When Rahul Kumar (name changed for anonymity) first faced ragging on his first night at the boy’s hostel in his law school, he was with two other batchmates of his. As the session progressed, he noticed that the seniors were going light on his other batchmates, because they all hailed from the same place – Delhi. Eventually, and much to his chagrin, his batchmates were let off on a light note whereas his ragging extended beyond two hours. He couldn’t understand what was so wrong with him or what he might have said that extended his ragging session.
But as the days progressed in a very difficult first semester for him, he understood things more clearly. His batchmates were not only let off easy on ragging sessions, they were also inducted into various elite groups and societies of the college. He thought it unfair when he didn’t get into any committee he desired for whereas all his batchmates who came from a particular region, did. He didn’t think himself so stupid, having secured a rank not equal or better than those batchmates. There was a clear divide for him, for those who hailed from particular cities, for those who were rich, for those who spoke fancy English. He was clearly unwelcome in these ‘elite groups’. The elites aren’t to be blamed. Law schools in India are built for them.
The system is rigged in the very inception of the journey of every such national law student in India. Professor Shamnad Basheer in his 2014 report on the national law schools, points out the severe under-representation of the poorer strata of the society, with merely 1-3% of law students coming in from rural areas, and also the lack of equality in geographical representation (very few and sometimes close to no student from Jammu and Kashmir and the North-Eastern States make it to NLUs). As the statistic would follow, people from upper middle classes were the highest in proportion. Given that the Common Law Admission Test is an intense test with millions of students appearing every year, it becomes pertinent to note that more than 75% of the incoming students take up coaching for CLAT which on an average charge between Rs. 15,000 – Rs. 30,000 (roughly averaging $ 400). The average per capita income of an Indian on the other hand is a mere $ 49. But are these private coaching centres to be blamed for making profits and creating this crisis? No, because both the Central Governments and the respective State Governments, and also the legal fraternity have been mockingly apathetic to this whole crisis. There are hardly any interesting prospect being carried out by the Indian state and the legal fraternity in this regard. Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) an NGO run by Shamnad Basheer himself have come close to this moment of enlightenment and have done work very which has been very heart-warming and well appreciated, and much belated.
But even if you make it to a national law school, it still remains a largely expensive affair given that yearly fees at most national law schools is currently averaging at Rs. 2,00,000 which becomes a mostly unbearable Rs. 10,00,000 over 5 years for someone who is poor or even middle class in India. At the law school, there is the inevitable monopoly of the English speaking class, the ‘radical chics’ (as Tom Wolfe would call them), who are the children of the Fukuyama project, liberals at heart, radicals when it comes to protecting the Great Barrier Reef but majorly libertarians when to comes to their economics. They inevitably control every club, every society, every activity in the college, they dictate power and that is bound to be in a system which is so heavily tilted towards them. They are not to be blamed, they were born for this. It becomes pertinent here for me to mention that I only aim to point out this privilege, not attack it, not anyone feel guilty about it, because that, as history and current events have shown us, always lead to us to be worse off.
Our aim and idea, as law students and lawyers must be reason out of this, and to use this powerful weapon of law as a tool for social transformation. It is possible at every stage as we can imagine – from trying for reserved seats for the underprivileged in committees and clubs to providing additional help to such students, who are at a greater risk of facing academic hurdles and social isolation. If we will it, it can be done, and the greatest peril we face right now is inaction. It was last year that an IDIA scholar at Gujarat National Law University, lost his life after battling with tuberculosis. For the few who knew him, he was always an outsider, hailing from Dimapur, Nagaland, a stranger from a strange land, who didn’t speak the language of the majority at his college, nor possessive of the set skills to get inside such groups. Nobody had any clue about his suffering. It was one day when he stumbled on the stairs in his class, and freezed in front of the professor, unable to speak, petrified, shaking, that his batchmates realised that something was terribly wrong with him. A week later, he was dead, extinguishing hopes for his family and his community who had sent him from across the country. Such incidents provide a harrowing account of why we need more diversity in law schools, and why such people from underprivileged backgrounds need extra care even after making it to the law school. Making it to a law school simply isn’t enough. We can’t let spirits corrode so easily.
The Central Government, State Governments and the entire legal fraternity must see to this crisis immediately. Without institutional support, there is almost no way one could expect to solve this crisis through private hands, because when it majorly involves private enterprises, profit will be king. At the macro level, that is what is needed – a transformation of the way CLAT exam is conducted, reduction of fees at the national law schools, a more linguistically inclusive CLAT exam and law school experience, a central committee for conducting CLAT a special cell in every national law school which actively helps such underprivileged students. At the micro-level, that is withing the law schools, there must be compulsory constitution of student bodies in every law school which would give them an active political voice, an affirmative action policy within the student bodies which give due representation to such class of students, a compulsory and active mentorship program in every college which connects privileged students with underprivileged students and help them better understand each other, cooperate and better themselves together. What we need right now is the building of such communities at Indian law schools, an outlook towards law which is socially transformative, empathetic in nature.
Swagat Baruah is writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.