Interviews

“The Scholars: Sarayu Natarajan

Aditya AK

Sarayu Natarajan is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from King’s India Institute, an affiliate of King’s College, London. The NLSIU alumnus also holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

In this interview with Bar & Bench‘s Aditya AK, she talks about her research in electoral politics, solutions to improve the quality of education in Indian law schools, and more.

Aditya AK: What prompted the shift to political research?

Sarayu Natarajan: After working for McKinsey, I worked with an organisation called Elevar Equity and then Gray Matters Capital. Both of these were social enterprise funds, so while I was working with them, I first got interested in political development, given the links I had in the field.

When I went to Columbia to do my Masters, that’s when I really got interested. I took some classes and decided to study it further.

Aditya AK: How was your experience at Columbia?

Sarayu Natarajan: There’s no doubt about how many opportunities it gives you, provided you take them. There are a variety of classes and programs you can choose from. I also credit Columbia as being the place where I opened my mind to academics as a career. It pushed me to think much deeper about things.

Having said that, it can be a difficult place. Some courses are much more managerial-oriented, so they’re about getting things done. Sometimes I worried that in many of the courses, I wasn’t able to think as deeply as I would have liked about certain issues. Also, some courses had certain views about development and politics which at a personal level, didn’t resonate with me.

Aditya AK: You are pursuing a doctoral thesis from King’s India Institute. Could you tell us a bit about the course?

Sarayu Natarajan: King’s India Institute is a multi-disciplinary institute which has some amazing scholars from different disciplines working broadly on India-related issues. It mostly focuses on social sciences and humanities and looks at academic topics from a multi-disciplinary standpoint.

It is a standard UK Ph.D. You come into it after finishing your Master’s degree. Ideally, they see if you’ve done a Masters in a related discipline, though I don’t think it is a barrier to have a Master’s degree or an undergraduate degree from a somewhat different discipline.

The one I’m doing is broken up into three components. The first is year one, or a shorter or longer period depending on how you are able to manage, where you do what is called an “upgrade”. During this period, you basically prepare yourself for the research project you are going to undertake. For admission into King’s and most other UK universities, you have to come in having had some previous knowledge in what you want to do.

You spend the first year shaping this knowledge into a meaningful research question and fit it in the discipline to find out if it is relevant. At the end of the year, you have to submit an upgrade document, which is a write-up outlining your research plan and why your topic makes sense.

The second component for those who do field-based studies, is spent in the field, which is usually India. It depends on your discipline to a large extent, and also on the scholar you are working with. This is also the time to do archival research, depending on your topic.

The final year is for writing up. The total recommended period is three years, but you can ask for an extension of a year.

Aditya AK: And your thesis is on electoral politics in Bangalore. 

Sarayu Natarajan: As all Ph.D. topics go, it has evolved and continues to evolve as I work on it. Specifically, I look at how migrants participate in politics in Bangalore. So I look at poor rural-urban migrants and try to see forms of leadership, brokerage and how these people vote.

Of late, a couple of things are emerging as important. For communities or groups of individuals who are migrants, the person who controls access to housing has a pretty significant say in your electoral decision making process.

Having said that, these are all not zero-one games and often, the process is far more interesting than the outcome. In the sense that whether a person votes or not is far less interesting than what underlies how this person votes. This is something I’m hoping to establish empirically.

For communities or groups of individuals who are migrants, the person who controls access to housing has a pretty significant say in your electoral decision making process.

Another thing is that there seems to be a difference between older, central colonies which do have some migrant population on an individual level, and the peripheries, where entire communities which are transplanted from other parts of the country reside. Though individuals have a preponderance in the central parts of the city, their electoral decisions are a lot more oriented towards service provision like timely supply of water.

Aditya AK: Could you tell us about what you describe as your “starfish” experience in the field?

Sarayu Natarajan: The starfish is a term for a variety of experiences where your gender influences the way research is done or what information you get as a researcher. While not all experiences are humiliating or personally uncomfortable, they definitely influence the information you get and the way you process it. For instance, if I have to interview a group of women, they are much more comfortable with a female researcher.

Yes – starfishing, or manspreading as it is known commonly – happens quite often, but it’s no more different than it is in any other sector or profession. In politics, particularly with some older men who are in powerful positions, it is something to be cognizant of, and makes it difficult to conduct interviews and do work.

In politics, particularly with some older men who are in powerful positions, it is something to be cognizant of, and makes it difficult to conduct interviews and do work.

There is no way to know how frequent it is, but I’ve seen it a lot and it manifests in different ways ranging from blatant leering, propositioning, invasive personal questions and gendered put-downs. Having seen it, I’m tempted to think of a ‘solution’, but I really don’t know.

Aditya AK: Would you consider getting into active politics?

Sarayu Natarajan: I have thought a lot about it, but I don’t have an answer to that question yet. (laughs) I have worked around two elections – the 2014 general election and the recent municipal elections. It’s hard not to see the link between money and politics and I don’t know if I can be an active participant.

Aditya AK: Given the shortage of quality teachers at law schools, what could be done to encourage more law grads to get into academia?

Sarayu Natarajan: I don’t think this is a problem relevant only to law graduates; I see it in other fields as well. In law, I think the problem is exacerbated because there are so many options. You can easily get into well-paying, respectable jobs straight out of college. So the question about whether to pursue academics becomes about how much you get paid and related things.

Some part of the answer lies in thinking about how universities are structured as well as thinking about compensation. The debate has to be structured around universities providing opportunities for young, dynamic researchers to teach as well as to research.

The debate has to be structured around universities providing opportunities for young, dynamic researchers to teach as well as to research.

Another aspect that very often gets ignored is how universities are engaging with practitioners in bringing them in to teach. Debates about teaching quality become more about academics and less about people who have experienced what they have studied. In these times it is perhaps more relevant than before to debate about bringing in people with practical experience.

Aditya AK: Do you think the focus on research in law schools is not emphasized on enough?

Sarayu Natarajan: I think it is a challenge. The social science research methodology is done very quickly and very early. You engage with the social sciences without ever thinking about how you are going to use them as a lawyer. That aspect of the five-year course is not very integrated.

In law school, methodology is just talked about; you are not taught skills. Nobody tells you to go out into the field and do interviews; you never look at a set of survey data and analyse it. The other thing is, though we live in a quantitative world, you are not taught any quantitative skills. This is a dimension of practical skills that matters.

I find a lot of lawyers looking down on quantitative skills and that is a bit problematic, because very simply put, you can be taken for a ride.

Aditya AK: How has your law school education helped you?

Sarayu Natarajan: There a couple of aspects to that – one is how going to the brand of ‘NLS’ has helped me and the other is how a legal education has helped me. Going to a great institution just helps; it doesn’t really matter what you end up doing, but it gives you brand value, recognition and gives you access and opens doors. It is a bit unfortunate that these institutions get a disproportionate share of recognition.

How a legal education has helped me is a tougher question to answer. For me, I gained the ability to look at a problem as detached from me and think about both sides of the argument. When I go to field, it is kind of instinctive for me to look at problems by evaluating everything. I have also learnt to dig deeper for context. A thing is not a thing without a context that has made it the way it is. It has also helped me keep my wits about me and recognize my place in this world.

Also, we wrote 60 projects, and that just helps, right? (laughs) It is a skill that doesn’t go away.

Aditya AK: What advice would you have for budding academicians from law schools?

Sarayu Natarajan: Firstly, the more I see it, the more academics is not isolated, so go out there and get more experience in the corporate or professional world. It has helped me to think more broadly about problems and has also given me practical skills in getting work done. Particularly, if you want to get into social science or political research, professional experience helps.

Secondly, grades do matter, so study! (laughs) It is a system which has certain rules; try to understand why they are there and participate. You can debate on whether grades are arbitrary, but it is a good investment, even if you don’t want to become an academic.

There is a notion that academics is this isolated ivory tower; there is a kind of exceptionalism with the profession, which I feel is unjustified.

There is a notion that academics is this isolated ivory tower; there is a kind of exceptionalism with the profession, which I feel is unjustified. There are rules you have to play by, there is politics as well as meritocracy, just like in any field.

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