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Lucifers Counsel or Why I think the Donnie Ashok case is not a positive development

Bar & Bench

By now, one can well presume, the general jubilation regarding the admission of Donnie Ashok, (IDIA scholar and determined student) into the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhingar (GNLU) would have settled down. In fact, not only would the bonhomie and celebration have petered out but most would feel that the entire episode is a closed chapter, one which does not merit further discussion.

By now, one can well presume, the general jubilation regarding the admission of Donnie Ashok, (IDIA scholar and future law graduate) into the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhingar (GNLU) would have settled down. In fact, not only would the bonhomie and celebration have petered out but most would feel that the entire episode is a closed chapter, one which does not merit further discussion.

After all, it is case where justice has been meted out, all the parties concerned have shook hands and parted in a manner most amicable and, to speak legalese, the lis no longer exists.  Surely, there is nothing to be gained by broaching this topic once more.

Surely.

I don’t think so.

In my mind, this entire episode raises more questions about the manner in which institutions are run, about the amount of discretionary power which rests with authorities, and the way in which public perception (even a “public” which possesses legal education) can be distorted with ease.

Let us start with the basic facts first. A student, hailing from an impoverished background, fought great odds to secure a good rank in the nationally conducted entrance examination, CLAT. The said student, due to various reasons, was unable to pass his 12th Board exams in his first attempt, but did manage to clear it the second time.

After the entrance examination was over, the allotment list placed him at GNLU. However, when he approached GNLU for the completion of the admission formalities, he was told that his admission was barred due to the fact that he had not cleared his 12th Board Exams in the first attempt.

Reliance was placed on a provision in the GNLU admission brochure which stated that those who do not clear the Board Exams in one go, will not be eligible for admission. It may be noted that the “Eligibility criteria” on the official CLAT website makes no such restriction.

However, the provisions in the brochure, the only institution-related document a prospective student is likely to have access to, are crystal clear. On page 39 of the CLAT brochure, the following provision is found:

“Candidates passing HSc/10+2/ equivalent exam by re-take/more than one attempt/special permission are not eligible” (Emphasis supplied)

When repeated request and representations before the GNLU authorities met with no success, the student approached the Gujarat High Court, filing a writ petition which sought, amongst other things, a direction to admit him into GNLU. The petition also questioned the constitutional validity of particular provisions of the GNLU Act, 2003 and the GNLU Regulations, 2009 but this issue was not pressed before the Court.

When the matter was eventually listed and heard, it was easy to see the direction in which the case was going. The Court passed an interim order directing one seat to be left vacant at GNLU. Once the mood of the Court had been gauged, I can only presume that the authorities at GNLU held a series of discussions and meetings to chart out their future course of action.

And how did it eventually end?

Through a compromise, one where the head of GNLU, in consultation with the Admission Committee, admitted that the entire matter could have “been sorted out without causing any inconvenience to anyone” (in what way is unclear) and that the student had now been granted admission.

End of story.

Wait a minute. What just happened here? What about the rule in the admission brochure? Was that just a typo? A clerical error perhaps?

There is no explanation provided (and none sought) as to how the rule made it into the admission brochure and what exactly is its legal standing. There is no explanation provided (and none sought) as to whether this is an exception for one, particular student or whether the rule will no longer apply to other students either. And if it is an exception to general practice, then there is no explanation provided (and none sought) as to where such extraordinary discretionary power come from.

Why seek an explanation. After all, the ends do justify the means right?

Curiously, GNLU is not the only NLU whose admission brochure contains this provision, contrary to what was claimed in the petition. The brochure for NLSIU,Bangalore which is available here, clearly states (on Page 9) :

“To be eligible for admission, a candidate must have passed the …… (10+2) or its equivalent examination with not less than 50% marks in aggregate (45% in case of SC/ST persons with disability) in the first attempt” (Emphasis supplied).

 So there is at least one more law school which seems to be following this rule. Of course, merely because another law school mentions the rule does not make the said rule credible. However, it does raise questions on whether an individual university can impose its choice of eligibility criteria over and above that adopted by the CLAT collective.

What makes the entire episode even more disturbing is the fact that it has been lauded by individuals who have been imparted with some of the finest legal education the world has to offer. Where have the critics disappeared? The ones who were screaming at the top of their voices about the autocratic way in which law schools are being run? Why is no one questioning the complete lack of transparency that has just taken place here? Is autocracy acceptable if the “ends of justice” are met?

Would public reaction have been any different had the student been a rich kid who was denied admission due to this very policy? If so, do you think he would have garnered the kind of public support that this kid eventually did? In fact, let us take this argument forward. What if the rich kid had filed a similar petition and had gotten a similar result. Wouldn’t the institution have been torn apart and attacked from all sides as money hungry and corruptible?

To me, legal education trains one to question and critique; to assume nothing and to dig and claw beneath the surface. However arbitrary a rule may be, and I do believe that the concerned rule is completely arbitrary, aren’t we taught that only once it is declared illegal can it be ignored? Until such a declaration is made, shouldn’t the rule be given the same respect as any other law of the land? I understand that today’s world demands that litigation be used as a strategy rather than actual adjudication but to what extent?

What good is legal education if we are as easily swayed by public perception as the next layman? What good is our legal education if we are to villify an easy target (such as a law school) without examining the basic facts of the matter first? What good is learning of the need to “question everything” when we allow ourselves to be reduced to mindless sheep, as easily led to the gallows as to the pastures?

The IDIA project is an absolutely fantastic initiative, and one which I have the greatest respect for. But unless the IDIA students are accorded a special status by the law school itself, I see no reason why the students should be afforded differential treatment. Such differential treatment only sets a dangerous precedent.

And it is this dangerous precedent that I cannot find myself to accept. It is the hypocrisy that I find most unpalatable: if you are willing to accept autocracy when it works for you then you lose the right to question it when it does not.

I am not only aware of the potential of this article to generate negative attention but am also more than aware of its futility. I don’t expect anything to come of it, just as I don’t expect anyone to answer the questions raised here. In fact, more than once I found myself struggling against the inevitability of the saying “Let sleeping dogs lie”. But I can’t and I won’t. After all, what good is my legal education if I am too scared to voice an opinion?

Anuj Agrawal is an Associate Editor at Bar & Bench. He can be contacted at anuj [at] barandbench [dot] com.

Author’s note: It has been brought to my notice that there are several gross errors in this piece, the most pertinent one being that the GNLU has revoked the offending rule in entirety and that it is no longer applicable to any student. The other errors have been highlighted in this reply to the article.