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‘I already had a powerful narrative’: The inspiring story of new Rhodes scholar Rahul Bajaj, islands of excellence, Trilegal, disability

He explains how a life's narrative and the opportunities you make yourself are more important than your alma mater

The inspirational story of Rahul Bajaj: Fighting chances, accepting scholarly opportunities
The inspirational story of Rahul Bajaj: Fighting chances, accepting scholarly opportunities

Rahul Bajaj and Sameer Rashid Bhat, the only lawyers among India's latest batch of five selected Rhodes Scholars we reported yesterday, have both crossed historical benchmarks to clinch the prestigious scholarships.

Bajaj, a 2016 law graduate from Nagpur University is the first alumnus from disciplines across the university to be awarded the Rhodes scholarship. He is also blind since birth.

Bhat, a GNLU Gandhinagar final year student is not just the first from GNLU but also the first student from Kashmir valley to have been awarded the Rhodes, according to Rising Kashmir. We reached out to Bhat yesterday, who said he was unavailable for interview at the time of going to press, as he was travelling.

Bajaj and Bhat made the final list against 13 other law students, including students of NLSIU Bangalore, Nalsar Hyderabad and KIIT Bhubaneswar, among competitors from other disciplines, to be the only lawyers to make it to the final round of this year's three-round selection procedure.

Students from NLSIU Bangalore, which has produced 25 Rhodes scholars since 1992, did not make it to the final shortlist rounds this year.

The selection committee comprised of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy senior fellow and GLC Mumbai 2009 alumnus Dhvani Mehta, sports lawyer and NLSIU 2000 alumnus Nandan Kamath and Supreme Court advocate and Nalsar 2007 alumnus Raghav Shankar. Mehta and Shankar are former Rhodes scholars whereas Kamath went to Harvard Law School for his post graduation.

When everyday life is a narrative

Bajaj was made aware of the scholarship opening by a friend only in the last week of June, after it had been announced on 1 June 2017, said he began writing his application from scratch and submitted a final application less than one week before the 31 July deadline.

“Most [Rhodes aspirants] apply in their final year but last year I didn't have the confidence that I could have achieved the scholarship principally because I studied in my hometown Nagpur. That [location] sort of foreclosed my possibility of getting selected,” he said, adding that the 25+ year history of Rhodes, suggested that NLSIU and Nalsar students had better chances and “better intellectual ability” than other law students to gain the prestigious scholarship.

An associate at Trilegal since he graduated, Bajaj said he did not have the luxury of spending several months working on his application.

But the quality that set apart his application from that of other aspirants, according to him, was that he did not have to spend time working on one thing at least.

“I did have a powerful narrative unlike other [aspirants] who have to work on building a narrative [to write in their statement of purpose (SOP)].”

Bajaj said that other than the customary six letters of recommendation - one of which was “very kindly” by Supreme Court justice UU Lalit, in whose office he had interned - and the academic transcripts and curriculum vitae, it was the 1000-word SOP that is an important part of the application.

He said he used that 1000-word space to “convey that [he has] always been a fighter and that the ability to realise one's full potential is not on the cards which one has been dealt but how one plays those cards”.

“Born with a disability in a small town, I always had the desire to not let my disability become my defining characteristic.”

Bajaj, whose research while at the Law Commission of India (LC) had a special mention by his name in the LC's 258th report on the prevention of bribery, and he secured the highest academic score in his batch each year during his five year LLB bemoaned the circumstances at his alma mater. “I never gave the [Common Law Admission Test] as on account of my disability I wanted to study in my hometown. That is something I made very clear in my SOP.

“It was a very de-spiriting experience for me to study in a university like mine. [By studying at the Nagpur University] I realised at a visceral level what it means when they say that the NLUs are islands of excellence.”

At Oxford, he will be selecting courses linked to intellectual property law and constitutional law so that he can pursue a career in litigation on issues at the intersection of these two fields, on coming back to India, he said.

Bajaj is currently part of the regulatory practice at Trilegal - a career choice which, he said, would make a “person in [his] situation” sufficiently “resourceful” to eventually have a litigating career.

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