Although the protests and the demands of the students are not new, it is a paradox that the administrators at the helm in these institutions fail to meet their aspirations by providing services equivalent to the fee paid, changing the sarkari mindset, and eliminating sexism.
THE students of several premier law universities in the country are on ground protesting against their respective administrations.
The students of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar National Law University in Sonipat are protesting because they have been allegedly made to pay fees for facilities that have not been provided. These include internet services, food, infrastructure, and library, among other things. The protest has been named ‘Agaaz’ and has been going on for over a week now.
In Madhya Pradesh, the students at the Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur are protesting on similar grounds. Since last week, over 100 students have been on a hunger strike at the university’s academic block seeking inter alia better living conditions, fair and open administration, refund of unnecessary charges, and action against sexist remarks made by the hostel warden.
On an average, NLUs charge around Rs. 10 lacs (two lac per year) as fee from students. However, often this fee does not translate to basic facilities, and no explanation is offered by the administration for its failure to do so.
These protests are not new, and neither are the demands made by the students. In fact, similar demands have been made in the past at other National Law Universities (‘NLU’), including the ones in Bengaluru, Delhi, Raipur, Odisha, and Ranchi. The responses to these protests are often only temporary, and the administration fails to fix the root cause behind them, that is, providing services equivalent to the fee paid, changing the sarkari mindset, and eliminating sexism.
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Unjustifiably high fees
First, on an average, NLUs charge around Rs. 10 lacs (two lac per year) as fee from students. However, often this fee does not translate to basic facilities, and no explanation is offered by the administration for its failure to do so. For instance, despite charging Rs. 2,27,860 per year, students of Himachal Pradesh National Law University Shimla were allegedly not provided clean food and water by the administration. In 2019, the students went on a protest after some of them were allegedly hospitalised due to food poisoning after consuming the mess food.
The same year, similar complaints were made at the NLUs in Patiala and Odisha. In Patiala students protested over poor quality of food and suspension of students who complained against it, while in Odisha, students protested against poor living conditions in the girls’ hostel, including non-functioning lavatories, stench and worm-infested water tanks.
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Second, the attitude of the administrators running these institutions, and more importantly, the staff working under them, is extremely sarkari, that is, callous and insensitive. Instead of fixing shortcomings, they often insist that the students ‘adjust’ to the poor facilities, citing the nascent stages of these universities. In addition to callousness, universities are often arbitrary in their decisions, which is unbecoming of a ‘law’ university that is supposed to teach students about equality and non-arbitrariness.
Universities are often arbitrary in their decisions, which is unbecoming of a ‘law’ university that is supposed to teach students about equality and non-arbitrariness.
Earlier this month, NLU Jabalpur students have approached the Madhya Pradesh High Court, seeking permission to take re-examinations for papers they were arbitrarily denied appearing in. According to the students, the university first accepted medical certificates of students who had low attendance, but then arbitrarily rejected them once the examinations began. Further, the university is asking the students to pay a fee of Rs. 7,500 per subject as remedial fee. A fifth-year student told Indian Express that he was not allowed to appear for his exams despite a kidney failure, even though he was assured by the administrative staff that he had a valid reason and would be allowed irrespective of his shortage of attendance. He was allowed to sit for two exams but shortly thereafter, a notice was issued and he was informed that he can no longer appear for the remaining exams due to shortage of attendance.
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Third, the very law schools that are supposed to create lawyers who will fight for equality tomorrow, are violators of equality, and a hub of sexism, both express and implied. NLUs are replete with administrative policies that are discriminatory towards women. One such policy is the discriminatory in-timing for men and women, a policy which is justified on protective grounds, that is, that it is unsafe for women to stay out till late.
This practice led to the famous Pinjra Tod movement in 2015 at the NLU in Lucknow, wherein a female student breached the curfew timing of 9:30 p.m. as she was looking for medical care. She had to write an apology and plead with university officials before she was let in, a shenanigan which sparked a protest against the policy, ultimately resulting in a win for the students. Similar protests have been witnessed at the NLU in Raipur.
Female students face discrimination and sexism at most NLUs every day, which includes comments on their clothing, demeanour, character and opinion. Sexism is one of the causes of the protest happening currently at the NLU in Jabalpur. Female students have complained that some of the wardens, guards and other officials openly comment on their clothing, and call them characterless.
NLUs are replete with administrative policies that are discriminatory towards women.
In 2016, students at the NLU in Bangalore complained against a professor who reprimanded a female student for wearing shorts and allegedly even cast aspersions on her character. In 2017, the Director of the NLU in Bhopal was accused of remarking ‘tumhare jaisi ladkiyan apni izzat aur sharm ko bechkar aati hain’ (girls like you come here by compromising your dignity and shame) to a female student. Imagine, learning about Article 15 of the Constitution in a class, and seeing it violated the next moment. The article prohibits discrimination on grounds of, among other things, sex.
What is the way out?
Unfortunately, instead of owning up to their mistakes and fixing them, the NLUs often shoot the messenger. Despite the Supreme Court time and again reiterating that peaceful protests are an integral part of a democracy, administrators clamp down any dissent or protest by the students. In the ongoing peaceful protest by students at the NLU in Jabalpur, the administration has taken the assistance of the police, who are allegedly targeting vocal students. A similar scene was enacted in 2019 by the Patiala NLU administration, when Rapid Action Forces and police forces were deployed in response to student protests.
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For institutions that were supposed to impart quality education for students, and provide them facilities at par with the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, it is tragic that students have to fight for the bare minimum. The Boards of NLUS consist of Chief Justices of high courts, politicians, senior lawyers and other esteemed members of the legal community, all of whom seem to turn a blind eye towards the cause of these protests. It is high time that these eminent members wake up, and listen to the students and their grievances. Administrators and NLU staff need to be sensitised about the values of the law they teach, rather than being set in their own ways.
In the words of late Prof. N.R. Madhav Menon – the founder of the first NLU in Bangalore – the objective behind NLUs was to supply well-trained lawyers so as to enlarge access to justice and improve the quality of justice. Instead of equipping the universities with the necessary infrastructure to do so, state governments have been on a spree to open more NLUs in their states without fixing the existing ones.
In 2012, we had 16 NLUs across the country while today, we have 23. There are more NLUs in the pipeline in Tripura, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Jammu and Kashmir, as well as another one in Uttar Pradesh. Unless the poor conditions of the existing NLUs are fixed, protests will become the norm and quality education an exception.