The Journal of Indian Law & Society (JILS) is a pioneering law journal, managed by the students of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.
As a prelude to its 10th Volume dedicated to Legal Education in India, the JILS Blog is going to publish a series of interviews with thought leaders in the Legal Education space in India.
In furtherance of its mission to enable informed and inspired careers, and to promote quality Legal Education in India, Lawctopus has collaborated with JILS Blog to publish these interviews for the benefit of its readers.
The interviewee for this part is Mr. Arnab Roy, Director at Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA). He completed his B.A. LLB. (Hons.) from NUJS, Kolkata. Previously, he worked as a research associate of the IPR Chair at NUJS. During his LLB, Mr. Arnab worked to ensure minimum wages for all contract labourers of NUJS. At IDIA, Mr. Arnab is the director-in-charge of the West Bengal, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa Chapters.
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Question 1: Arnab Sir, since you have long been associated with NUJS, what has been your journey like, from being a student, to a research associate to NUJS IDIA project, to leading multiple IDIA chapters including NUJS?
Mr. Roy: Journey as a student –
Back in 2005, I was preparing for medical entrance exams and my father, a lawyer by profession, informed me about NUJS and forcefully convinced me to sit for the then NAT (National Admission Test). Somehow, I cracked the exam and got admitted to NUJS. I was the only student in my batch (Batch of 2005-10, NUJS) who came from a Bengali medium school.
In my initial days, NUJS campus was like British embassy in Kolkata to me, because the campus felt like a piece of English speaking island surrounded by Bengali speakers. During my 1st semester I was totally physiologically quarantined due to this language issue. Only group I was comfortable to interact with was mess workers, security guards and gardeners because I could freely speak with them in Bengali without any hesitation.
This actually helped me to have a very strong connection with them which we still have. In my fifth year, I was working in a project (Clinic project) on “Contract Labours of NUJS”. Working on the project, I realised that there is a need to advocate for basic rights of those contract labours (mess workers, security guards and gardeners) and I tried to raise the issues with the NUJS administration and then one day a security guard (Mr. Dhruba Mondal) informed me, “Basheer sir is calling you”.
Journey as a research associate to NUJS IDIA project to leading multiple IDIA chapters –
To be honest, I was not an intellectual property law lover at all. I applied for the post because I wanted to be around Professor (Dr.) Shamnad Basheer. The way he supported and guided me with my fight against NUJS administration for ensuring basic rights of contractual labours was beyond my imagination. Moreover, when I came to know about his thoughts about the following, I got hugely impressed :
- reformation of legal education and environment of NLUs; and
- empowering underprivileged through legal education, etc.
I sincerely believe that the biggest achievement of my life is that I got the opportunity to work closely with sir for more than 10 years and I am grateful to NUJS and I am grateful to my father for putting me in NUJS for that.
However, the main thing I learnt through my journey as a research associate to NUJS project to leading multiple IDIA chapters is, giving access to all without creating bottlenecks in the way is the most enabling factor to break all barriers.
Question 2: As a person constantly being in touch with NUJS students, what’s your opinion on a shift in terms of crowd joining NUJS? Do you think the recent batches of NUJS has been more compassionate towards social cause or is it same as earlier?
Mr. Roy: NUJS students have always been compassionate towards social causes.
Previously NUJS students wanted to make NUJS a brand in the field of legal education, by spreading wings in different directions, such as bagging top internships, winning national and international moot and debate competitions, participating in other extracurricular activities, etc.
They were mighty successful in their endeavours and that is reflected by NUJS’ reputation today. In addition, the students used to also work towards social causes, mainly by providing legal aid, etc to the needy.
The students who joined the institution later tried to maintain the standards set by seniors and continued adding more feathers to it. Students joining NUJS in recent times, exercise much more liberty to explore and as a result have been participating more extensively towards social causes.
Also, I sincerely believe that for being compassionate towards social causes in law school, you need role models to follow. NUJS students are extremely fortunate to have had Professor (Dr.) N. R. Madhav Menon, Professor D. Banarjee, Professor (Dr.) Shamnad Basheer as faculty whose teachings were never confined to classrooms and they always encouraged students to apply what was being taught in public space. Present students are fortunate to have a fantastic alumni group as well. So as a collective result of all these factors, increasing number of NUJS students are seen participating in social causes.
Question 3: IDIA aims to increase diversity in law schools, why do you think is it necessary to have a diverse set of students in law schools? Does this only have a social angle to it or the increased diversity can also help in changing our limited perspective of the society and improving the quality of education?
Mr. Roy: IDIA’s aim is to create a squad of exceptional lawyers from within underprivileged communities who are Creative, Holistic, Altruistic, Maverick and Problem Solvers (CHAMPS) and these CHAMPS would transform them as community leaders to renovate the nation and beyond. For achieving this goal it is really important to transform the legal ecosystem to an extent where diversity should be considered as its core theme.
Increased diversity is increased elimination of elitism which creates favorable environment in academic institutions and beyond. Overseas universities consider “increasing diversity” as a significant component of institutional growth. Increased diversity definitely helps in changing limited perspective of the society and improving the quality of education. It makes education a more meaningful exercise.
Question 4: Over the course of time, what are some of the challenges, academic and psychological, you have seen underprivileged law students face in law schools? What are some of the reforms that need to be brought about to ensure that these students have the opportunity to perform at par with others who come from privileged households?
Mr. Roy: Underprivileged students in Law school mainly face psychological challenges which have an adverse impact on their academic performance.
Psychological challenges can be traced to:
- Extremely elitist campus environment;
- Lack of spoken English skills;
- Urban/Rural stratification; and
Insofar as reforms are concerned, firstly we should understand the meaning of university. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed), “the word university is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars“.
“Diversity” should be a very natural component of that “community of teachers and scholars” and all of us should accept it. Professor Basheer used to strongly believe, “accepting diversity should not mean, just tolerate diversity, but actively embrace and engender it”.
Secondly, English should be treated just like any other foreign languages not beyond that. We should come out from the hangover of the English Education Act 1835 which was enacted to create a community who would be Indian in blood and colour and English in opinion, intellect and moral. Students of English medium background should realise that the race is not starting from the same starting point for all hence what is required is more compassion than competition.
Question 5: Since many IDIA scholars come from vernacular medium schools, how difficult it is for them to cope up with law school curriculum that is in English? What are the reforms that can be brought about to remedy this problem?
Mr. Roy: English curriculum is less problematic than the English environment one finds himself surrounded with in the law school. In other words, the effects of English are not restricted to curriculum only, it also affects, one’s friend circle, one’s impression of fellow students and teachers, etc. Unfortunately, it also reflects economic and educated family background. In short, non-English speakers are treated as second class citizen in law schools.
IDIA scholars or other students coming from vernacular medium schools generally face major issues in initial days of law school. Since law is not a part of school syllabus, initial days are really decisive to develop their interest in law.
We have to understand that for these students, English was a second language till class 12th. Let’s imagine for a moment that students coming from English medium schools, are being taught in Hindi and one of them has been asked to define “Habeas corpus” in flawless Hindi. Infront of a group of students who are very well trained in Hindi; how smooth his/her performance would be?
As far as reformation is concern, the main bottleneck is the medium of instructions, which is English. NLUs should seriously take a look at the school education system of rural India, which includes:
- teacher student ratio;
- quality of teachers;
- environment and infrastructure of school;
- educational and economical family background of students; and
- awareness within students about career options, etc.
This will really help them to realize the gap between students from vernacular medium schools and students from English medium school. Based on this realization, reformatory policy decision can be taken such as:
- Use of translator headphone within classrooms till 2nd year;
- Choice of language for project, viva and written exam till end of 1st year;
- Organizing national level moot and debate in vernacular language;
- Implementation of serious mentorship programme in the first few years;
- In-house spoken and written English training specially for students from vernacular medium; and
- Periodic counseling to overcome cultural shock.
Question 6: Do you think that academic writings, debates and moot court competitions contribute towards further skewing the inequalities within law schools? Can structuring such competitions and encouraging writings in vernacular languages help remedy the problem?
Mr. Roy: I think the exclusive use of English language in academic writings, debates and moot court competitions is the key trouble maker and it shows injustice within the system itself. Structuring such competitions and encouraging writing in vernacular languages is not going to help if we structure it only in vernacular languages because Hindi will take place of English and again the question of language exclusivity will pop up.
I think, language is just a form of expression and due to exclusivity, it creates barrier to creativity & analytical thinking which are the core essence of academic writings, debates and moot court competitions. Language should be open in these competitions and participants should have liberty to choose. Organisers should make sure proper assessment takes place based on merit of the work and not on the basis of skills in a particular language.
Question 7: How do you think that increased diversity should affect the methodology of classroom teaching? Is it possible that it can result in dumb-ing down of lectures and affect the quality of the classroom discussion?
Mr. Roy: Increased diversity does not dumb down lectures but always adds a different dimension to it. An influx of diverse student population would make for a more optimal mix of views and perspectives at law schools and consequently enrich the process of education itself.
Question 8: In times such as the current pandemic where online classes are the new norm, how should the curriculum and classroom teaching be modified to cater to the needs of underprivileged students lacking the adequate environment and resources?
Mr. Roy: Underprivileged students are mostly coming from rural areas and small towns where decent internet connectivity is an issue. So along with online classes, recorded video of classes and telephonic mentorships would be helpful.
Question 9: As the IDIA WB Chapter has also helped visually impaired students to gain admission in law schools, what are the reforms specific to these students that needs to be brought about in legal education?
Mr. Roy: Visually impaired scholars of IDIA face more challenges than other scholars in navigating in the initial years of law schools (both academically and socially). To overcome these issues, following reforms should be initiated:
- NLUs should have a student run committee which will work to create accessible environment in campus, library, hostel, mess. This committee should organize seminars, panel discussions, accessibility surveys etc. to sensitize others. Since most of us are not suffering from visual impairment, awareness is very crucial to overcome these issues.
- Most of the new and incoming visually challenged students are familiar with Braille language, which they are taught in their initial years. NLUs should have a Braille press which can be used for printing important bare acts, questions of written exams and other texts, so that these students can be at par with their classmates academically using methods with which they are familiar and comfortable. All the equipment will in turn ensure active participation of visually challenged students in the various academic, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities in the University such as moot court competitions.
- NLUs should implement a non-discriminatory policy for conducting written exams for visual impaired students.
- There should be an option for giving the exam in Braille.
- Student with visual impairment should have full liberty to appoint anyone as his/her scribe.
- There should be a fully functional accessibility lab in every NLU to ensure a better accessible environment to all the visually challenged students. The lab should aim to foster their academic growth, help them to develop their capabilities to the fullest and be self-reliant. The lab can be equipped with devices like Pearl Camera (used for scanning books and converting them into e-format), Braille Printer and necessary software like Ducksberry, Openbook reader and other supporting software.
- Faculties need to be groomed well so that they appreciate the importance of explaining:
- what they are writing on boards in class;
- what graphs and pictures they are showing in class.
Question 10: As Shamnad Sir once said, “Our Harts are in our villages!” Is the CLAT examination pattern, especially the changed one, a step towards hindering our Harts from accessing the legal education? What are the possible alternatives to this pattern?
Mr. Roy: Shamnad Sir truly believed, “Our Harts are in our villages!” He was of the opinion that all of us who are part of the legal juggernaut have a collective responsibility in ensuring that marginalized sections are able to directly deploy the instrumentality of law to improve their lot and to contribute towards the creation of a more just and fair society.
CLAT already requires extensive and expensive coaching as a prerequisite. Changing pattern should overcome this challenge rather than making the existing situation more challenging. For instance, CLAT should focus more on Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) format to assess a student’s critical thinking and problem solving skills, instead of focussing too much on General Knowledge which could be biased in favour of students from certain echelons of society.
Additionally, the scope for errors in paper setting should be minimised and accessibility of students from vernacular medium should be enhanced while framing of syllabus and determining the format of exam and level of English.
Question 11: How sustainable is it for IDIA to provide scholarships to NLUs with high fees structure? Do you think IDIA scholars have worked for making a change in the society or give it back to the communities they hailed from?
Mr. Roy: IDIA aims to empower underprivileged communities by offering them access to premier legal education. Presently 78 of its underprivileged scholars are into the leading law schools across India. IDIA not only provides for the tuition fees of these scholars, but also bears the cost of laptops, internships, expenses for co-curricular activities such as moots and debates and other related costs including travel.
Though various donors have committed towards supporting these scholars through their 5 years of legal studies but if IDIA has to remain a sustainable social enterprise, a robust corpus has to be raised, that will act as a stable foundation for future activities. Given that IDIA has already established a robust proof of concept and is at the cusp of an expansion phase, the need for such a corpus is even more compelling.
Surprisingly, very few NLUs are financially supporting IDIA with scholars’ full fee waiver etc. presently. If more NLUs see merit in increasing diversity on their campuses by extending full support to IDIA scholars, IDIA would be few more steps towards sustainability.
IDIA scholars making a change in the society:
As I already mentioned that IDIA’s aim is to create a squad of exceptional lawyers from within underprivileged communities who are Creative, Holistic, Altruistic, Maverick and Problem Solvers (CHAMPS) and these CHAMPS would transform them as community leaders to renovate the nation and beyond.
We are extremely proud that most of our scholars and ex-scholars are working for making a change in the society or give back to the communities they hailed from.
Question 12: Where do you see the role of third-party organisations like IDIA that are aimed at redressing the diversity deficit in the future? Is there a need for more such organisations and if so is the law curriculum motivating its students enough to join them?
Mr. Roy: It was Prof. (Dr.) Shamnad Basheer’s vision that IDIA be rendered redundant! The fundamental principle behind IDIA’s founding was to transform the legal ecosystem to such an extent that there is no reason for an external third-party organization such as IDIA to redress any diversity deficit.
The present legal education curriculum have very limited scope to motivate its students towards diversity and access to legal education but constant increase of awareness about those factors (diversity and access to legal education) are playing significant roles to transform the Indian legal ecosystem which will definitely bring radical changes in curriculum.
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