In Conversation with Professor M P Singh

In Conversation with Professor M P Singh

Bar & Bench

Associate Editor, Raghul Sudheesh, spoke to Professor. M P Singh on diverse topics including his younger days, the legal education system in India, CLAT & access barriers, one year LLM programme and much more.

M P Singh needs no introduction to the legal fraternity. He is popular among law students as the revising author of V. N. Shukla’s commentary on the Constitution of India. He currently heads the Delhi Judicial Academy as its Chairperson. Formerly, he was the Vice- Chancellor of the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (NUJS) and Director of the Indian Law Institute. He commenced his career as a lecturer at Meerut College and then moved to Delhi University’s Faculty of Law.

Raghul Sudheesh: Can you tell us about your early days in Jitholi and the journey from law student in Meerut to academician in Delhi?

M P Singh:  I was born and brought up at Jitholi. I did my LL.B from Meerut College. While I was still pursuing my LL.B., I thought I would get into practice or at most become a Judge or Munsif. At Meerut College I was taught by five Professors, two of them were holding LL.M. degrees while the other three were only LL.B. degree holders. I found a marked difference between these two teachers and the other three. The feeling that an LL.M. degree adds to one’s knowledge and education prompted me to get a first class in LL.B., which in turn enabled me to pursue an LL.M. from Lucknow University.  Since there was a dearth of teachers at Meerut, I came back and started teaching In Meerut. I taught in Meerut for over 6 years. I then taught for almost 35 years at Delhi University till 2005. That is my journey from Jitholi to Delhi, with many places in between.

Raghul Sudheesh: You were at Columbia Law School doing your LLM. What was it like working under Professor Walter Gellhorn? Could you take us through your college days there?

M P Singh: Walter Gellhorn was the supervisor/coordinator of the LL.M. programme. Every student had to discuss with him the selection of the subject and the available courses. It was in this regard that I first met him in Columbia. He was not teaching any course as such and it was only towards the end of his regular position before his nomination as University Professor Emeritus that he came to take a few classes of Administrative Law. He was a great man and highly respected by everyone. He empathized with students of different nationalities alike. Everybody loved and respected him. His last lecture before he retired left a lasting impression on me. There were other brilliant teachers as well; Prof. John N. Hazard taught communist legal systems, Prof. Louis Henkin taught Constitutional Law, Prof. Louis Luskey, Prof. Arthur W. Murphy and so on. I had a wonderful time there and the experience made me more confident.

Raghul Sudheesh:  Who is your mentor?

M P Singh: In my farewell message at NUJS, I remembered Prof. R.P.Sharma, Prof. V.N.Shukla, Professor Gellhorn and Prof. Tripathi for their guidance and support. Prof Tripathi, in fact, was not my teacher but the Dean at Delhi University. My association with him continued till his last days. I continue to write about him and dedicated a book on Comparative Constitutional Law to him. There are many others, particularly in Germany, who have been very good friends and mentors. But all credit ultimately goes to my grandfather. He took care of me after my father’s death, when I was just 8-9 months old. My grandfather passed away when I was a young man of 17 pursuing my B.A. degree.

Raghul Sudheesh: You have been editing V. N. Shukla’s Constitutional Law book for a very long time. How has the experience been so far?

M P Singh: Prof. Shukla was my teacher and I studied his book during my LL.M. days. While editing the book, I had to keep in mind the clarity and simplicity with which Prof. Shukla had written the book. After his death, two editions were brought out by a senior colleague from Delhi, Prof. D.K.Singh. I found that the style had changed in those two editions slightly because the cases now were far more complex and numerous than they were in the 1950s to early 70s. I have tried to restore the simplicity with all the required relevant information. Prof Shukla’s lucid way of explaining decisions cannot be implemented anymore because of the huge amount of cases. So, I make an effort to make the commentary inter-connected with different articles and giving references and cross-references so that when one reads, one can feel the evolution of law under a particular provision. I think the book is still being appreciated, particularly because of the popularity the book has with the student community.  With every edition, I try to remain attached to the roots of that book.

Raghul Sudheesh:  What differences do you see in the law schools of the past and the law schools of the present?

M P Singh: Earlier there were comparatively fewer law schools. When I took admission in 1959 in Meerut that was the only college in my area where law was taught. Only major universities had a law faculty. There was no mushrooming of law schools as such. These universities had good reputation and had good scholars. Meerut College also had a good name. Lucknow University, where I went for my LLM, was known for teaching law in the most modern way. With the semester-system, all major papers were divided into various semesters. While 30% of the marks were allotted for tutorials (Editor’s Note: LL.M. final year students also conducted tutorials and classes for LL.B. students) the remaining 70% were for the written examination. Ultimately, whoever did an LL.M. from there could get a job anywhere in India. Delhi, Banaras, Aligarh, Chandigarh in the North and several universities in the south also had good faculties. But slowly Lucknow started receding and all other faculties followed suit, perhaps because of the expenses of education and non-availability of teachers.

Prof. N. R. Madhava Menon’s (pictured right) NLS experience became a new hope for the resurgence of legal education. I think that at least some of these law schools have given a better system of teaching and learning and to that extent; I would say the legal education has some hope. Prof. Menon’s idea at that time was to impart and inculcate the skills of a lawyer among students. The emphasis was on the basic knowledge of law, mooting and the development of writing skills.  When I went to NUJS, I was disappointed with the non-serious level of teaching. I was not sure whether the skills were being imparted properly. Students were busy participating in all sorts of programmes that had very little nexus to the good understanding of law, either for practice or for any other purpose.

A university’s purpose is to create knowledge and not merely to impart the existing knowledge.  That’s how we began and I tried to get the best available teachers to bring a difference.  Publication of articles picked up, students started pursuing their Masters from outside India, foreign exchange programs were initiated and that is how things started improving. I now find that the NUJS model is being implemented everywhere. Even courses have changed. At NUJS only 50% of the courses are compulsory and the other 50% are optional or elective courses. Even for the LL.M. students, four courses are compulsory and the rest they can select either from the LL.B. or LL.M. courses whichever they like. So, I was quite satisfied when I left NUJS. I wish that whoever takes over expands it further. We are lucky to find Prof. Ishwar Bhat, who is a good scholar. I hope he will be a model Vice Chancellor.

Raghul Sudheesh: Earlier there was mushrooming of law colleges, now there is mushrooming of National Law Schools. Three new ones have come up in Ranchi, Orissa and Assam. Do you think the approach is correct to have a National Law School in every state?

M P Singh: The idea is not bad in such a big country with the need for lawyers ever increasing; having a class of 80 or 100 students in one state is not too much. But adequate faculty and adequate resources seem to be the only catch. We need a leader like Prof. Menon, who can get people from all over into law schools so as to make it sufficiently equipped. Then again one can say there is only one Menon.

Not all Vice Chancellors are clear enough as to what they want. They simply want to run an existing institution. Except for NLSIU and to some extent NALSAR which are comparatively older, the others are so new that unless there is a dynamic leader who can give it a lead, it is difficult to achieve anything. The law schools should maintain some minimum standards, which I am not sure as to whether they actually maintain or not. The only assurance is the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) because of which these law schools get comparatively better students than the students in other colleges, where admission is on a local or percentage basis.

Raghul Sudheesh: Should academicians be handling things at administrative level also or should they confine themselves to academics alone?

M P Singh:  I see no contradiction between the two. You cannot remain an administrator as well as an academician for the whole of your life. I would say that one should first earn a name as an academician and then take the job of an administrator for a few years. That was exactly what Prof. Tripathi did. He started off as a Professor and then, because he was a reputed scholar, he became the Dean at Allahabad University. When Delhi University introduced a three-year course, they wanted someone who could give life to the course and thus Prof. Tripathi was invited. He established and managed it very well by bringing the best faculty from the country and outside. After working for five years as Dean, he left it to his successor.

In Universities, there is no tradition of appointing the best among the faculty in the administration; rather the next- in-line would be asked to become the administrator and then one is not sure whether he would really be competent enough to render the required leadership. This is again in vain since academicians have not risen to that level where we would be requested to lead the institution. We are rather fighting for getting a position without having the required calibre. It is still unfortunate that people consider these positions as the last goal in their life whereas these positions are not the end of an academic life. Giving hope and creating new possibilities of furthering tradition is what is expected.

Raghul Sudheesh: Do you think National Law Schools are a failure because of the huge flow of students to the corporate sector and law firms?

M P Singh: I will not call it a failure. The only thing is lack of direction. Unlike India, in the western world those working in law firms are also called practicing lawyers. The only thing is that not all of them argue before courts. The focus here at Indian Law Schools is not in creating law but specifically on creating corporate or litigation lawyers. Law Universities everywhere in the world focus on creation of law and not only on imparting what the legislature or the courts do. Our Law Schools should not confine themselves to creating corporate lawyers or litigating lawyers, they should also produce creative lawyers and legal philosophers and thinkers.

Raghul Sudheesh: Do you think quality research exists in the Indian law Universities?

M P Singh:  Research is almost totally missing in the law schools; the question of quality comes later. There is no focus on research. The entire focus is on teaching i.e. teaching straight for six days, from morning to evening without giving the teachers any opportunity to study or research. At the same time, it does not give any opportunity to students to sit down and reflect on what has been taught. In fact students are all the time kept busy.

Raghul Sudheesh:  What role can the NLUs play in making admission into these institutes more accessible to candidates from underprivileged or disadvantaged backgrounds?

M P Singh: That is exactly how the IDIA originated and grew. Firstly, if students are not informed, they should be informed. Secondly, if we come to know the causes as to why they are not able to enter these law schools, we should try to remove those causes and make it possible for them to pursue the law school dream. This is not the only way social justice can be done but this is one of them. We are not social workers, but University Professors, thus we can help in creating better knowledge and learning possibilities. A University can help in this way by creating diversity.

Raghul Sudheesh: Being one of the Patrons of the IDIA programme, how do you think such initiatives can be implemented on a larger scale for larger masses?

M P Singh: Graduate and Post-graduate education is pursued by a limited number of people. In most of the countries, there is a possibility that if you are keen to go for higher studies, you can go for the same. India somehow lacks this possibility as it is not open for everybody and the reason is that there is a serious lack of guidance and resources. Even if there is a desire, you may not even come to know what is happening in the outside world.

If I am in the field of law, it is simply because my grandfather persuaded me without knowing the purpose. In villages, lawyers used to be engaged in all sorts of cases, so every family felt the need of having a lawyer of their own. Had I not been so close to Meerut, I would not have pursued law or my grandfather would not have thought of it. With radio and television reaching villages, people are now well informed. IDIA helps in getting talented students to these law schools and again helping them at these law schools, just like the Bihar Super 30 phenomenon.  In this way, a difference is being made to the society.

Raghul Sudheesh: Why do you have such a great interest in Constitutional Law as compared to other subjects?

M P Singh: May be this was the easiest to learn for me. Constitutional Law is not as technical as Taxation or Company Law. In my opinion it speaks of a world view. Constitutional Law is easy to grasp because of its non-technical nature. I think that could be one of the reasons that it entered my head much faster. I was also fortunate to have been taught by good teachers. In fact, during my LL.M. days in Lucknow I wanted to take up Family Law but the teacher had gone on leave. One had to study Family Law on their own and that’s why I took up Constitutional Law. It is fate and mental aptitude together.

Raghul Sudheesh: Do you think that the CLAT as it is today requires any modifications?

M P Singh: The testing procedure has to be changed because persons who have studied in English medium schools will always have an advantage. At the moment, 40 marks out of 200 are still assigned to knowledge of English. I know from my village’s situation that in many States, education is imparted in the local language.  Only a small percentage of the students are able to go to English medium schools. English is taught from the fifth or sixth class onwards. Hence, the students would not be in a position to compete with the kids from English medium schools. So I think CLAT requires a lot of change.

Raghul Sudheesh: The CLAT exam of 2011 invited a fair amount of controversy. Can you speak to us on the doubts raised with respect to the declaration of results, answers being marked on the question paper, etc?

M P Singh:  The question paper was framed in the manner we had decided. Whatever changes were brought were announced well in advance, specifically relating to the General Knowledge and Current Affairs sections. The mistake that unwittingly arose was at the level of printing the question papers. Some questions went with the answer underlined and in the LL.M. question-paper; the number “3” was converted into a “K”. For example after “12” it was “1K”. Thus there was something wrong at the proof-reading stage. The printing press is not supposed to proof-read. May be our persons who were supposed to proof-read failed in detecting these mistakes.

The problems with regard to the declaration of results was faced because the new procedure was introduced very late, just few days before the results were out. It was decided that since the result date had already been announced long back, the result would be declared on the 28th only. Now on 28th, two things happened: one was that the result was not ready in the form of the merit of students in a particular category, rather it was a general list just showing the selected persons. But there could be 100 persons under the same rank, for example at Rank 3, there could be 200 students; so anybody who was at number 3, thought him/herself to be at number 3 while actually he was not at number 3. He could be anywhere, 75, 100 or 105.  This caused lot of confusion and disappointment. Secondly, there was a glitch and delay in the operation of the website, which suddenly broke down for a few hours before it restarted. Also, the final break-up of the results came late because there was some dispute with the server, so we had to change the server.

Thereafter, we had to develop a system by which admissions could be done centrally. Centrally, means that all students opting for various law schools had to register at NUJS alone; after which their names would be sent to different law schools from NUJS. Now delay took place because every law school has its own categories and putting students in the right category was a big job for the computer technicians. That again created some difficulty but finally, it was done. Thus at every level, there was a delay which I think caused inconvenience and irritation to the parents and the candidates.

Raghul Sudheesh: There is an allegation that last year huge expenses were incurred for CLAT meetings of Vice- Chancellors, especially on liquor? What do you have to say about this?

M P Singh:  The law school which conducts CLAT retains half of the total revenue generated by CLAT to meet all the expenses of CLAT including the meetings of Core Committee and Implementation Committee, paper-setting, printing, conduct of examination, travels, outstation stay etc. The Vice Chancellors and others should be sensitive enough not to demand or expect avoidable expenses; including expensive drinks. The total expenses for Core Committee meetings went into lakhs which were unexpectedly high. I do not know the exact figure, but it is something worth considering whether some of these savings could be used for better purposes.

Raghul Sudheesh: Do you think that the initial burden to buy the CLAT form for around Rs. 2500 is in itself a barrier?

M P Singh: We charge Rs. 2000/- from candidates belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. If a similar arrangement can be made for poor students it would be of some significance. Money is no doubt required for conducting the test as well as for running the institutions. If we are to extract money even from those who cannot afford it, they would give up on law school. It would be a good idea if an arrangement could be made for reducing the fee or to refund the fee either at the application level or the entry level. It is not impossible. There has to be a will to do it. When you asked me, why I developed an interest in the Constitutional law, it is because very few people actually know what the Constitution requires. Therefore it hurts when the Vice Chancellors say that, “ is not our job to remove poverty. Our job is to take the best and most talented students in the law school.” What can you do in such a situation?

Raghul Sudheesh: The lack of competent faculty in law schools serves as a detriment to the growth of legal education in the country. A minuscule number of law students choose to take up teaching as a profession after graduation. What can be done to counter this situation?

M P Singh: The money received from CLAT could be used for better purposes, not necessarily providing better scales to Professors but definitely providing better facilities to encourage them to join and continue in the teaching profession. It could be something like the way IITs and the IIMs do. There, a certain amount is provided at every level for teachers, from Assistant Professor to Professor, which can be used for research purposes, employing assistants, foreign visits, participating in the conferences, seminars etc. If teachers are given freedom to pursue their areas of interest while keeping in the mind the objectives of the law school, it can make so much difference resulting in getting quality teachers.

We should not be hindered by the technical requirements of the National Eligibility Test (NET). There are so many brilliant students who pursue their masters abroad and when they come back they cannot, by virtue of not having cleared NET or finished a two year LL.M. Program, join the law school faculty. I ignored all this and it helped me take people at NUJS. All these talented and good people changed the face of law school within a few days. It helped in changing the minds of other teachers also; otherwise they were thinking that what they were doing was the last word in the legal education. When the new crop of teachers came, they spoke and taught differently. Students could also make out the difference and supported these teachers. There is of course a requirement that a teacher may be asked to teach one compulsory subject. But freedom should be given to develop their own courses in that particular area where they consider they are experts or they would like to become experts.

Raghul Sudheesh: How was it to be associated with young professors like Shamnad Basheer?

M P Singh: Shamnad became a professor at a young age because of his brilliance.  It is now up to him to create a place for himself. Of course I am not saying that he must become a Vice Chancellor. The job at this young age must be to develop a unique type of scholarship, to encourage others and to give a lead in the field. Many bright young Professors like Sudheer Krishnaswami are all under 40; rather Shamnad may be 32 or 35. I was lucky enough to convince my Executive Council to take them even though they had no or limited experience. In fact Shamnad does not have a Ph.D. At this young age, you have got it inside you to take a lead in academics.

Delhi University appointed Prof. Upendra Baxi at a young age, when he was 33 or 34. But then he devoted his time to academics. He went to Gujarat as Vice Chancellor of South Gujarat University and other places in between. He basically developed a model of scholarship. It is not the job; it is in fact the product of the job that matters. Scholarship in itself is a way of life. Being a Vice Chancellor should not make a difference. Unless one takes pleasure and pride in their job, the foundations will remain weak.

Raghul Sudheesh: Do you think there is a need to introduce one year LL.M. courses?

M P Singh:  This I support primarily for the reason that at Delhi University, during my 35 years of teaching, I wanted the most talented students to pursue teaching. Since LL.M. in India was of two years, all of them would go to foreign law schools to do their LL.M. with the promise that they would return. At that time, there were not too many students applying so it was not difficult to get admission. And even scholarships were easily available. But once they went, they did not return because they were offered very good jobs in law firms, banks etc but also because they were not sure of job, back home. And as a consequence, we lost out on them. I realised long back that if we had a one year LL.M., we would be able to retain these students by assuring them employment within a year, with a guarantee of an assured income.

This is what Prof. R.U. Singh did in Lucknow in the 1940s and 50s. He would ask the topper of the LL.B. course to take admission in LL.M., along with others. Furthermore, he would appoint the student as a teacher if he/she passed his LLM first year exam in the first attempt, meaning thereby, he would not wait for the second year to complete and would appoint him/her as an ad-hoc teacher. That is how he was able to create and retain faculty. Later he would even get them jobs elsewhere in India by requesting faculty deans and heads to take them.

I proposed a one-year LL.M. course in DU in the 90s. When I went to NUJS, I again wrote to the Law and Education Ministers. Some people say it is because of my letter, that the same course is now being converted into a one-year LL.M. course pursuant to the recommendations of the University Grants Commission (UGC) committee. I was a member of that particular Committee but went only towards the end for their meetings. I could not attend the other meetings. Now the proposal and the regulations are ready. UGC simply has to notify it. I support it completely.

Raghul Sudheesh: Currently the NLUs are under the patronage of their respective state governments. In your opinion, could placing them under the aegis of the Central Government, like the IITs/IIMs in order to streamline their function provide a better framework for their development?

M P Singh: I am not quite sure because these are basically judiciary/lawyers guided Universities. Whether the judiciary and lawyers would agree to give the Centre that kind of autonomy is the question. Should they be entirely under the UGC or be independent and autonomous. My feeling is that the Centre does not want the Vice Chancellor to be the decision-maker. I often feel disgusted as to why the Vice Chancellor cannot take decisions with respect to the University; rather the government representatives would take decisions. Then, what do you require a Vice Chancellor for? The Vice Chancellor should have complete autonomy. I do not know how much autonomy the Directors of IIMs or Directors of IITs have. Although Prof. Menon had retired from active academics due to old age and now is involved in policy making level, he mainly quit because there was too much interference from the Bar and perhaps also from the judicial members.

Raghul Sudheesh: You were a part of the Commission appointed by the CJI to review the working of NLSIU. Among the issues discussed were plagiarism in written submissions and the lack of a rigorous work culture. Do you believe that these issues are due to the lack of an effective administrative set-up or are they the result of a flawed system of education?

M P Singh: It is due to a flawed education system. What is plagiarism is not told very specifically to students. In fact how do many of us rigorously read the projects and papers to find out if there is plagiarism? Those who abide by the rule form a mere drop in the ocean. It is unfortunate that we do not have strict measures as almost all the American law schools have. If a student is found to have committed plagiarism, he/she is expelled from the University. Here, we are unable to take any action even if every line has been copied verbatim. That’s why the fear is not there and somewhere our inner morality is also lacking.

Raghul Sudheesh: Your thoughts on winning the Life Time Best Teacher Award at All India Law Teachers’ Congress in 2009?

M P Singh: Actually, I never expected it. My son received it on my behalf. It, of course, gives a good feeling. Frankly speaking, I do not know why this kind of feeling has developed that now I accept most of the positions because it will bring happiness to those offering them. They are not decorations for me. I do not think that it has added anything but I feel those who have appointed me, are happy that I have accepted it.

Raghul Sudheesh: What are your plans for future?

M P Singh: My plan basically is to read and write in my free time, not as exclusively as a job. Also I want to work in my village to encourage people to come up. I have always felt sad that while I could come to this stage, nobody else either in my family or even in the village has risen above a particular level. People stop at some level after becoming a policeman or a clerk or a technician.

Law is taught in Meerut College, but nobody can think of CLAT. I would like to do something for them. Jitholi is not too far from here!

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