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The National Law Universities have often been dubbed as the "Islands of the English Speaking Elite”.
On 3rd September, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) , Bengaluru sent the world of the 77,000 CLAT aspirants (scheduled to be held on 28th September, 2020) into a frenzy with an announcement that the institute would not accept the CLAT scores for admission to its undergraduate and post graduate law courses for the year 2020.
For the year 2020, a new admission test (replacing the CLAT) called the NLAT (National Law Admission Test) is to be held on the 12th of September for which students have been asked to register themselves by the 10th of September by the NLSIU administration.
NLUs have often been dubbed as the "Islands of the English Speaking Elite”. While the current pattern of the CLAT which exemplifies the Indian obsession with a language called English, has done little in dispelling the above label, the exam modalities declared by the NLSIU Administration for NLAT goes a long way towards affirming this notion.
It is in this backdrop that we examine the NLAT exam and related modalities in detail and see as to whether knowingly or unknowingly it further bolsters the "elite crowd" sticker the National Law Universities (NLUs) have long been tagged with.
As per a 2013 -14 survey conducted by the IDIA, 70% of the students in the leading NLUs in India come from families where both their parents can speak fluent English. While not being explicatively indicative of the economic status, it is largely indicative of the social strata from where the majority of the crowd in premium law schools in India hails from.
The survey also revealed that more than 50% of the students in the leading National Law Schools hail from families having a monthly income of more than Rs. 1 Lakh INR while a meagre 13% of the students come from families where the average monthly income is Rs. 25000 and below.
The Survey concluded that number of students in leading law schools from socially and economically backward classes, rural and small town and Non - English speaking educational background was deplorably low.
The NLSIU administration released a list of technical requirements which have to be necessarily satisfied by a candidate to appear for the NLAT. The NLAT will be conducted on the 12th of September in an Online Home - Proctored Format which allows candidates to take the test from their homes.
However, the technical requirements place the onus on the aspirants to arrange for a Laptop/ PC or an Android Phone with an in-built or external webcam for taking the exam. Shifting of the onus of arranging the device on the shows that the same was laid down while assuming that every aspirant has access to a Laptop/PC or an Android Phone at their household.
On the contrary, only 15% students at the Higher Secondary Level of Education have access to laptops and computers at their home and most of such children belong to well - to - do families (NSO Survey, 2017-18). As per a recent survey, 56% of students in India do not found have access to smart phones for E - Learning. This clearly establishes the fallacy in the above mentioned assumption focal to the conduction of the NLAT.
The extremely short notice period of 10 days between the date of announcement and the examination date makes it further difficult for aspirants not hailing from economically strong families to makes these arrangements.
The mandatory requirements of web cams and that of a microphone (headphones/ earphones have strictly been prohibited) puts yet another additional strain on the pockets and dreams of NLAT aspirants hailing from non - economically affluent backgrounds.
The NLAT notification also puts the onus of arranging for internet connection for the purpose of the exam on the takers. Though, the NLSIU administration has brought down the internet connection requirement which was earlier stated to be a stable connection with a bandwidth of 1 Mbps to 512 Kbps, yet the same is to the disadvantage of a large number of aspirants, especially from rural areas and smaller towns, where the internet connection is irregular and often does not even fulfil the criteria laid down for the NLAT.
One only needs to ponder over the fact that in light of the NLAT notification, how will an aspirant from an area such as J&K for instance where even 2G internet is erratic due to the restrictions that have been put up, take up the examination A large number of aspirants have voiced their concerns over the fishy state of internet facilities in their local limits.
Yet, the decision of the NLSIU Administration of not taking any responsibility of a candidate not being able to attempt the test due to any instance of faulty internet or any related logistical obstacle only shows the completely apathy of the administration towards the students especially those who can be classified as the "Have Nots ".
Despite the coming into existence of the CLAT in 2008 pursuant to the decision of the Supreme Court in Varun Bhagat v. Union of India, NLU Delhi has never been a part of the CLAT mechanism.
However, what is shocking in the present case is the decision of NLSIU to conduct NLAT and withdraw from CLAT just 25 days before the re-scheduled date of the examination i.e. 28th of September. The University cites its worry of undergoing a crisis of facing a ‘Zero Year’ due to the trimester system if the admissions were not completed before September 2020 as the reason behind its withdrawal from CLAT, 2020.
However, NLSIU is not the only NLU having a Trimester system in place. The National Law Institute University (NLIU), Bhopal, one of the premier NLUs also has the same trimester system. However, NLIU, Bhopal has stuck to its commitment of being a part of CLAT.
Thus, rather than further enhancing the image of law schools as "No Country for the poor and economically non - elite", it would have been better that NLSIU administration could have chalked a way with the CLAT consortium to expedite the declaration of results and the beginning of the admission process post the exams so as to make up for the time that has been lost.
The NLAT conducting body has recently announced that students appearing for the exams can write online them at test centres located in 14 cities. However, in order to take up the exams the aspirants would have to pay Rs. 350 to Testpan India Pvt. Limited (which will be responsible for the conduction of the exam at the respective test centres) in addition to the Rs. 150/125 paid by the aspirants for registering themselves for the exam under the General and SC/ST category respectively.
This unjustifiably puts an additional financial strain on aspirants who have already paid Rs. 4,000 or 3,500 for General/OBC and SC/ST category aspirants respectively as the registration fee for the CLAT which at the time of registration gave them a shot at getting admission into NLSIU.
The test centres apart from their scant numbers are also unevenly distributed across the nation and the same being notified only 6 days prior to the exam makes it really difficult for aspirants especially from the rural and semi - urban areas to make travel arrangements to the nearest of such test centres.
Making such transport arrangements midst the pandemic not only further financially drains the coffers of the NLAT aspirants but also puts a lot of mental stress on them amidst the stress of the examinations. This can further go a long way in dissuading a lot of students from the not so economically strong sections of the society to not take up the examination.
It is also to be noted here that the NLSIU administration has also clarified that it would not bear any responsibility for anything which might go haywire at an examination centre.
Even if we assume for a moment that all CLAT aspirants who have to register for NLAT somehow manage to meet the technical requirements, the state of electricity supply in Rural India reveals a different story.
In the light of NLAT organisers shunning all logistical responsibilities, even making arrangement for electricity back up is on the takers of the exam.
Thus, the sudden step of conducting the NLAT by the oldest NLU in India with the least of concerns towards students from non-elite socio -economic backgrounds goes a long way in giving authenticity to the elitist tag the NLUs are branded with.
It would be an iconic yet ironic moment when the batch of 2025 of NLSIU will be imparted legal lessons on equality when the very exam through which the batch will have to pass through reeks of inequality in many ways.
When N.R. Madhava Menon, the father of 5 year law school system in India, laid down the foundations of NLSIU, Bangalore on the morning of August 29, 1987, one of his objectives behind doing so was to increase access to law by increasing access to quality legal education to every section of students in the country.
More than 33 years since that iconic day, the administration of the institution seems to be taking "giant leaps in realising his vision".
Ananya Chakraborty is a graduate of the Kirit P. Mehta School of Law, NMIMS, Mumbai, and Akash Anurag is a graduate of the National Law University, Jodhpur.