I recently watched the movie ‘3 Idiots’ (directed by Rajkumar Hirani - 2009) with a friend from England, who was shocked at seeing the harsh realities of engineering colleges in India. The movie portrays the problems that plague India’s engineering colleges i.e., (a) lack of space and encouragement for innovation; (b) promotion of rote learning and lack of academic freedom; and (c) unequal representation and treatment because of sex. In my view, the only difference between engineering colleges and law schools is that the plight of the former is highlighted through movies and web-series, while the latter’s is not. The same problems exist in Indian law schools as well and, having studied at one of India’s premier law schools myself, I can testify to this fact.
In this piece, I intend to highlight the toxic academic culture that exists in Indian law schools today and the fact that there is a dearth of dialogue about it in the mainstream media. Drawing a parallel from the movie 3 Idiots (‘movie’ henceforth), I shall argue that Indian law schools also suffer from the same challenges as shown in the movie. My arguments will be supported by my own experience in law school and incidents reported in the media.
a. Lack of Space and Encouragement for Innovation
In a subplot of the movie, the protagonist has an argument with the Director of the institution about the teaching methodology in the institute wherein he says,
‘ Sir no one here talks about new ideas or inventions, instead they talk about marks or jobs in the US. Sir, we are being taught how to get good grades here, rather than knowledge’ (translated).
These words hold true for law school as well, except a job in the United States is replaced with a job in a corporate law firm. During the orientation for first-year students on prospective career options, an extra emphasis is laid on the importance of securing a job at a leading corporate law firm in India or abroad, given the high salaries they pay their associates. In fact, there are dedicated placement cells in almost every law school that focus on internships and placements at these firms. However, these cells conveniently ignore the poor working conditions of these firms and the toll on the mental health of those very associates at these places. Govind Manoharan, a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court, highlights this in his article ‘ The Impaired Lawyer: Why We Need To Talk About Mental Health In The Legal Profession’ .
However, corporate law firms are only one possible career option for law students. Other options like litigation (practising before the Courts), competitive examinations, academia etc. are also available to students after graduation, however, unfortunately, they do not get the same push or support from the administration. A friend preparing for the Union Public Service Examination (an examination for securing administrative positions with the Govt. of India) told me that during his time in law school there was barely any support from the university for his choice of career in the civil services, but when an alumnus clears the exam, they were the first to claim the credit.
b. Promotion of Rote Learning and Lack of Academic Freedom
In another scene in the movie, a Professor asks the protagonist the definition of a machine, to which he responds, ‘ anything that reduces human effort is a machine. On switches on a fan when s/he is feeling hot, that is a machine.’ Another student verbatim recites the definition of ‘machine’ as given in a book, which impresses the Professor. He tells the protagonist that if you want to pass in the examinations, the definition given in the book needs to be reproduced.
Law schools are no different as they too promote rote learning in this manner. Professors are impressed if a student can memorise all the judgment names mentioned in the class and quote paragraphs verbatim in a closed book examination. Such an examination tests one’s ability to memorise and not to analyse--a quality that is a must in a lawyer. In my first year, I was advised by a few senior students that if I wanted to score well, I must write the point of view supported by my professor. In fact, there were Professors who would mark you down for adopting a point of view that they did not subscribe to.
Law as a field is not set in stone and is always open to critique and interpretations and eventually change, especially in public law papers. By expecting the student to conform to one point of view, law schools restrict a student’s ability to think and adopt views that are not popular. A feature I particularly admired and cherished during my Bachelor of Civil Law programme at the University of Oxford was the academic freedom offered to the students. For instance, in a paper on Constitutional Theory, Professors encouraged students and often marked them higher if they disagreed with the tutor and could make a logical argument to that effect. This trend is missing in Indian law schools as dissent is often seen as disrespect to the teaching Professor. There are exceptions, of course, but sadly good teachers in Indian law schools are only an exception and not the norm.
c. Unequal Representation and Treatment based on Sex
Article 15 of the Constitution of India (among other things) forbids discrimination based on sex. This guarantee is available to every citizen against the state, which includes educational institutions as well. Every student is taught this Article in law school but sadly these very law schools are the biggest violators of the principle enshrined in this Article i.e., equality and freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex.
National Law Universities (with the exception of a few) are known for administrative policies that are discriminatory towards women. For instance, colleges have different in-timings/curfew timings for boys and girls. In other words, girls must be inside their hostel by a certain time while the boys need not. These discriminatory practices had resulted in the ‘Pinjra Tod’ movement in the year 2015 at the National Law University in Lucknow, wherein a female student breached the curfew timing of 9:30 pm, having broken her arm and looking for first-aid in the city. The student had to write letters of apology and plead with the officials before she was let in. This incident resulted in students protesting against the administration and ultimately getting the in-timings changed. Similar protests over discriminatory timing were witnessed at the National Law University in Raipur in the year 2018.
Discriminatory timing is only one facet of the discrimination faced by women in law schools. The other includes objection over their clothing, character, and the threat of complaining to their family. In the year 2016, the National Law School in Bengaluru reported an incident wherein a senior Professor had reprimanded a girl during a lecture for wearing shorts and allegedly even cast aspersions on her character.
Sexism and discrimination at any educational institution should be outlawed, but when they occur at a law school that produces lawyers who are supposed to fight them in Courts, it is even more problematic. In other words, law schools tell their female students that the Constitution which they study does not apply to law schools. This is despite the fact that many of these law schools have female Vice Chancellors.
The challenges faced by Indian law schools are always discussed informally in social circles, but this dialogue does not reach the masses. It is high time that mass media gives due attention to the lives of law students in India, so that the status quo can be changed. The policy of producing lab rats or robots who can excel at rote learning and a corporate job needs to change and we must encourage creativity. No doubt there are law schools who are initiating change, but the number is abysmal at the moment.
Author Information: Swapnil read law at the National Law University, Jodhpur and is qualified to practice law in India. He read for the Bachelor of Civil Law programme at the University of Oxford and is currently pursuing a DPhil in Law. He tweets at S_Tripathi07 .
Suggested Citation: Swapnil Tripathi. 2021. 'We need '3 Idiots' for Indian Law Schools', Think Pieces Series No. 23. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).