Of resilience, grit and perseverance: How an RMLNLU security guard cracked AIBE to become a lawyer

Santosh Verma shares what inspired him to pursue law, how he struggled to afford the enrolment fees and what the future holds for him.
Santosh Verma
Santosh Verma

The announcement of this year's All India Bar Examination (AIBE) results marked a defining moment in the life of Santosh Verma, who spent the last nine years working as a security guard at the Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University (RMLNLU), Lucknow.

Having faced the difficulties of marginalisation in many forms, Verma's path to studying law and clearing the AIBE was no mean feat. At one point in time, he was working four jobs a day and traveling long distances to attend law school in Lucknow University.

In this interview with Bar & Bench's Jelsyna Chacko, Verma shares what inspired him to pursue law, how he struggled to afford the enrolment fees and what the future holds for him.

Born and brought up in a small village in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, Verma spent his formative years helping his father, who was a labourer at a construction site and his uncle, who was a labourer at a plastic factory. In 2003, when he was just 16 years old, he was married off. Having failed the 10th board exams, Verma came to Lucknow and engaged in odd jobs to sustain himself.

He completed his 10th and 12th much later on in life, when he received encouragement to do so. He went on to complete his graduation in Political Science from SLBS College, Gonda, and after a year-long break, he earned a Master's degree in Political Science in 2012. Soon after this degree, he began working as a security guard at a mall.

Santosh Verma when he newly came to Lucknow as a 16 year old in 2003
Santosh Verma when he newly came to Lucknow as a 16 year old in 2003

How disability shattered his dreams of joining the Army

Verma’s decision to take up the job of a security guard was driven by his underlying passion to join the Armed Forces. This interest was sparked when he witnessed his neighbour’s son join the Army and uplift the status of their family to provide them a more comfortable life. However, with a disability of around 5-7% owing to a fracture sustained in his teen years, along with bent fingers since birth, he was advised against chasing this dream. 

“I was told there is no use of training for the Army since I would not surpass the medical fitness stage. I always wanted to wear a uniform and work, so I fulfilled that wish by being a security guard.”

Santosh Verma in the security guard uniform
Santosh Verma in the security guard uniform

The law beckons

After Verma's father passed away, he found himself in an unending series of legal battles inflicted by his kith and kin, who along with their neighbors, allegedly made deliberate attempts to have police cases filed against him. He realised that it was in his best interest to stay away from the village and secure his future by studying and working hard.

"I’ve been living in Lucknow and barely go to my home village due to various family-related complications and inheritance issues as well as disturbances created by my neighbors. I knew that if I want to secure my future, I have to leave behind my village. After my father’s death, my younger brother transferred all the property in his name and sold all my mother’s jewellery. Some of my wife’s belongings were also taken from us and he bought two plots to his name. I was left in the middle of nowhere and my younger brother along with the neighbours conspired to make my life difficult. They would get into physical fights with me even if I was just passing by, and just generally made my life miserable." 

Amidst this chaos, it was a matter of serendipity that Verma was passing by an exhibition of Dr BR Ambedkar's books when he chanced on the abridged version of the Constitution of India. Glancing through the chapter on Fundamental Rights made him realise that being armed with the knowledge of his rights would ensure that no one took advantage of him.

“I got inspired to study law because I realised having this knowledge would guard against my neighbours and family members taking advantage of me and exploiting me.”

The struggle to secure his future

In 2013, while continuing his duty as a security guard at a mall and working at a cyber cafe, Verma decided to enrol himself in Narvadeshwar Law College (NVM), Lucknow University for the three-year law course.

He recalls the gruelling routine he had to go through in order to fulfill his dream to become a lawyer.

“When I began working in the mall as security guard, my night duty ended at 6 AM, and I got ready in the mall itself for college. I would return to my Bade Papa's (uncle’s) house at around 5 PM and rest up till my duty hours, which started at 10 PM. Once duty hours ended, I would once again go to college by train and would sleep on the journey most times. Sometimes, the train would go to Kanpur and I would wake up only then at the last stop, which invariably made me miss college and work for that day, and the cycle repeated."

A year later, he was given the chance to be a security guard at RMLNLU, Lucknow. The opportunity to be surrounded by fellow law students instilled in him the zeal to see this dream through to its logical end.

Then, tragedy struck. After he graduated from law school in 2016, one of Verma’s 5 daughters was diagnosed with a brain tumor for which she was hospitalised for two years until she breathed her last around 2018. In order to sustain his family during this period and to deal with the exigencies, Verma continued working as a security guard with RMLNLU, at a cyber cafe and did other odd jobs intermittently.

Around this time, Verma began doing clerical work at a lawyer's chambers.

"I rendered administrative assistance and would manage to make about ₹50-60 in a day. However, given the measly amounts at the lawyer’s office, I had no option but to keep my job as a security guard where I earned about ₹6,500-7,500 per month from 2013-2017, along with working at the cyber cafe, where I managed to make about ₹100-200 per day.”

Despite Verma’s relentless efforts to make ends meet, he was unable to enroll for the AIBE since he could not afford to spend ₹14,000 for the exam registration. 

“As of today, there is no rule for exemption of fees for those who cannot afford it. So I continued working with the senior, as a security guard and at the cyber cafe as well, where I used to engage in typing jobs,” he said.

After saving up enough, Verma registered for the AIBE exam in 2022 and cleared the same in his first attempt. His elation knew no bounds when he realised he could now apply for a Certificate of Practice and pursue the legal profession full-time.

After nine years of working as a security guard, on Tuesday, Verma decided to take a leap of faith and resign from his job. Reminiscing his times at RMLNLU, Verma recalled,

“I often discussed my ongoing legal dispute with the students of RMLNLU, who encouraged me to fight my own legal tussles and get enrolled with the State Bar Council for the same. I used my savings to get enrolled and in order to sustain the validity of the same, began working at a lawyer’s chamber in the evenings."

Santosh Verma at the cyber cafe
Santosh Verma at the cyber cafe

However, he now faces a new set of challenges. Sharing an overview of how unsustainable it has so far been working with at lawyer’s chambers, Verma said,

“Sometimes I made about ₹100 from the office. But it was still very difficult to survive with this money especially since I had a family to feed and take care of my daughter. Even after graduating from law school, I had to continue the job for my sick daughter as well as to clear my debt. I was practicing law but I barely got any money from my seniors and that was not enough to survive and support my family. Since I was already enrolled with the Bar Council, I was practicing with a lawyer alongside my part-time jobs. If I didn’t continue my practice, I would have to show cause to the Bar Council for my inactivity. I was working almost 16 hours a day for two decades and got sick.” 

He continues,

“I registered in 2021 for AIBE. But the inadequacy of pay is what made joining this profession incredibly tough. In Lucknow, if you are with a very good senior you will be lucky to get ₹200 per day, but that is very rare. But even this is a very measly amount to survive. At the cyber cafe, if I took up extra typing work, I used to make an additional ₹30-40. As a security guard, only after my salary increased to ₹10,000 I could survive better while doing the other part-time jobs I was doing.

Since BCI Rules do not allow you to work in a private company while being enrolled, I was working with a third party contractor for the security guard job. So, while there were no benefits that I was eligible for that are otherwise applicable to employees, I at least earned a lumpsum amount and got to don the uniform."

Regarding his plans for the journey ahead, Verma shared, 

“Right now, I want to pursue the legal profession full throttle and work only this one job instead of constantly juggling between multiple, and for that purpose, I am trying to get a Certificate of Practice. While I do want to keep working at the current lawyer’s chamber where I am a junior lawyer, if the pay continues to be low, I will have to look for a different senior. My age is not taken into account when working at the chamber. I am seen as a fresher right out of law school due to limited relevant experience so far. Even if I get ₹10,000/- at a lawyer's Chamber I will be able to sustain my family and myself. I am currently in talks with a few lawyers' offices regarding the same and am hopeful to land a suitable chamber.” 

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