Legislating ‘National’ Out of National Law Universities in West Bengal

In these times, while other state governments have successfully supported their respective NLUs’ bid for autonomy from the UGC, NUJS lacks even NAAC accreditation.

Few in the West Bengal government know that Justice M. Hidayatullah, a former chief justice and vice-president of India, spearheaded the concept of an Indian law school, along the lines of the Harvard Law School, to be “autonomous in nature, completely self-financed, not take any financial aid from government or regulatory bodies and in turn not permit their interference”.

The dream of the true founding fathers of the law school project was actualised with National Law School of India University, Bangalore’s (NLSIU) establishment in 1986, with N.R. Madhava Menon as its founding vice chancellor (VC)

The National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (NUJS) was conceived by then West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu when he had visited NLSIU. At the time, students were regularly leaving the state and heading south to study engineering, medicine and law. Basu and his senior colleagues felt a national law university (NLU) modelled along the lines of NLSIU would not only help stem the brain drain, but also attract talent from the rest of India to Kolkata.

Menon, who later became the founding VC of NUJS, was personally invited by Basu to come out of retirement and set up an NLU in Kolkata. He was ultimately able to secure “the institutional autonomy [he] asked for which was something unprecedented in higher education in West Bengal” then, and probably now as well.

Despite the West Bengal government financing NUJS’s building loan, under Menon it was given absolute financial and academic autonomy. Apart from irregular ad hoc grants, it never did and still does not depend on the state government’s financial support for meeting core recurring expenditures. Unlike other government universities, NUJS embarked on a model of self-sustainability from the outset – through a combination of revenue generation from student fees, philanthropic grants and project consultancies. As of today, 153% of NUJS’s annual expenditure is funded by student fees.

N.R. Madhava Menon. Credit: YouTube screengrab

If there has ever been an era in NUJS’s history that has threatened to obliterate its core ethos, it has to be the tenure of P. Ishwara Bhat, former VC who was ousted in April 2018, and worse, the debilitating ‘interim-ness’ of its present, the government-promoted acting VC, retired Justice Amit Talukdar.

Starting September 2016, student opposition to professor Bhat’s five-year extension bid brought forth grave administrative lapses. As the 52nd Executive Council (EC) proceeded to grant him an extension despite detailed evidence of the lapses, government representatives also brought in a curious last-minute proposal for doubling intake, and setting up two new campuses of NUJS at Asansol and Siliguri. When the long overdue University Review Commission (URC) strongly reaffirmed these administrative lapses, Bhat was ousted in the 60th EC, and Justice Talukdar was brought in. Meanwhile, the two-campus proposal was rejected by the 57th EC.

Thereafter, the 60th EC and the 61st EC, acting on the evidence presented by the students installed a new acting VC, registrar and a new assistant registrar. These developments led the students to strongly believe that Justice Talukdar and Madhumati Mitra (later Sikha Sen), not being career academic bureaucrats, are best placed to ensure that the 3 inquiries set up on 12th May are conducted fairly, transparently and swiftly to ensure that disciplinary actions are executed without indiscriminately.

Dishearteningly and disturbingly, Justice Talukdar’s administration is giving serious competition to Bhat’s reign of inefficiency. The inquiries have gone nowhere. In addition to the legacy issues concerning the complete inaction on retired Justice P.N. Sinha’s inquiry on the multi-crore University Grants Commission (UGC) grants’ embezzlement by former registrar, S.C. Mukhopadhyay, Justice Talukdar has exhibited chronic and inexplicable apathy over other grave issues.

The distance education programmes run in collaboration with private enterprises are in serious violation of the UGC Act, 1956. There are persistent violations of the Foreign Contribution Act, 2010. NUJS has bled crores in overpayment to data entry officers. These and other unaddressed issues have compelled students to scrutinise the actual motivations of Justice Talukdar and Sikha Sen.

Also read: West Bengal’s Attack on the Idea of National Law Universities

Last year, I wrote about the accountability mechanisms in place in the NLU model. While NUJS is haemorrhaging on account of the government-dominated EC’s inaction, the West Bengal government surreptitiously legislated a questionable amendment Bill to the WBNUJS Act, 1999– without any consultation with its chancellor, the Chief Justice of India, its administration, or University statutory bodies heavily dominated by its own nominees.

This amendment was passed by the state assembly on November 20, and provides for at least 30% reservation for West Bengal domiciled candidates. It provides free-ship in tuition fees to at least 5% of total strength of students, bestows student fees setting powers on the government, and contemplates admission based on ‘merit’ determined either on the basis of grade obtained in the qualifying examination, in a relevant examination conducted by the university, or by common test conducted at the state or national level. A similar move at NLSIU last year was heavily criticised by Dr Menon and NLSIU’s Alumni.

Given the state government’s dire financial state, and the amendment itself underlining that it “has no financial implication”, students fear that populist fee reduction will reduce the financial autonomy of NUJS, thus affecting its ability to retain and attract quality faculty. Similarly, the 5% freeships are tokenistic as NUJS already has a better scholarship policy in place.

The more alarming issues, however, are the compulsory domiciliary reservation and the deliberate ambiguity in the proposed admission process. In 2015, the government of West Bengal received 10% domiciliary reservation against the provision of 3000 sq m of land to NUJS. At the time, the EC had resolved that such seats will be filled based on results of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT). Recently, the West Bengal law minister, Moloy Ghatak reportedly stated in the assembly, “seats would be reserved up to 30% for the students who have domicile in the state, if they find place on the National merit list”. However, if the government did not wish to circumvent the CLAT in 2015, now or closer to 2021, why does this amendment propose four different admission mechanisms?

The state government has the power to introduce domiciliary reservation, but these cannot emanate out of capricious decision-making. While the amendment is purportedly a laudable regional initiative, it is antithetical to the very design of NUJS envisaged by its founding fathers.

Also read: What They Don’t Teach Us in Law School

The apparent downfall in the diversity and the quality of student body is, however, not the only drawback of this proposed amendment. Not only is it contrary to the state’s continued stance for the last two decades, but it also poses the risk of over-inclusiveness which might result in its unconstitutionality. As the demographics of the similarly-placed NLSIU suggest, blanket domiciliary reservation without any additional economic, regional, and/or socio-linguistic qualifiers is likely to have a very strong urban bias. It will likely result in unfairly benefitting candidates from Kolkata at the cost of their counterparts from Tier-II cities from other parts of the country. The government  has not provided any concrete justification for this, as also for the precise extent of it.

West Bengal would be better served if a bankrupt government allowed NUJS to remain autonomous, thus potentially saving crores which could instead be used to prepare candidates for CLAT and institute wholesome scholarships so they not only gain entry but also successfully graduate from the best NLUs and not just NUJS. This can also create efficient judicial infrastructure and a conducive working environment which would attract talent to work and teach in West Bengal.

Student demands for the grant of Institute of National Importance status for NLUs are progressively gettting louder across the country, and the Supreme Court is deliberating over the issue. In these times, while other state governments have successfully supported their respective NLUs’ bid for autonomy from the UGC, NUJS lacks even NAAC accreditation, and the government is busy legislating ‘National’ out of NUJS!

Arjun Agarwal was elected President of NUJS’ Student Juridical Association for 2016-18, and presently works as an Associate at Trilegal, Delhi. All views expressed are personal.