would be foolish to speculate on what could have been.  And this is not a one-off case; anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of litigation will tell you that this happens all the time.

The lone aspect, to my mind, that differentiates the OUSI and the Ganguly episode from others is the fact that these involved students of law, men and women who were well aware of the law and their rights.

Which brings me to my final point. For someone who has been covering law schools for a while, the most crucial takeaway from the entire chain of events is the fact that it involved students of law.

Over the past two months in particular, there have been a number of complaints received from law students across the country, mostly through initiatives such as Graycheck and Lawctopus. The subject matter of these complaints range from introducing sniffer dogs on campus, unreasonably high attendance requirements, and faculty members who fail students out of sheer vindictiveness. One complaint even alleged that a Vice Chancellor set fire to texts and reading materials left outside the examination hall.

Now, what is common amidst all of these complaints is the argument that these acts are unfair, illegal and amount to a denial of the protection and rights granted under law. It is this violation of the law that is projected as the root grievance, this escaping the rule of law or ignoring legal provisions that irks the most.

Yet as the events post the moot have shown out, blindly following the letter of the law is not as simple as it is made out to be. There are repercussions and consequences and very often, the initial objective (that of righting a wrong) is lost somewhere in the maze of allegations, counter allegations and good old stonewalling.

Does this mean that one should give up? Does this mean that one should silently accept whatever is thrown and simply look the other way? Of course not, for what good is living without having a bit of fight in you? But what it does mean is that before taking legal recourse, reflect and think for a while, perhaps the solution is not as simple as it is made out to be.

(Inter Alia is a weekly column on life, law and other things)

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

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