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Prof Nigam Nuggehalli teaches at the School of Policy and Governance at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. After teaching in a number of universities, both in India and abroad, the former tax lawyer will now be a faculty for APU’s soon to be launched LLM course in Law & Development.
In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, Nuggehalli talks legal degrees in India, continuing legal education and more.
Aditya AK: What brought you to Azim Premji University?
Prof Nigam Nuggehalli: I think a bunch of us have come here for the same reason. We felt that we were at a stage where we wanted to do something new in legal education, outside of the national law school framework. We felt that something was missing in Indian legal education.
Speaking for myself, I was in New York and London for the last 16 years; I had taught in London for around 6 years. Similarly, my other senior colleagues Sudhir Krishnaswamy and Arun Thiruvengadam have studied and taught abroad and come back for similar reasons.
The school we are a part of is not just about legal education, but also about policy and governance, and we feel that all of these are connected.
Aditya AK: Could you tell us about the new LLM programme?
Nigam Nuggehalli: We intend to start the programme this July and it is going to be a 1-year course. Through this LLM, we are trying to develop a legal pedagogy that has not been focussed on yet. We feel that legal education in general hasn’t redeemed the pledge made to law students many years ago, in that lawyers will be connected with society.
Law schools said that they would make lawyers social engineers, which meant that we would have lawyers coming out of law schools who are given an opportunity to engage on issues like social justice and development. We felt that this has not been done, and even if it has, not in an elaborate, truly committed way.
So substantively speaking, we want to develop an LLM which would focus on issues like social justice and development. In fact, we have termed our course as an LLM in Law and Development.
Procedurally speaking, we felt that the law schools were focussing too much on the doctrinal view of law, which is basically black-letter law. We thought it was important to give students an experiential view of law. We want to expose students at the post-graduate level to a serious inquiry into how law is practiced.
We have a compulsory legal research methods course and a year-long clinical course. There are clinical courses in law schools, but both you and I know that they haven’t been taken as seriously as they should be. We expect students to start projects concurrently with the programme.
The other main difference is that we want students to apply the law properly. Writing and articulating your views persuasively, the traditional skills of a lawyer, have not been focussed on in [Indian] law schools. Law schools have projects, but it is something not taken very seriously. Even if it is taken seriously, the ability of the project to garner the student’s attention throughout the semester is quite tough. We intend to change that; we expect our students to do a dissertation-length paper. That way, the students will not only be able to engage with law and justice issues experientially, but also apply the law in an articulate and persuasive manner.
Aditya AK: What do you think we can learn from foreign universities to improve our post-graduate courses?
Nigam Nuggehalli: For me, the primary difference was the ability to write; I think students here need to learn that ability through practice, as well as close supervision. It is the same case at the professor level; good writing is missing in our law schools.
Another thing was that when I was talking about social justice issues in the UK, the depth and breadth of the understanding required to talk about it was quite a revelation for me. Sometimes, in India, we tend to be a bit superficial while talking about these issues, and that is something we need to change. Public policy and governance issues, which are closely allied with legal issues need a more careful, in-depth analysis.
Aditya AK: What are your research interests?
Nigam Nuggehalli: We have a variety of research interests here. There is a huge focus of the public law aspect. Sudhir, Arun and Sitharam are all public lawyers; they have worked extensively in Constitutional law and Administrative law. I bring the private law perspective to the faculty; I research and teach in Commercial law. My work experience is in the field of Tax law, especially International Tax Law. My PhD in Oxford was in Legal and Political Philosophy. We cover a wide gamut of areas here, but our strength is public law and governance.
Aditya AK: What are your views on Continuing Legal Education? Should it be made mandatory in India?
Nigam Nuggehalli: It is important. The law in many areas of Indian jurisprudence is evolving at such a pace that it is difficult to keep up with. My area, which is tax law, evolves almost on a daily basis, in terms of legislations, circulars, and judicial pronouncements from the ITAT.
Even if you look at Administrative Law, you have judgments coming from the Supreme Court and various High Courts every day. As a lawyer, it is very important to update yourself.
Continuing Legal Education can also be used to benefit the younger lawyers by improving their drafting and advisory skills. We have to be very careful of how we do this, though. I have done it in the US, and I have seen it in the UK, and sometimes those programmes are just pro forma. You just sit in front of a computer for a few hours and you’re done. We must make sure that this doesn’t happen in India. We already have precedent – the Chartered Accountants have a similar programme. They have ready attendance at those programmes, and they do it in an effective way.
Aditya AK: How has the role of a teacher changed in the information age?
Nigam Nuggehalli: I think it’s helped the teachers as well. I am able to gather the latest information on my subject faster, and that helps me teach better. I am sometimes scared when I give out writing assignments; I know my students have ready access to information and therefore may not engage with the assignments in the same way that I did when I was a student. But by designing our questions in the assignments, I think we can take care of that problem.
Legal technology, especially in terms of research, is a big plus, both for academics and for students. Now, issues like plagiarism and cut-paste jobs can be better addressed through two ways. Firstly, through dissemination of information, students can be informed about it; many students were not aware of how serious the issue is. Secondly, from the perspective of the teacher, we have to make sure that the questions we ask are not those the students can find off-the-shelf answers to. They have to be able to think through the questions.
Technology is also important for me, as an academic, to keep in touch with what other academics are doing. Not just in terms of accessing their articles, but engaging with them. For example, in the field of International Taxation, the OECD and G20 have come up with new guidelines called the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) guidelines. There are many articles written about this and many conferences taking place to discuss, and I have ready access to these thanks to technology.
Aditya AK: How does a university attract good faculty?
Nigam Nuggehalli: I think the most important thing for attracting faculty is a convivial academic atmosphere. It is important that you are comfortable with your peer group at an academic level and a personal level. At APU, we are trying to create an atmosphere where we are able to grow together academically. We have weekly internal faculty seminars, where one of the faculty comes and presents a paper, and they get constructive feedback from the other faculty members. I don’t think that happens in any other law school in India.
I don’t think that good salaries alone will attract good faculty. It is a component, but I don’t think it is the main factor. Like every other university, we also face a problem of attracting quality faculty. But our solution to that is to create a conducive working environment where everyone can grow as academics.
Aditya AK: What is your take on the update in the budget which suggests charging senior advocates 14% service tax?
Nigam Nuggehalli: Senior advocates and doctors are some of the few people who were outside the service tax net, so I think the government was ultimately going to charge service tax on every service activity! My personal view is that we are going overboard on service tax in this country.
We need to have a single window system of taxation, much like the proposed GST. In the UK, they have the VAT, which taxes almost all services. But in India, we have the service tax, sales tax and other small taxes which add up. The multiplicity of taxes, sometimes on the same product or service, is an issue.
Aditya AK: You recently wrote about the JNU sedition controversy. Do you subscribe to the view that there is an agenda to silence dissent on campuses?
Nigam Nuggehalli: I don’t subscribe to this view. There is no conspiracy to silence dissent. We have a culture of not respecting freedom of expression in India, and that culture is not specific to any particular dispensation in the government. It is a culture that unfortunately developed post-independence.
The concept of sedition is just one part of that; India is privy to a host of laws that are susceptible to abuse of freedom of expression. The other laws include those relating to contempt of court, legislative privileges, and criminal defamation. We can’t address the issue only with respect to certain places or certain governments. The canopy of laws that are derived from the Indian Penal Code need to be addressed holistically.