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Conversation with Prof Krishan Mahajan Dean School of Law at National Law University-Orissa

Conversation with Prof Krishan Mahajan Dean School of Law at National Law University-Orissa

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Professor Krishan Mahajan is currently Dean, School of Law at the National Law University, Orissa (NLU-O). The CLC graduate has also been one of the country’s most prolific legal journalists, working with national dailies such as the Indian Express and Hindustan Times. In this talk with Associate Editor, Anuj Agrawal, Prof. Mahajan talks about the transition from journalist to lawyer, the declining ethics in the judicial set up and the state of legal journalism in the country.

Bar & Bench: When did you join the Profession?

Krishan Mahajan: Well, it is a bit of long story. After graduating from Campus Law Faculty, Delhi in 1977, I was selected by the erstwhile Delhi Cloth & General Mills (DCM) as a senior management trainee. So I joined that and underwent a full-fledged, hands-on management training program. I worked right from the shop floor to the Board of Directors and we were doing projects for which we went over the heads of the general managers of the units. We had to then defend our projects in annas and paisa before the Board of Directors.

Bar & Bench: And from there you shifted to law?

Krishan Mahajan: No. Although DCM was extremely selective about its recruits, I felt that it lacked the organisational structure to absorb such people. So I decided to evaluate my choices. The moment I finished the training, I got out from there and came to journalism.

I started as an Assistant Editor with the Press Institute of India (working with Chanchal Sirkar). I cut my teeth in terms of designing the page, handling photos etc. It was a real hands-on experience. I also worked in a magazine which had the top British editors writing for you and then you had to edit their copy.

And then from there on I worked as a journalist for the then European Economic Community. I was based in Paris, working there for a year. It was then that I realised that we in India are so far behind when it came to legal knowledge.

So I wrote to four of the top law schools in the US, seeking a scholarship for an LLM. I chose Columbia Law School because, even though they offered the poorest scholarship, they had the subjects that I was interested in and also the Professors that I wanted. So I went there and specialised in development law, and law and economics.

Bar & Bench: And what did you do after that?

Krishan Mahajan: I came back to India after that. At that point of time, the Indian Express had a towering editor in the form of S. Mulgaonkar. He was the one who saw to it that the paper continued despite the Emergency etc. Mulgaonkar was being supported by some industrialists to establish a think tank like the ones in the United States.

He told me “Don’t waste your life being a journalist” (laughs) and he asked me whether I was interested in setting up this think tank. I told him that I was interested in studying land reforms in rural India and he said “Okay. Chart out your program and tell me how much money you need. That is all.”

Bar & Bench: Sounds like a dream run!

Krishan Mahajan: Absolutely! I went from village to village (in Bihar and coastal Andhra Pradesh) and did a series of studies on land reforms. The studies were published but for some reason, the think tank idea never really worked out.

At that stage, George Verghese used to be in Hindustan Times (HT). He said “We need somebody in the Supreme Court as a legal correspondent. Why don’t you join us?” And so I joined HT as a legal correspondent.

At HT, I wanted to start a legal column [which was to be called “Legal Perspectives”]. When my Editor heard of this plan, he said “Are you daft. Who wants to read a legal column every week?” I said, “Look, I am not charging you anything. If it works, you have a gold mine and if it does not, you can always shut it down. And the damn thing worked so well that every paper was compelled to have a weekly column! 

Nowadays no paper is complete unless  it has a legal column. So that is how “Legal Perspectives” started and we really shook up the Supreme Court.

Bar & Bench: In what way?

Krishan Mahajan: There were many [judicial] appointments that we managed to expose and derail.

Bar & Bench: But how did you get access to such information?

Krishan Mahajan: I was there, round the clock, meeting people, speaking to lawyers etc.

Bar & Bench: And how did you manage to evade contempt proceedings?

Krishan Mahajan: That is where the writing skills come in as do the legal skills: the ability to write in such a manner that you can transmit the information and yet escape contempt proceedings. Otherwise, there is also the basic power of truth: the bed rock of any journalist.

I also started a law and business column and this also took off. The columns became a national hit and then of course the marketing team got interested.

It was at that stage that I got an offer from Viveck Goenka of the Indian Express. They asked me what I wanted and I told them that I want a full fledged Law Bureau. I also wanted a Bureau Chief and a National Law Editor. As for money, I knew they would pay me enough.

Bar & Bench: How big was your team?

Krishan Mahajan: We were about five people in the Legal News Bureau. I started as the Bureau Chief in Delhi and I would virtually go without sleep for days. Throughout the day, I was in the Supreme Court. After that I was clearing news that came in from all the twenty-seven editions of the Indian Express. And remember those chaps were not legally trained so you had to be careful to avoid contempt proceedings etc.

So I would be there till three in the morning and then at seven-thirty, the editors meeting would be held. And then we were on to the next day. Of course, [the Indian] Express would provide us with facilities such as bathrooms and breakfast.

After about a year, we virtually changed the face of the Indian Express. We just took over! They gave us one whole page dedicated to law. Eventually I became National Law Editor for law.

Bar & Bench: What drove you on?

Krishan Mahajan: I wanted to show that law not only makes for good reporting and good business but that it is necessary for the public to be informed of such matters. You could say that it was almost a mission for me. I also sat with the correspondent of The Hindu and framed the accreditation rules for the Supreme Court. They were approved and they are still in force. I also fought for access to Court records, free cause lists… was a gradual process.

I fought with almost every Editor at that time to grant a special correspondents grade to all legal correspondents. And all legal correspondents were granted that grade.

Bar & Bench: Sorry, what does this “special correspondent” grade means?

Krishan Mahajan: A special correspondent is the highest level of pay. You are part of the Bureau and not one of the reporters. Earlier all correspondents were treated as reporters but I really pushed for this change and it worked out. Today, for example, the special correspondent for the Times of India, who is the legal correspondent in the Supreme Court, enjoys a package of Rs. 1.25 lakh a month.

Bar & Bench: What was the reaction of the judiciary to all of this?

Krishan Mahajan: Well, they could not really do much!

Bar & Bench: And how did you end up as a practicing lawyer?

Krishan Mahajan: I had 15 years of journalistic experience and then I started practicing as a lawyer. This was primarily thanks to the influence of one man, Chief Justice Venakatchalia. He even told my wife “This chap is wasting his life.” (laughs) And so I started practicing and I did all sorts of matters from civil to criminal, matrimonial, arbitrations, commercial etc. I was made amicus in quite a few matters as well.

Bar & Bench: What were some of the difficulties you faced?

Krishan Mahajan: So long as I was honest and straightforward, it was alright. So long as I did not chase and run after what other lawyers were running after, it was alright. I knew what I had to do to get work, build contacts etc. but I made a conscious decision not to go after the big money. You see, it is inherently impossible that such huge amounts of money can come with honesty. In that sense, maybe I was abnormal in the profession.

And also I wanted to show my colleagues, my juniors in the profession, and others that it is possible to live in this profession honestly. It is possible to live without selling your values, your honesty, and doing something which makes you feel uncomfortable.

Bar & Bench: And what made you leave the profession?

Krishan Mahajan: Morally, it had come to a point where it had almost become impossible to earn a honest living. You used to have judges who would take special care about people who do not run after money. They used to honour them, respect them. I think this has changed a lot and such judges are reducing in number. And this is especially true the higher up you go in the judicial hierarchy. I was finding it almost impossible to live in a city like Delhi.

So then I had to rethink life. And I also had to rethink life in terms of my age. So I began to wonder what I could do with the skills I had managed to pick up so far. I began to think whether I could train younger people and provide them with some sort of practical teachings.

Bar & Bench: And how did NLU-O happen? What are your plans at NLU-O?

Krishan Mahajan: Even when this offer [to join NLU-O] came from the Vice Chancellor in 2008, it took me about a year to decide. It was a difficult decision to leave my home and step into something which is so uncertain.

We at NLU-O are trying to give young people an alternative; a plan that allows them to help society and have a good standard of living. So there is a possibility of changing the normal, commercial structure of the legal profession and therefore changing the choices that a law student will have at the end of five years. 

Bar & Bench: So right now, what is your opinion about legal news?

Krishan Mahajan: Legal news is in a very bad shape.

Bar & Bench: Why?

Krishan Mahajan: You do not have editors who recognise legal news. For instance when I was there in Indian Express, for the first time in the history of the paper, the Goenkas chose to market one, single journalist. So I said there must be some benefit for you in this because I am surely not getting anything (laughs).

So they conducted an all-India marketing campaign, saying that we (Indian Express) are the premier legal information paper in the country. And they did it massively and it really worked.

Bar & Bench: So why have things changed now?

Krishan Mahajan: Now, nobody wants to do this kind of marketing. I think legal correspondents have become too comfortable, in terms of money. In our times, we used to get 10,000 rupees as salary. I did not have a car so I used to do everything on foot. Supreme Court to [the Indian] Express [office] on foot, Supreme Court to HT on foot and I used to make it a point, while I was there at HT, to catch even the “Daak Edition”.

Bar & Bench: What is the “daak” edition?

Krishan Mahajan: The “daak” edition goes out at eleven-thirty in the morning that very day, so that it can be sent to remote places such as states in the north-eastern region of the country.  So if there is some important news, it must reach the “daak” edition to reach the North East. Eventually we built a working relationship with the Desk. The Desk realised that they were getting very good news from the Supreme Court, ahead of anyone else and they would wait for me till twelve, twelve fifteen…till the very last moment that would be possible for them.

Bar & Bench: With the advent of technology isn’t it easier to transmit news quickly?

Krishan Mahajan: But now it is not done.

Bar & Bench: Why?

Krishan Mahajan: You see there are two things: Either you have a correspondent who has a passion within who says that “People have a right to the news and they must get it first.” And he should have pride in the fact that he is sending such information. Now this drive is completely missing these days.

The other thing is that you have a demand from the Editor, saying “What the hell? Where is my story?”

The problem with Indian legal journalism is that none of our Editors know the law, they are not trained in the law, and none of them actually have an idea of what courts actually do. They have never been inside a courtroom except perhaps when there is some sensational, political case going on.

Also they are unaware of the crucial role played by courts in the country. One decision by the Supreme Court can change the entire market. You cannot imagine the kind of impact courts can have.

Bar & Bench: Do you think law schools should focus on something which could improve this situation?

Krishan Mahajan: Well, we have a mass communication course [at NLU-O]. We might even start a full-fledged course on legal journalism. We may even be able to launch our own legal newspaper so that our students actually have a place to put their teachings into practice.

Bar & Bench: Do you have any advice for law students interested in journalism?

Krishan Mahajan: Legal journalism is a fascinating profession. At the same time, I feel that a law student should not immediately think about careers. It will take the student at least 2-3 years to arrive at what he is passionate about. Law school is a process of self-discovery.

And if he has worked hard and understood the logic of law then he will have no problems dealing with law in any field. It does not matter which field he is working in, he will do well. But first of all he has to discover himself, what is it that he is passionate about. Once he discovers that, the route is laid out [in front of him].