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In Conversation with Professor Ved Kumari, Law Centre at Delhi University

In Conversation with Professor Ved Kumari, Law Centre at Delhi University

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With Professor Ved Kumari, it is the sheer pace of conversation that can be difficult to keep up. With a lilt that is ever so slight, her words veer from one topic to another, often dipping into the personal and then straying into the critical, the honest and the endearing. It has been thirty years since she joined Delhi University, specializing in child-related laws and clinical education.

Over the last three decades and more, she has been taught by some of the best academics the country has produced, conducted studies on juvenile homes in the country and outside, and even headed the Delhi Judicial Academy. So when she recounts her experiences, very often in a rush of words, it makes sense to pay attention.

Like many of her peers, law was not her first choice. After completing a B.A. in Political Science, she was ready to continue in the same stream. Her father though, thought otherwise.

My father was an Ayurvedic doctor and one of his clients would always tell him to make us study law. So I applied and just about scraped through; my name was on the fifth list of admissions! I remember that the list came out on my birthday so I always say that [law] was my destiny.

Even now, you can sense a certain amount of gratefulness at being admitted in the law department. And when she discusses her professors, you can understand why. In the late ‘70’s, Delhi University had some of the biggest names of Indian academia.

Everybody was superb here. DK Singh, who was teaching federalism, had impeccable knowledge. Then there was PK Tripathi but I never had the fortune to be taught by him. Stalwarts used to teach the LL.M. courses here like Lotika Sarkar, Upendra Baxi etc.

Ask her about Lotika Sarkar, and a broad smile appears. It is clear that the relationship between the two had evolved from student and teacher, to friend and confidante. As she rummages through her memories, the smile never falters.

We would be sitting in her room while she would fold her legs and curl up in her chair, ask you these questions with her big eyes and a cigarette in her hand. She would never worry about what people would think. For many of us, she was the woman idol.

Many years later, I asked Lotika Sarkar how it had felt to be a woman professor in Delhi University. And her reply was, “I never thought of myself as a woman professor. I was just a professor.”

Role models apart, what is interesting to note is that in those days, the LL.M. was considered far more intensive, difficult and challenging than the LL.B. course. Compare it to the current state of affairs where, at least for the newer national law universities, it is the undergraduate course that receives the maximum attention.

In 1978, the professor enrolled for the LL.M. course. It proved to be one of the most challenging phases of her life.

Oh you cannot imagine how challenging it was. I remember giving my comparative jurisprudence paper in the LL.M. course and for the next 18 hours, I did not move from my chair just looking at the notes that I had prepared. We had to fight over seats in the reading room because we didn’t have enough space.

It was a course where failure was accepted; in fact, it was the norm.

My seniors told me very categorically that if you passed you should be surprised. In my batch, only one of us cleared all the papers in the first attempt.

While enrolled in the course, she began making field trips to study juvenile homes. Although this was a great learning experience, it also taxed her at an emotional level.

There was one incident that has haunted me for close to two decades. I had these interview schedules with children in the homes. There was this little girl who said she would write down the answers herself. For me, what was troubling was the last answer. She had poured her heart out, comparing me to her mother. I was her only hope outside this home. And even though I had been very categorical to not raise any hopes of long-term communication, here was this little girl who was now calling me her mother. I was very traumatized.

It would take her several years to get over that particular memory, during which she continued to research on child-related laws. Some of her findings of the 1980’s were extremely worrying.

My finding then was, and it holds good today, that out of the 100 rupees for juvenile justice, they were spending 3% on care, protection, and rehabilitation. Close to 97% of the budget went on food, clothing and maintenance; essentially on feeding them and keeping them there.

Ask her why there has been little change over the past thirty years, and her answer reflects the holistic approach that law often requires.

I think the children’s lobby has not been very strong in this area. Law making is not an exercise in justice alone; it is a political exercise. I think there is much more a question of politicizing the issue.

I had done a comparison between the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 and the Juvenile Justice of 1986 (“JJ Act”) and how the language of the Supreme Court was so different with respect to two Acts. On one side, [the Supreme Court] issued contempt notices to Secretaries for non-implementation of the Consumer Protection Act. When it came to the JJ Act, the Court said, “We hope and trust the Secretaries” to implement the provisions. They were not saying this was contempt. So it is not only the legislators [who can be singled out].

The LL.M. course wasn’t only about academics and research though; it changed her life, her way of thinking and looking at the world.

For me, getting married was on my list. Then it became you marry because you want to marry; you marry if you can be equal. There was a lot of questioning taking place in the way you looked at life.

After completing her masters, she was hopeful of getting selected to an ad-hoc position in Delhi University. But she wasn’t, for reasons that had nothing to do with her merit. 

One day, the then professor in charge ran into me in the corridor and told me, “Oh you didn’t come to meet me.” He used to teach labour laws and there was no reason for me to meet him. But that was why I was not appointed.

And I was lucky that I didn’t get a job on an ad-hoc basis. This is something that continues till this day and means every six months you will be interviewed and you have to keep everybody in good humor to get it back again.

This particular policy of ad-hoc appointees has caused great friction between Kumari and the University administration, eventually leading to her resignation from the post of Professor-in-Charge.

In fact her resignation was brought about by the fact that ad-hoc appointments were not being made permanent because they were “not paying obeisance to the authorities”.

I think in some cases the senior faculty still has these feudal mannerisms. They think that if they are in charge, the ad-hocs must keep them in good humour. Mr. Sunil Gupta, who is now an associate professor, got his permanent positions after 13 years of teaching. And there are many of my colleagues like him here. It is such an exploitative position.

This is not her only grouse with the way the University is being run and certainly not the first time she has had a confrontation with the administration. Nor is it the only institute that Prof. Ved is critical about. Ask her about the Indian Law Institute and there is a touch of sadness in her reply.

I think one of the reasons [for the decline of ILI] was changing the nature of institution from one of research to teaching. This change was made without having faculty, without any space. And nowadays, the Director has no independence from the Supreme Court; earlier the judges could not rush over them.

But it is not the older institutes that she is critical of. When it comes to the national law universities, it is the lack of emphasis on research, and research methodologies that rankles her.

I have found the projects from these national law schools to be quite pathetic. And when you ask them about what their research methods were, what their sampling methods were, they have no idea what these terms even mean. Without teaching them research methodologies especially the social science research method, what kind of research are they producing?

The only research these 5-year law schools know is very good research on internet. Beyond that, they don’t know anything. And on the internet, it is Google followed by Wikipedia.

This lack of emphasis on research methodologies is not her only criticism of the five-year course. She is also skeptical of law being an undergraduate course, and the fact that the most law schools have an undeniably homogenous student body.

In my classroom I have a lot of expertise from different fields. I think the understanding and knowledge of the world is much more mature here. I think when you are just out of school you have a different worldview at that age. You are a young adult, you are discovering your own identity, and it is difficult to teach them at that age about other people’s identities and empathize with them. That is my sense of things.

And also most of these 5-year law school universities have a very homogenous class of people. Also, the law schools that I have gone to have such an arrogant atmosphere that only exceptional teachers will find recognition.   

Her opinion of the newer law schools then, is quite clear and eventually the conversation veers to her time as the head of the Delhi Judicial Academy. Not only did she have to fight entrenched notions and prejudices, she also realized that there was precious little she knew about judges as individuals.

Despite teaching law for so many decades, I had no idea what it means to be a judge. No one actually thinks about that what judges go through while writing judgments. Judges are supposed to only speak through their judgments so their worldview is completely hidden in the Indian scenario.

She would often shock them with her ideas, daring them to re-shape their thinking, and employing different ways to force them to think.

I used to wear bright clothes, skirts, and trousers. I would have my hair hanging loose (laughs). All that counts you know. We would have questions like can a woman judge wear a bikini on the beach. I did not even think about such questions but these were important question for judges. Who you can talk to, what you can talk about, are they a part of civil society or are they removed from this once they become a judge?

Perhaps the most difficult lesson to be taught related to the theory of precedents; it was difficult to, at the very least, be open to the possibility that the courts above have erred.

I think the theory of precedents is not very clearly understood; for them anything that the High Court or the Supreme Court says is binding.

In the 1980’s we would have a lot of references from Session Judges saying that they were in disagreement with a judgment of the High Court. But now, we don’t have that kind of strong judges who have faith in their belief. Also High Court judges don’t take it very nicely when they are being criticized.

The judges, in turn, taught her about the realities about being on the bench.

They are aware of injustice, of the delays. Everyone puts the blame of delays on the judiciary but there are times when a judge cannot do anything. Say the forensic report has not been filed, or the charge sheet has not been filed etc.

As the allotted time runs to an end, we discuss the teaching profession and whether she truly believes that things will change for the better. Her answer, like all the ones before, is straight from the heart.

I think teachers can ignite young minds. I am very idealistic in the sense I believe that this is the best profession where you can pass on the ideals, you can pass on the principles, and open the minds of people. You can’t change the world but you can change some lives and teaching gives you that opportunity.

This interview was conducted in February, 2014 at the Law Centre 1 in Delhi University. Premium readers can read the entire interview here.