The students of premier law universities in the country are on ground protesting against their respective administrations. Students of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar National Law University in Sonipat, are protesting because they have been allegedly made to pay for facilities that have not been provided. These include internet, food, infrastructure, library etc. The protest has been named ‘Agaaz’ and has entered its fourth day today.
900 km from Sonipat, in Madhya Pradesh students at the National Law University, Jabalpur are protesting on similar grounds. Since last week, over 100 students are 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 acting against sexist remarks made by the warden.
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 Bangalore, Delhi, Raipur, Jodhpur, Odisha, Ranchi. The responses to these protests are often only temporary and the administration fails to fix the root cause behind them i.e., providing services equivalent to the fee paid, changing the sarkari mindset and eliminating sexism.
First, on an average NLUs charge around Rs. 10 lacs (2 lac/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/year, students of NLU Simla were allegedly not provided clean food and water by the administration. In the year 2019, the students went on a protest after some of them were allegedly hospitalised due to food poisoning after consuming the mess food. Same year, similar complaints were made at NLU, Patiala and NLU, Odisha. At Patiala students protested over poor quality of food and suspension of students who complained against it, while at Odisha students protested against poor living conditions in the girls hostel including non-functioning lavatories, stench and worm-infested water tanks.
Second, the attitude of the administrators running these institutions and more importantly the staff working under them is extremely sarkari meaning callous and insensitive. Instead of fixing the 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 which is supposed to teach students about equality and non-arbitrariness.
Recently, NLU Jabalpur students have approached the Madhya Pradesh High Court seeking permission to take re-examinations for papers they were arbitrarily denied appearing in. As per 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. 7500/subject as remedial fee. A fifth-year student told the 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 will be allowed irrespective of his shortage of attendance. He was allowed to sit for two exams but shortly thereafter, a notice of issued and he was informed that he can no longer appear for the remaining exams due to shortage of attendance.
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 i.e., it is unsafe for women to stay out till late. This practice led to the famous Pinjra Tod movement in the year 2015 at NLU Lucknow, wherein a female student breached the curfew timing of 9:30pm as she was looking for medical care. She had to write an apology and plead with the officials before she was let in, a shenanigan which sparked a protest against the policy, ultimately resulting in a win. Similar protests have been witnessed at NLU, Raipur and NLU, Jodhpur. Female students face discrimination and sexism in the University every day, which includes comments on their clothing, demeanour, character and opinion. Sexism is one of the causes of the protest happening currently at NLU, Jabalpur. Female students have complained that some of the wardens, guards and other officials openly comment on their clothing and call them characterless. In the year 2016, students in NLU-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 NLU-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) by 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 sex.
Unfortunately, instead of owning up to their mistakes and fixing them, the Universities 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 of NLU-Jabalpur, the administration has taken the assistance of the police who are allegedly targeting vocal students. A similar scene was enacted in the year 2019 by NLU, Patiala administration when Rapid Action Forces and police forces were deployed in response to student protests.
For institutions that were supposed to impart quality education for students and provide them facilities at par with the IITs and IIMs, it is tragic that students have to fight for the bare minimum. The Board of these institutions consist of Chief Justices, Politicians, Senior Lawyers and other esteemed members 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 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 Prof. N.R. Madhav Menon (the founder of the first NLU) the objective behind NLUs was to supply well-trained lawyers so as to enlarge access of 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 state without fixing the existing ones. In the year 2012, we had 16 NLUs while today, we have 23, out of which states like Maharashtra has three, Madhya Pradesh has two. There are more NLUs in the pipeline in states like Tripura, Uttarakhand and Sikkim. The state government’s spree is going to be a futile exercise unless the poor conditions of the existing NLUs are fixed. If not, we are looking at protests becoming the norm and quality education an exception.
I am an alumnus of the National Law University, Jodhpur (Batch of 2019). The article was published here.