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Nalsargate exclusive: The inside story of a secret report and the quest for excellence

The report: Not dusty anymore (click to download docx of report)
The report: Not dusty anymore (click to download docx of report)

Until last Wednesday, an explosive 161-page document prepared by four judges was gathering dust in the office of Nalsar Hyderabad vice chancellor (VC) Veer Singh for nearly four months. Few, if any, had read it and most faculty and students claimed they were unaware even of its existence or any details.

The story of that report is Nalsar’s alone. But this is also a story of academic power struggles, law school management and students caught in between, that will have near-universal parallels in many Indian law schools.

Unreported judgment

On 7 March 2011, former Supreme Court justice Syed Shah Mohammed Quadri, with Andhra Pradesh (AP) high court justices VVS Rao and Ramesh Ranganathan, and district and sessions judge S Ravi Kumar, first met under section 7(3) of the Nalsar Act 1998 to enquire into the administration and finances of the university.

The judges met a total of 26 times between April and August 2011. They inspected the campus, anonymously interviewed each member of faculty on 11 occasions, listened to students on three occasions, spoke to non-teaching staff, pored over the books of accounts on 17 different days, and took written suggestions and representations.

The four sitting and former judges finally finished their report on 12 September 2011 and presented it to Nalsar chancellor and AP Chief Justice Nissar Ahmed Kakru. Kakru’s tenure ended in October 2011, and he was replaced by the current chancellor and AP Chief Justice Madan B Lokur.

So far, none of its recommendations have been implemented, which was surprising considering many of its charges.

The right information

On 12 January 2012, Legally India filed a request for the report under the Right to Information (RTI) Act via email and courier.

Veer Singh: Military mind
Veer Singh: Military mind

When Legally India had contacted Veer Singh nearly three weeks ago, he declined to disclose the contents of the report. “That report has not been made public,” he said. “Nalsar bodies will decide when to make it public”.

“Every report is an internal report,” said Veer Singh. “It shall be implemented subsequent to the meeting of academic council, general council, executive council which might be held in February. I cannot do things on my own. I can only give you the report once all the councils approve of it.”

However, one day after the Times of India published an apparently leaked copy of the report last Wednesday, which “state auditors” had stumbled upon according to the paper, Legally India finally received and published a partial response to its RTI request from Nalsar.

By Friday, Nalsar’s public information officers had sent a full copy of the report by email and courier.

Nalsar uncut

The judges pull few, if any, punches, despite their deceptively humdrum aim of helping “Nalsar attain academic excellence which is, indeed, the main objective of establishing this University”.

The analysis of accounts is thorough, running from pages 60 to 125 of the report. Since its inception in 1999, Nalsar received more than Rs 50 crore of grants from the AP government, but accounts were “poor and shoddy” between 2001 and 2007, requiring crores of Rupees of adjustments in a subsequent accounting clean-up.

As long ago as the 2000-2001 financial year, shortly after Nalsar’s founding, construction and other contracts worth several crores were doled out to highest bidders in closed tenders or other circumstances that the judges criticised harshly (pages 69 to 76). Judges found similar such irregularities in the auditor general reports up until 2008, and inadequate accounting related to the the Common Law Admissions Test (CLAT), conducted by Nalsar in 2009, which netted application fees of Rs 1.78 crore and several questionable honorariums (page 110).

Expenses for “private trips” taken by the VCs and others that were funded by Nalsar should be recovered, where they had not been sanctioned by the appropriate channels as “duty leave”.

And while stopping short of alleging outright that Nalsar's top ranking in magazines such as India Today was a direct result of taking out advertisements or “impact features” costing between Rs 3.5 lakh and Rs 8.5 lakh each, the judges do slam the expenditure as “needless and wasteful” and the correlation as “curious”, particularly since other top national law schools did not take out ads (page 88-89).

Nalsar library: Open until 9pm on working days, 5pm on holidays, and 11pm during exams
Nalsar library: Open until 9pm on working days, 5pm on holidays, and 11pm during exams
Daily details

The minutiae of the report make for dramatic reading material that is rich in detail. Exam papers were stolen and sold after students bribed a driver for copies of room keys. Favouritism was rife on campus between the VC and certain staff and students. Academic performance gold medals were awarded to students, bending the proscribed rules.

The judges add there is an “urgent need to improve the quality of the faculty”, and the library opening hours should be extended beyond current times, in line with some other colleges.

Other interesting titbits include Nalsar’s moot court committee, for example, which had a budget of Rs 6.6 lakh in 2006-07, increasing to Rs 12.4 lakh in 2010-11 (page 130), but students complained about favouritism and a lack of transparency in moot team selections.

The report also touches on the more mundane and (mostly) harmless. Students apparently cribbed to the judges about scorpions, snakes and dangerous insects on and around the campus in Shameerpet (although more seriously, the lack of available antivenom and appropriate medical facilities was noted by the judges).

A culture novel

But most of the detail - and there is far more than there is space to list here - is merely symptomatic of something far more serious: the fundamental problem at Nalsar appears to be one of culture.

“The present administrative structure, which is not built on any discernible pattern or principle, is grossly inadequate to cater to the future needs of the University,” summarise the judges. “It is imperative, therefore, that issues of governance are addressed at the earliest.”

The judges find that decision-making power was “disproportionately concentrated” with the VC's office. Safeguards “against abuse of discretionary power” by Nalsar management were a “matter of urgency”, concluded the judges.

Only this could prevent wasting of “scarce financial resources”, dividing faculty into factions and a prevailing “atmosphere of uncertainty” on campus.

Dhanda: Likes books
Dhanda: Likes books
Factional harassment

In December of last year the Times of India reported that Prof Amita Dhanda, who happens to be a respected academic authority on sexual harassment laws, alleged she received an email containing sexual innuendo from Veer Singh. He denied the allegations, stating that Dhanda had “misinterpreted the contents”.

Neither would directly comment on the dispute when contacted by Legally India.

“He does not have a very refined manner of speaking”, commented an ex-student about Veer Singh’s communication.

Chalk and cheese

It is hard to imagine colleagues more different than Dhanda and Veer Singh.

Veer Singh is a no-nonsense, ex-army man with an often abrasive manner, according to students and faculty; Dhanda is a bookish but ambitious academic through and through. Both split opinions and have their fair share of fans, allies and enemies within the faculty and the student body.

“I know him for more than 35 years and he is a person of integrity, highly committed academician, outrightly honest, speaks without mincing words. That is his character,” says Professor Amar Singh, now professor at NLU Delhi.

Camp Nalsar
Camp Nalsar
“There have been batches which have seen both Veer Singh and Ranbir Singh as VC, and have observed that they have been really supportive administrators to the students and visible changes have been observed on the campus,” claimed one Nalsar student.

Another contradicts this: “There is absolutely no love lost between [Veer Singh] and the students.”

On Dhanda there is contrast too.

Many students and faculty praise her highly, both as a person and as an academic. “Amita Dhanda is a great faculty,” says one student. “A lot of my classmates opted for her courses.” Another adds: “Dhanda is more of the academic who sticks to big thoughts like disability studies. She is in her own world.”

Others are less complimentary. “She is a dictatorial person who tries to maintain hegemony over senior fellows,” alleges one former Nalsar faculty member. Another adds that “she can be very dominating”, even having picked fights with Veer’s predecessor Ranbir Singh, through her “natural instinct to create controversy”.

One source narrates an incident where one faculty member had complained to Veer Singh about Dhanda “demanding” to take the faculty’s lecture hour for her own course’s student presentations.

Veer Singh allegedly followed up on the complaint by barging in on Dhanda in the middle of her classroom session.

The encounter was not cordial, if that story is true, and ended in students telling Veer Singh to apologise to Dhanda.

Nalsar HQ, or the art of law school administration
Nalsar HQ, or the art of law school administration
Making career

Veer Singh is very much seen as the choice and spiritual successor of Nalsar founding VC Ranbir Singh, who moved out in 2008 to start up NLU Delhi.

Dhanda had already been at Nalsar for years at that point and was a senior member of faculty, heading the centre on disability studies, the committee on sexual harassment, and was involved in other influential affairs on campus.

From the get-go, Veer Singh ran Nalsar in a way oddly befitting his background, character and the institutional structure.

“Unlike a military academy attempts,” remark the judges on page 126 of the report, “to enforce strict discipline, of a similar kind, on students in a residential University is not warranted.”

They write about complaints from both faculty and students that “the power to make decisions is disproportionately concentrated in the office of the Vice-Chancellor” (page 8), and about a “complete lack of involvement of faculty in institutional management”.

Management theorists

As such, Veer Singh’s management style is not vastly different from Ranbir Singh’s. Both believe in strong, top-down leadership that leaves

Ranbir Singh: Serial school builder
Ranbir Singh: Serial school builder
little room for dissent. The major difference is that Veer Singh, perhaps, manages with less charm than his predecessor.

(“What’ll you do by viewing a corpse?” Veer Singh allegedly said to students who wanted to pay their last respects to Nalsar student Mahesh Gopan who drowned in a pool in June 2011. Preliminary autopsy reports found no alcohol in the student’s body, but according to page 33 of the judges’ report, Veer Singh nevertheless told Gopan’s friends: “If your batch-mate decides to drink at 16:30 hours and then leaps into a well, what am I to do? You all killed him, why should I give you a day off?”)

On the flipside, running a law school is not an easy job and there are enough examples of educational institutions run into the ground by ineffective, feeble or incompetent leaders. Veer and Ranbir Singh are neither, and even the latter’s critics will describe him as a world-class institution builder and administrator.

Especially if you enjoy good relations, both Singhs are potential dream VCs. One student tells Legally India: “Ranbir Singh has helped me a lot with the organization of events; I don’t think things would have been that smooth had any other VC been there. Ranbir Singh was exceptionally cooperative.”

“Veer Singh has done a great job”, he adds.

Ranbir Singh declined to comment on Friday when contacted.

Power sharing

Dhanda was elevated to the post of dean of academic affairs around the first half of 2011, although sources disagree on whether this was a direct consequence of the judicial inquiry. “A pressing need was felt to strengthen academic standards and restructure academics,” one faculty member tells Legally India. “It was created with the approval of the academic council.”

“Her post was created because a lot of faculty was moving out,” claims another faculty member, while one professor talks about an express resolution by the Nalsar council to appoint all faculty members in rotation to the post of dean academic affairs.

“Involvement of the faculty, by rotation, in administrative affairs would reduce concentration of authority in the office of the Vice-Chancellor,” the report notes on page 11. “The University management would do well to consult the faculty before taking policy decisions on important programmes.”

“Since [Dhanda] was the senior-most faculty member [at this time] it was felt by consensus that she is the most suitable person [for the post] and the chancellor appointed her”, says a professor. “To ensure that Dhanda has a say in academic affairs, Kakru made her a dean,” claims a faculty source, adding that the chancellor was lining up Dhanda as VC after the end of Veer Singh’s tenure.

“[Veer] Singh has a problem much more with the post than with Dhanda, in that he wants nobody else from the faculty to be involved in responsibilities of importance and wants everything to pass through him,” says one Nalsar staffer.

Divvying up Nalsar
Divvying up Nalsar
Nevertheless, as dean, Dhanda quickly began rivalling Veer Singh. “The chancellor stripped [Veer Singh] of most of his powers and made Dhanda the dean,” claims one student, while another adds cryptically: “[Dhanda] started giving her opinion on certain things.”

This puts Veer Singh’s interaction with Dhanda into further context.

Condemning the allegation that Dhanda’s “personal interest” got her the job, a source close to Dhanda says: “Veer Singh was present when [the post] was created. It is Veer Singh himself who had appointed Dhanda, and now he is backing out on his stand. He should stand by his decision.”

Singh told Legally India almost three weeks ago: “The post of dean academic affairs was created before this inquiry or the report took place”. He did not respond to an email seeking further comment last week.

Dhanda declined to comment and did not respond to emails when Legally India contacted her.

Nalsar students: Serious, studious, solitary
Nalsar students: Serious, studious, solitary
Revenge of the nerds

Most students contacted by Legally India over the past weeks claimed to be blissfully unaware of faculty tensions. This could be partly explained by Nalsarites’ reputation amongst other law colleges as nerdy, sporty and apolitical (backed up by Nalsar’s thumping two-time win of Legally India’s Mooting Premier League).

Apart from the niche all-boys-club of career or family politicians on the student bar association (SBA), most apparently don’t get too involved.

Nevertheless, the student body is now slowly galvanising. While fourth and final-year students are panicking mildly about the potential damage to Nalsar’s brand and recruitment prospects, the younger batches are more enthusiastic about taking direct action. The SBC meanwhile is caught between a rock and a hard place, having to keep up working relations with the administration while trying to react appropriately with the report’s revelations.

In the latest development, the entire elected SBA body is set to meet Veer Singh today at 11:40am. “He will make a statement as regards the revelations made by the Enquiry Committee Report on the University. He will make a statement before the 40 members of the Student Bar Council, following which he will respond to questions from the SBC,” starts an email sent to all students by a senior SBC functionary early on Saturday morning:

“We understand that the student body has a lot of questions that need to be addressed. So we request students to send in their questions to their respective representatives, which will be tabled before the VC. The minutes of the meeting will be recorded and published for the reference of the Student Body. Following the meeting, the SBC will take stock of the VC's response and decide on the future course of action.

“Given the gravity of the situation, I realise the Student Body would have preferred a meeting with all the students present. However, we believe that we will be able to facilitate a more organised and meaningful debate through a meeting with the representatives of the SBC. Further, we want this to be a participatory process, and hence request you to send in your questions to your representatives. Feel free to contact any members of the Executive with any concerns you may have.

“Please note that we see this as an opportunity to push for transparency and accountability in our future interaction with the administration, and will decide on our course of action in consultation with the Student Body- keeping the larger interests of the University in mind. While it is natural to be inclined towards acting out in response to the revelations, it is important to not resort to any actions that would worsen the situation. So I request you to bear with us through this difficult time and address your concerns through the SBC.”

This may be a difficult time and a knock for Nalsar students and everyone involved, but no one expects this to sink the institution.

In fact, in the spirit of the meticulous report by the judges, this could one day become known as Nalsar’s and Indian law schools’ finest hour in their quest for excellence.

Editor’s note: After publication of the above report, a flood of Nalsar Hyderabad alumni came out in force to support Nalsar’s dean of academic affairs Amita Dhanda via telephone and email.

After detailed conversations about their concerns, Legally India would like to set the record straight: at no point did we intend for any implication to arise about the legitimacy or otherwise of any charges of sexual harassment. While we believe that the alleged sexual harassment is a valid part of the back story by illustrating the fraught relationship between vice chancellor Veer Singh and Dhanda, putting it into the context of an institutional power struggle is all too often used as an excuse for dismissing such complaints.

We do not wish to exacerbate a situation about which not enough can be conclusively determined from a Times of India report, or to discourage anyone else for filing similar complaints in academic institutions or elsewhere. We have therefore edited the earlier version of the story in respect of a number of references to the personal dispute between Veer Singh and Dhanda, which should be settled between them according to established procedures.

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