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“Elites in India define themselves by social separation ” – Assistant Professor Ajay Gudavarthy
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“Elites in India define themselves by social separation ” – Assistant Professor Ajay Gudavarthy

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Ajay Gudavarthy is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Before joining JNU in 2006, he taught Political Science and Constitutional History at NUJS, Kolkata before shifting to NLSIU, Bangalore where he took courses on Political Obligation and Indian Politics. In this interview with Bar & Bench, Gudavarthy talks about the forced elitism of national law schools, the stigmatization of reservation and the new politics of the Aam Aadmi Party.

Bar & Bench: In 2001, you got your first teaching assignment at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. Two years later, you shifted to National Law School, Bangalore where you taught political science. How were these experiences?

Ajay Gudavarthy: Teaching at NUJS was very interesting; interesting in two senses. One, the students were extremely bright, so to teach social science to such a bright lot in India was itself a unique experience. In conventional universities, you really don’t get that kind of quality [of students].

But the bigger challenge was also that [the students] were socially a bit removed. Some came from fairly elite backgrounds although when I actually began to enquire, I realized they were not from that kind of an elite background. But once they come on campus they almost imagined that they came from an elite background. And one of the markers of being elite, and this I noticed both at NUJS and NLSIU, was to be socially uprooted. I think it was a very conscious effort on the part of students to be socially removed. So it was an interesting teaching environment. 

Bar & Bench: This is something you referred to in the piece you wrote for The Hindu in 2004. How did you overcome this challenge?

Ajay Gudavarthy: Well in the classroom you could raise various questions and issues because the students were bright. One could introduce complex text, raise the level of discussion etc but the problem occurred when you wanted to connect it to reality. For instance I used to teach political philosophy and students were happy to discuss Rawls. But if you said that Rawls policy supported reservation, they would be completely against it. The entire class would say that they were opposed to reservation.

Bar & Bench: In the same piece, you also wrote about the remarkable levels of transparency in law school administration.

Ajay Gudavarthy: Yes, NLSIU had an extremely transparent mechanism. Being the first [national law school] I think it started with some idea of building an institution of superlative success. I think Prof Menon had that idea in mind. If you look at NLS in fact, it even had a tinge of academic orientation. Other law schools lacked a research component and for many of us this was a major disincentive.

Bar & Bench: In that same piece, you write that, “Relationships between the students themselves appear to be driven by a sense of extreme competitiveness and indifference.”

Ajay Gudavarthy: Yes and the problem is that this indifference was not really an organic indifference. In Indian law schools, there is this marker of being “elite”. I think students were under tremendous pressure to maintain this attitude A lot of students came from very middle class backgrounds and it was only a small, creamy section consisting of sons and daughters of leading lawyers, industrialists or bureaucrats. I think the tone and tenor was set by these elite.

Bar & Bench: And how did this elitism reflect itself? As a teacher, were these specific instances that you observed?

Ajay Gudavarthy: When at NUJS for instance, I invited leading lawyer and civil rights expert, Dr. K Balagopal for a talk. What do you expect from an institution when you are inviting such an individual, a leading human rights activist and a lawyer? There should be general curiosity at least.

I would expect that here in JNU, students would have come in large numbers, engaged with him and disagreed. But at NUJS it was a completely dull atmosphere and they did not know who he was. Even after introducing him, there was very little engagement. It was a kind of forced interaction almost. But you cannot compel students to question or to engage, can you?

It is very difficult to survive for too long in such an institution.

Bar & Bench: Thoughts on extremely competitive nature of law schools?

Ajay Gudavarthy: This whole idea of being very competitive is one that drives them. And within students themselves as well, the inter-personal relations are very competitive.

Bar & Bench: Competition for what?

Ajay Gudavarthy: Partly, as I said, it is very imaginary. And partly it is for these corporate jobs. They have these placement slots. If you are in the first 5 ranks, you get placed here, the next twenty ranks there etc. It was quite overwhelming on campus. The only thing that really interested and motivated them outside of class was moot courts.

But again, this was almost always to add to their CV’s and help them when they apply for jobs. The whole thing was very structured, very formalistic. “What adds to my CV?” is what they often ask themselves.

Bar & Bench: And how should it have been?

Ajay Gudavarthy: You see the purpose why national law schools were started was because legal practice and legal education was in a bad shape in India. There was no academic spirit, no good students etc but unfortunately these national law schools have become like a recruitment center for corporates.

Many of my students are still in touch with me and I don’t think they are enjoying what they are doing. In that Hindu piece I have written that this is like a new kind of a brain drain. It is not that you are pulling them out of the country but within the country you are not giving them something challenging to do. They are a bright lot no doubt, but you are giving them glorified clerical posts in corporate firm.

Many of my students themselves feel that this is not very challenging, it is monotonous but then they also say that they feel trapped – some say they have educational loans for instance.

Bar & Bench: In a 2012 piece on the global ranking of educational institutions, you wrote, “[Student loans] render them perpetual bonded labourers of the market” Do you think Indian law schools also suffer from this?

Ajay Gudavarthy: Yes, we are heading in that direction. Now one of the solutions is to put education outside the market. Education has to be funded by the State and not personally funded that too at such a high cost. Why should NLSIU or NUJS charge such high fees? Is there any justification for this?

And even if they want to raise funds from within, it has to be in proportion to who can afford, how much they can afford, what kind of students you require etc.

But that is just a part of the problem. In my opinion, law schools represent one of the worst kinds of culture in higher education.

Bar & Bench: Why do you say that?

Ajay Gudavarthy: Because of this entire idea of being elite. It is a very self-conscious move for institutions that are not elite by their social composition but want to look very elitist.

IIT’s have a natural sense of being elite institutions, so do IIM’s. So students are more relaxed in these institutions. I have taught at some of them and the students would really engage in class. IIM students are socially very sensitive. There was a fair amount of interest, of being socially tuned. They know what is happening around them but you don’t find that in law students at all.

And this is a very self consciously taught idea of what it means to be elite. That you have to be socially removed, that every day things in society don’t matter. Because elites in India define themselves by social separation – how different are they from the ordinary or how distinct they are. I think something somewhere went wrong with the law school experiment.

Bar & Bench: Do you think greater reservation is one possible solution?

Ajay Gudavarthy: See you need reservation but the kind of pressure these students face in campus is terrible. I have personally known cases where reservations have been completely stigmatized, completely silenced; there is no open debate or rather there is just a single debate.

If you come to a campus like JNU, there are different voices; people are at least willing to listen to each other. If I look at my classes in JNU, students are looking to discuss several issues, there are agreements and disagreements.

Bar & Bench: And do you think this is directly due to JNU’s reservation policies?

Ajay Gudavarthy: Well it certainly affects the social composition. In JNU there is one section that is elite, which is strongly against reservation for instance. But you can see a change [in them] from the second semester onwards. The campus opens them up, they realize that there are other voices, why reservation policies exist etc. And that makes the campus vibrant and I think education institutions must be vibrant.

Bar & Bench: Sticking with the reservation question, in a speech given in Osmania University, you said that the very debate of reservation is seen as a sort of “compromise” and that it is a very “Brahmanical understanding” of the issue at hand.

Ajay Gudavarthy: My argument there was more on the way we are pursuing reservation. See reservation is necessary but what I was saying was that at a certain point, [reservation] is becoming counter productive. The idea that reservation and merit are dichotomized is something that needs to be relooked.

Those who get reservation also need to be meritorious in the system. It is not that reservation should mean that merit is bogus etc. Reservation is just enabling individuals to enter the system. But once you enter, you cannot say that there is nothing else left. The purpose of reservation is to realize one’s highest potential.

Bar & Bench: How do you think reservations for students be implemented? Should there be any changes in the current model?

Ajay Gudavarthy: See the current model has the problem of protection until the students enter. But once they enter they do not have any enabling practices in the university. For example in JNU, many students come with linguistic challenges such as speaking English.

So you give them reservation, ask them to join the institution and then tell them to compete with the rest! And teachers are faced with a kind of dilemma every day. You know a student has certain problems but then how do you evaluate? You can’t say, I will give him a good grade since he is from such and such caste. There are no institutional mechanisms to address these kinds of problems.

Also one should realize that it is not merely the University that contributes towards the student. If these students perform to their potential, they will contribute to the merit of the institution. They will expand the base of the institution. Some students come from remote areas. Suppose they bring information on new kinds of tribes – isn’t that an expansion of the knowledge system?

So my argument in that speech was about combining reservation with merit. I argued that this combination actually leads to the expansion of the knowledge base. But this can only take place provided you have these institutional mechanisms in place. Otherwise it will be an “either or” situation – either you have merit or you have reservation. And that is just stigmatizing the student.

Bar & Bench: This is a completely separate issue but you have also written about judicial pronouncements. Do you think the judiciary also suffers from being far removed from reality?

Ajay Gudavarthy: Reality – I don’t know. I think judges carry their prejudices into to their judgment and one has to realize that. I don’t think there is anything purely legal that works in the Indian context.  I don’t think they go purely by law as such but also by their political preferences. In fact I am pushing all my students to study this. Judgments will almost always be in tune with the political mood of the country. Very rarely will you have judgments that are not in tune with the popular mood of the country.

Bar & Bench: One last question unrelated to law schools – what is your opinion on Kejriwal and the AAP?

Ajay Gudavarthy: See it’s a new phenomenon as far as the institutional practices of election are concerned. They have introduced newcomers to fight election, internal accountability, the way they relate to the electorate – there is a whole bunch of electoral practices that are fairly new; which we always aspire for but nobody did it. To that extent, it’s a new experiment.

But in terms of the politics of Kejriwal, it is again like the judiciary, you don’t know where they stand. You have a Prashant Bhushan who takes a certain position on Kashmir to someone like Kumar Vishwas who has his own views on sexual minorities and women.

And they are taking the repeated argument that they will take position when they arrive at the situation or that they are post-ideological which I don’t think is true. They have come up on the wave of anti-Congress wave that is happening. Corruption is a big issue but they have made it very symbolic. Today, they have framed it in such a way that everyone can draw whatever meaning they want from the idea of corruption.

For example, if you come to Vasant Kunj where I live not having enough parking space is corruption. They will say, “Corruption ke kaaran there is no proper planning. (There is no proper planning because of corruption)” If you go to the slum areas, inflation is because of corruption. That is the appeal of the AAP and why they have won in both posh colonies of South Delhi as well as reserved constituencies. But how long can such symbolism be sustained?

Bar & Bench: Coming back to law schools, what are your thoughts on  legal aid clinics?

Ajay Gudavarthy: Menon had started that but they are all so formalistic. It is just one more thing to add to your CV. And you can see the clear hierarchy – the bright lot never go [for legal aid clinics]. It’s the middle and lower lot who go for such programs, human rights (laughs) etc. You already have a varna system in law schools, you are already stigmatized within law schools.

Therefore, the whole attitude to education is very instrumental. Knowledge can never be instrumental. You can have links to the market but in law school it is completely reduced to an instrumentality. For any course a student will ask, “What do I get out of it?” or “What will my CV look like?” etc.

And then you have these internships, corporate firms in the fourth year, human rights in the second year. Worse, you will think that these two (corporate and human rights) are unrelated. And this is reflected in the curriculum itself. How is human rights unrelated to competition law? Or labour law unrelated to constitutional law? And these subjects are also taught like that; the faculty also imagines that this is the case. You take the brightest faculty, she will be teaching corporate law, the less bright, human rights. And social sciences are even further reduced, further stigmatized (laughs).

You have to complete social science subjects in the first year itself – what kind of a bizarre logic is this? And that is where I had a lot of arguments with Prof. Menon. Can you understand Constitutional law without understanding colonial history? But in law school they can understand; they have this unique methodology of understanding everything by itself (laughs)

I think law concretizes the entire human experience. Therefore every legal provision would have multiple links to sociology philosophy, history, ideas of justice etc. But the way we have reduced teaching law in this country.

Bar & Bench: Are you a cynic?

Ajay Gudavarthy: (laughs) Oh no, I am only reading the situation as it exists. It is not a question of cynicism. You need to have a different approach to teaching law. You cannot have this kind of instrumental approach where students are just not equipped to link things. Ask the average law student what is the link between social science and competition law. I doubt they will actually find any meaning in that question.

Talk to students and you will know what are the courses they consider important or valuable. Why does this happen? Why this kind of hierarchy?

A good competition lawyer should also go for a sociological education. Any sociological study will tell you that all corporates have caste-based discrimination. Recently my colleagues conducted a number of interviews across several corporates and they discovered a completely silent exclusion of Dalits and OBCs. Now if a law school student is working in a corporate law firm or a corporate, how can s/he be bereft of or completely blind to this social phenomenon?

Obviously these are linked – how corporate law works is linked to what kind of society we are in. But I don’t think law schools are equipping students to make these kind of linkages.

This interview was conducted in Delhi on January 24, 2014. It is the first of a multi-part series of interviews of faculty members teaching at institutes other than National Law Schools. The next published interview will be that of Prof. H Pithawalla from the Government Law College, Mumbai.