Law students: Then and now

As law students increasingly are becoming active players in courts, the author shares two stories from his college days when courts were far-far away.

Peter Wright could well have been a rogue James Bond. He sent the shivers up the spine of the British establishment when he decided to pen a memoir reflecting on his days spent in the British Intelligence Agency-MI5! The British government filed a suit seeking a pre-publication injunction against the book 'Spycatcher' on the grounds of threat to national security. By a 3-2 majority, the House of Lords granted the injunction.

In 1987, after the House of Lords decided the eye-catching Spycatcher Case, the Daily Mirror decided to make a spectacle of the three dissenting Law Lords. So, the tabloid’s front page carried the upside-down mug shot of the three Hon’ble Justices along with the screaming headlines “You Fools”.

This story would be incomplete without Lord Templeman’s reaction to lawyers (perhaps not law students), who wanted the court to initiate criminal contempt action. Whether he was indeed a fool or not, the judge felt, was a matter of opinion. He certainly could not come in the way of any person harbouring such an opinion about him however passionately he may have felt that he was otherwise!

Truth be told, such stories never came out way back in the 1990s when we struggled through law school. These were the times when projects had to be handwritten. There was no program to automatically alphabetically arrange the impressive bibliography of books we have never touched but whose names had been cogged from visiting other college libraries simply to shore up our submissions. Remember the massive walkie-talkie like cell phone with an incoming call that cost rupees sixteen per minute was also years away.

This was India before the internet. Law school before Bar & Bench and Livelaw’s live tweeting of court proceedings. Today’s law student, agitated by the hotspots punished by disruption of the internet, cannot simply imagine that life.

We may have been starved of news, cocooned from the reality of the Bar and the Bench, but our lives were no less interesting.

Imagine Ram Jethmalani as a professor! A brilliant criminal lawyer, a living legend of the law, waiting patiently to regale you with Bhawal Sanyasi’s Case, while your professor took the attendance.

Try and picture Sandra O'Connor, the first female justice to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, walk into your auditorium and confess in a lighter vein,

"If you have seen me, you have seen fifty percent of all women judges who have made it to the US Supreme Court since our independence!”

The other was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had just been appointed by Clinton and was years away from making her own India trip with long term foe on the bench and opera buddy in real life, Justice Scalia!

Think of the sight of the legendary Justice Krishna Iyer lodged in your boys’ hostel guest room, gently making his way to your canteen to share some coffee with students. I have no doubt the thrill of breathing the same air as these legends would any day beat the high from composing a letter to the Attorney General seeking to prosecute some comedian or cartoonist for contempt!

As ‘law students’ increasingly are becoming active players in courts, I share here two stories from my own college days when courts were far-far away.

Story No 1

Having appeared for the law entrance under the shadows of the Gulf War (these were pre-CLAT days, I am sure I would have no chance in today’s day), the memories of the occupation of Kuwait were fresh in mind when India’s External Affairs Minister during that time decided to visit the campus. I was wriggling my hands with glee as I had sniffed out an opportunity to get his goat. After his “talk” to students was that mandatory ‘interaction and question time’ and my hand went up enthusiastically.

As the amiable and gentle creature looked on, I shot off my question rather cockily.

Sir, as India’s External Affairs Minister, did you not realise how much embarrassment you have caused the nation when you walked about openly in occupied Kuwait holding the hands of the Iraqi General?”

I could feel that adrenalin rush. I had cornered him, I thought.

The gentleman smiled and took a few seconds to compose his right answer. Then, in his trademark reconciliatory tone that would in years to follow lead to the formulation of a Doctrine of International Relations, he demonstrated his greatness by acknowledging that what I had just said was a valid criticism. There was no arrogance or condescension in his voice. He went on the explain,

You see it was a difficult situation. Many Indians were trapped in Kuwait and we had to take a call. Often when in a position of authority one has to take tough decisions.”

Years later, IK Gujral would go on to serve as India’s Prime Minister. His Gujral Doctrine which I had questioned unknowingly would go on to shape Indian policy for years. I would go on to being a struggling lawyer!

Story 2

The law school is a crucible of creativity untainted by the boring and drowning realities of a legal practice like billable hours and extracting fees from clients. There is nothing that cannot be conceived, cannot be imagined. Our professors, for some strange reason, wanted to plant a seed in our young unformed legal minds that the Indian Constitution was a “square peg in a round hole.” They would contend that actually it is Presidential in character and had conferred great powers in the President in matters of use of Emergency powers and legislative powers and that this reality was lost in the successive incumbents of Raisina Hill, who were contended in playing a largely ceremonial role.

One fine day, the great Ram Jethmalani was in action. While teaching the class the powers of the President in using his power of pardon, he spoke about his controversial legal representation of the killers of Indira Gandhi. In his characteristic booming voice, he thumped the lectern and said,

The Supreme Court of India has convicted Kehar Singh on evidence on which even a cockroach could not have been convicted.”

I am just imagining that if he had said so to a class in a law school today, we could certainly count on some enthu students carrying tales to Mr Venugopal, who incidentally was also a great friend of our law school!

When the class ended and the session opened up, there was complete silence. The God had spoken; none dared to speak. Then I heard whispers from the back. To my utter surprise, it was both my Constitutional Law professors who had come in to watch Ram in action. Now they were prompting me to question him on what his view was on their “Square Peg” theory.

Hesitatingly, I volunteered for this Kamikaze mission, without the customary swig of Sake which the Japanese pilot was offered before he took off on his suicide mission.

I calculated that, in the long run, being on the right side of my professors was of more advantage than being sweet to Ram Sir.

Sir don’t you think India’s Constitution prescribes that our President can act independently in matters of grant of pardon as he his bound by Council advice on his executive matters and this was a constitutional function?”

The Sindhi Tiger who played his badminton game till the very end had just been served with a shuttle cock which he now would smash with pleasure. He stared with a gentle laugh.

“My dear fellow, that issue is no longer res integra. The Supreme Court has in Ram Sahib Jawwayiya Kapoor’s Case already held that India has a Parliamentary system and not a Presidential one!”

I didn't know where it came from but it did. I retorted almost instantly:

Sir you mean the same Supreme Court that you just told us had convicted Kehar Singh on evidence on which even a cockroach could not be found guilty?”

Ram was silent. He gracefully proceeded to the next questioner.

I was excited at having left a legend speechless for days after Ram had gone back to the real world to face real lawyers and not cocky students!

Rumi had said,

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

While I am far from being ‘wise’ today, I am definitely less ‘clever’ though ‘changing myself’ is a work in progress. What I can claim with certainty is that with each passing day I am one step nearer to the ‘Fool’ who is willing to let the world have a right to its own opinion about him.

The author is a Delhi-based advocate.

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