Reforms in Legal Education: Interview with Danish Sheikh via Journal of Indian Laws & Society

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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 final interviewee for the series is Danish Sheikh. Danish Sheikh is a PhD Candidate at the Melbourne Law School and a member of the Institute for International Law and the Humanities. His research is located at the intersections of law, literature and performance, drawing upon his work as an activist lawyer and theater practitioner.


Question 1: We wanted to know what has been your experience as law student and law professor. What was the transition like?

Danish: It’s been a gradual transition, and not always linear, given that I am now doing a PhD and so am in student mode again.

I worked with the Alternative Law Forum, a collective of human rights lawyers right after law school, where I had a chance to design and teach a set of modules on free speech and media law for the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia. It allowed me to think carefully about pedagogy from the start, along with the opportunity to test some of my ideas as a part time lecturer.

I was hesitant about entering academia full-time, and this was a good balance. As I began to develop a clearer sense of my research, I had additional opportunities to teach short courses at law schools across the country. I created each of these courses as a way to explore a particular idea with a set of people, which made each experience incredibly rewarding.

Then, with a full-time teaching position at the Jindal Global Law School, I had a chance to teach semester-long compulsory law subjects, which was a very different but often equally stimulating kind of challenge. It’s during this experience that I had a chance to reflect on the ideas that eventually pushed me to set off for a PhD at the Melbourne Law School.

My experience at Melbourne has essentially been one of really learning to feel comfortable in theory world, to train in the craft of chasing a line of thought through different texts. It’s helped me understand ways in which research requires time, care and patience.


Question 2: You teach at the intersections of sexuality, law and literature. How important do you think it is to incorporate the LGBTQ+ perspective in the social justice subjects in law schools? Is the exclusion of the same one of the reasons why law schools still tend to harbor the inequalities that reinforce heteronormative standards?

Danish: More than “LGBTQ+” I think the way I’ve  approached my teaching is through a lens of queerness, which I find more capacious in many ways. Crucially, it allows me to talk about non-normative sexuality, drawing connections across different kinds of intimacies that that the law regulates or doesn’t adequately protect. The word that comes to mind is intersectionality. Circling outward from Kimberle Crenshaw’s work, the term has come to mean so many different things.

One of the most powerful ways in which I’ve seen it described is in Rahul Rao’s book Out of Time, where he places it in relation to B.R. Ambedkar’s writing on caste and endogamy. Instead of imagining caste and gender as separate categories that intersect (which is one way of “doing” intersectionality), Ambedkar gives us a way of thinking caste as the regulation of gender, which is caste. Rao likens this to a mobius strip which I think is a pretty spot on metaphor.

I try, with my pedagogy, to take on board these lessons, and the work in the classroom is often about using queerness in unexpected ways, to generate links across time and place that surprise and provoke. And so, to come back to your question, I think that’s perhaps part of the potential in incorporating queerness within the law classroom – of course at the most basic level, it helps us foster an inclusive classroom, but I’m interested in pushing a bit further to say perhaps it helps us think more imaginatively, more creatively, and so become better lawyers.


Question 3: You teach an incredibly creative course which uses theatre as a means to teach about legal aid and themes of sexuality. How important and productive do you think it is to incorporate such clinical education methodologies in the curriculums of law schools today?  Besides this, do you think it is possible to include queer and feminist narratives in strictly legal subjects?

Danish: I think there is a lot of value in recasting what clinical legal education can mean. There is a sense as of now that the law school clinic should be geared towards a particular vision of training students in legal practice. When this works, it works excellently – with NLU Delhi’s Project 39 A as a notable example –  but could we imagine what a law and humanities-based vision of the clinic could look like?

Could the idea of training here mean training future legal practitioners to think across disciplines, beyond a particular legal method, a training towards care and imagination and empathy? That was one of the driving forces behind my legal theatre course.

Your phrase “strictly legal” made me smile, because while I strongly resist it, I also know exactly what you’re referring to. My argument has always been that any doctrinal law course so to speak is simply incomplete without queer-feminist narratives. In my last semester of teaching at Jindal, I had the chance to serve as the Law of Contracts course coordinator. With a set of colleagues who were incredibly willing and game, we brought into the course elements like Patricia Williams’ reflections on contract doctrine from her wonderful Alchemy of Race and Rights along with a range of literary material that served to provide narrative heft to the existing case-law. What this does is also orient students to read case law and statutory material for those narratives, to perhaps recover what is lost when we blaze through facts and cast aside the human element of the legal narrative to instead scramble for a principle or ratio.


Question 4: Conventionally law school is not looked at as a space that allows one to explore their interests in art and literature. You are someone who has managed to delve in both and have been an ardent advocate of the integration of the same in legal curriculum. Can you explain why?

Danish: I don’t see the law and art/literature as separate spheres. As Peter Rush, one of my PhD supervisors puts it, the best way to understand the activity of law is through watching how it is crafted through writing, speaking and imagining. The object that we call law is constantly drawing on other forms, whether it is literature, art, theatre.

On one level, this is through the invocation of these other forms in judgment writing. Let’s take an example – the use of Shakespeare in Indian appellate judgments. There’s a particularly prevalent quotation, one uttered by the dying nobleman Melun in King John. As he dies, he wonders “What in the world should make me now deceive, since I must lose the use of all deceit?”. This is a way of thinking about the validity of dying declarations, and so you have a range of decisions where it gets invoked.

In many Supreme Court cases, particularly those authored by Arijit Pasayat, the quotation comes in when the Court is explaining the reasoning behind the evidentiary value of such statements. These cases tend to inevitably end in the Court deciding to hold the statement admissible, and convict the defendant.

Now, we can dismiss these moments as the judges having their fun, but as Peter Rush indicates, a lot more is at stake here. And if this is a case where literature proclaims itself as such in law, there’s an important case to be made for understanding how to approach law as a literature, thinking about narratives, thinking about rhetoric, thinking about how law makes itself intelligible.


Question 5: You’ve also written about inclusion of pop culture into the legal curriculum. Do you think there’s a need to re-evaluate the curriculum in a way that it is more multidisciplinary and relatable for the current and coming generations?

Danish: That word you’ve used, relatable, is a good starting point. It certainly was the first impulse I had when I began to think about bringing popular culture into the classroom. At that point, I was very taken by a lecture/ essay by Lawrence Friedman relating law and popular culture. As he put it, legal culture referred to the ideas and opinions about law held by people in a society; popular culture are the works of imagination whose intended audience is the public as a whole. The study of law and pop culture then explores the linkages between the two.

When we bring in popular culture into the law classroom, a number of possibilities open up. At one end of the spectrum, you have the chance to make legal doctrine come alive, by showing students the ways in which it might play out in a narrative realm. This in turn allows you to discuss the hidden possible lives of a case – instead of reducing case law to a rote set of principles, you might allow students to think about other life worlds that the story on record might stifle. This circles back to my point about imagination and empathy. And when you try and relate these stories to stories that students might be particularly invested in already, there’s a chance to really make something spark in the classroom.


Question 6: As per NUJS Diversity Report, 2019 , 28% of students identified by LGBTQ+ identity consulted professional help as against 23% by those who marked having heterosexual identity? Do you think the law school culture perpetrates a negative environment for the LGBTQ+ community and affects their mental health more compared to others?

Danish: Sure, and I don’t think we need a survey report to tell us this. The story of queer people is also a story where you have the medical profession cast homosexuality as a kind of mental disorder. One of the ways this has played out is a conflation of any mental health issues a queer person might have with their sexuality.

Sexuality here is the root of a mental health struggle, as opposed to the structural discrimination and stigma that people face that impairs their mental health. Even as medical advice looks very different now,  this conflation of sexuality with deviance is a journey most young queer people have to navigate in school and university spaces.

In some ways, law schools might actually be safer spaces – in principle – than a lot of other campus spaces to the extent that classroom conversations hold on to some idea of justice when speaking about law. Back when I was in law school, at a moment when the law itself wasn’t particularly progressive, I remember how many people in my class were openly vocal about queer-phobic law. I also remember that it didn’t necessarily mean that I wasn’t afraid about the consequences of coming out.


Question 7: Do you think both the entrance exams as well as the curriculum is designed in a way that it caters to only the privileged few? How can the elitism in law schools be dealt with?

Danish: In both cases, absolutely, yes. The entrance exams have a very limited definition of what aptitude for legal education might be, while legal education itself is caught in a tension between what the law academy should be and what a training program for lawyers should look like.

Across these instances, I think the points I have made earlier in this interview might give us one way of navigating these questions. It will require a willingness to challenge the idea of an entrance exam at all, to start with, and think of a more holistic assessment while acknowledging the real issues with more subjective criteria (even a multiple-choice question based exam isn’t necessarily objective, as your point about privilege indicates, it caters to a set of people who can afford an education/ coaching regime that trains them to take the exam).

Within the law school, again many of the issues with the curriculum are linked to a need to assess objectively, which will then allow recruiters or post-graduate institutions to make seemingly informed decisions. How do we break that cycle? Can we do away with grading as it currently stands? Can we find radically different ways of assessment that make space for and nurture multiple intelligences? I think that’s the level at which this conversation needs to happen – and if it ultimately filters down to a version where we have a more inclusive curriculum, excellent, but we need to pro-actively make the most radical demands of this system from our end.


Question 8: Do you have any advice/tip for our readers, who are students and working professionals in the legal world?

Danish: Honestly, I find it terrifying to give any sort of advice on a good day. All I’ll say is, find ways to nurture your imaginative life? That’s a particularly difficult challenge right now, when so many of us are locked away from each other and consequently from the sparks of human exchange that allow ideas to foment. Perhaps it just means that when you find those sparks of inspiration, they will be all the more rewarding.


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