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Game of Quotas: Ex-NUJS prez Arjun Agarwal argues effects of domicile quotas could be ‘game-changing’ for NLUs

Game of Quotas at NLUs (picture credit: Aditya Kumar)
Game of Quotas at NLUs (picture credit: Aditya Kumar)

Lately, domicile politics has aggressively and even incrementally hit prominent NLUs including NLSIU Bengaluru, NALSAR Hyderabad, NUJS Kolkata, NLU Jodhpur and NLU Odisha.

On 20 November 2018, the Government of West Bengal (GoWB) surreptitiously moved several contentious amendments to my alma mater, NUJS’ suprema lex viz. the WBNUJS Act, 1999. Briefly, the amendments sought to amend the basic structure of NUJS in the following ways:

  1. providing for at least 30 per cent reservation for West Bengal domiciled candidates;
  2. guaranteeing freeships in tuition fees to at least 5 per cent of total strength of students;
  3. bestowing student-fees setting powers on the GoWB; and
  4. contemplating admission based on “merit” determined by one of the four ways enumerated therein, including, but not limited to the incumbent Common Law Admission Test (CLAT).

The debilitating import of these measures has been previously explained by the then office-bearers of the Student Juridical Association (SJA) and myself.

Later in November 2018, the SJA is understood to have met with the Governor of West Bengal, Shri Keshari Nath Tripathi. It appears that acting on the SJA’s representation, the Governor had initially put his assent on hold till the GoWB responded to his queries that came off his discussions with the SJA. But Shri KN Tripathi ultimately gave his assent thereto.

On 18 June 2019, the Registrar (Acting), Ms Shikha Sen announced that following the Governor’s assent, the WBNUJS Amendment Act, 2018 was notified on 21 May 2018, days before the CLAT exam was held on 26 May 2019.

In the last few months, the domicile quota bug has gone viral in West Bengal. It has affected the Institution of Eminence (IoE) shortlisted Jadavpur University and medical colleges across the state alike. As rightly pointed out in a recent SJA email to the General Body, the manic obsession with domicile quota has pushed the GoWB “to sacrifice IoE status, generous funding and research opportunities; squander much-needed resources on pointless litigation; and even disregard the wise counsel of its own”.

Interestingly, while DSNLU Vizag under pressure from its valiant student body and the CLAT consortium was forced to scale back domicile reservation to 50% from a high of 90%, WBNUJS is risking its national appeal by readily submitting itself to the legislative caprices of the GoWB.

A close friend, Debadatta Bose, who was involved in the DSNLU lobbying, credits a delegation of DSNLU students that visited the then Chief Minister, Mr. N. Chandrababu Naidu and support from faculty members for the development.

On the other hand, it is strongly rumoured that there is a very real possibility of WBNUJS exiting the CLAT in the near future, citing the NLU Delhi example. While even the NLUs in Maharashtra, a state known for parochial politics, rushed to join the CLAT consortium, it appears that GoWB has resolved to prove Gopal Krishna Gokhale wrong.

The founding fathers of the Indian law school project had visualized NLUs as iconic torchbearers whose radiating effects would transform legal education in the country. NLUs were envisioned to be vested with financial, academic and administrative autonomy, free from the shackles of stultifying University Grants Commission and Ministry of Human Resource Development norms and to be truly national in character.

NLSIU, NALSAR, NUJS and NLU Delhi had all started without domicile quotas. However, in the last two decades almost all the NLUs including the ones in pipeline have domicile quotas between 25-50%.

While no impact studies have been done thus far to show whether the imposition of domicile quotas has achieved their stated social justice goals, there is early, fact-based evidence to suggest that such quotas have a strong urban bias, which may be challenged on ground of over-inclusiveness.

It is unclear whether the GoWB did any longitudinal studies or in-depth surveys to collect hard evidence that shows domiciles losing out to the so-called “Hindi belt” folks and whether increasing the quota from 10 seats to 30%; vesting itself the power to set student-fees; mandating 5% freeships; and the option to make NUJS exit CLAT are necessarily the best ways to do ‘justice’ to the domicile.

In a welcome departure from the past, Shri Kishore Dutta, Advocate General, West Bengal, kindly advised Registrar Sen to place the issue of implementation of the domicile quota from academic year 2019-2020 in the upcoming Executive Council (EC) meeting’s agenda. Some problems that WBNUJS will likely face should its venerable EC meekly submit to the political demands of the GoWB are enumerated below.

  1. Change in the rules of the game when it has already begun, which has been struck down innumerable times by the Supreme Court. Potential litigation by aggrieved candidates is possible. What’s worse: further loss of institutional reputation, which has already received a heavy battering under ex-Vice Chancellor (VC), Prof P Ishwara Bhat and the outgoing Acting VC, Justice (Retd) Amit Talukdar.
  2. CLAT Merit lists have already been published, i.e., the game has ended. Given the admission timelines, confusion and harassment of not only ‘outsider’ students but also West Bengal domiciles is likely even if there is no court challenge. Presently, the GoWB has not even defined what qualifies as ‘domicile’.
  3. WBNUJS is in a transition phase, with Prof NK Chakrabarti taking over shortly. NUJS already suffers from alarming faculty and student housing shortages. These cannot be remedied in a jiffy. In view of these circumstances, the first WBNUJS University Review Commission (URC) had previously recommended a temporary cut-down of the controversial NRI-quota seats to ensure greater focus on quality. As we speak, for over a year WBNUJS continues to be entangled in stillborn inquiries investigating allegations of maladministration, scams and over payments to data entry officers that individually run into crores.

Given these circumstances, it is best that the GoWB suspends the implementation of domicile quota this year. Instead, through an honest engagement and dialogue with the University administration and the SJA, the GoWB may work out a plan for a staggered implementation of an evidence-led quota policy which will be pegged against improvements in the quality and quantity of faculty, teaching and research infrastructure and funding; expansion in quality student housing and better campus facilities and security – as emphasised on by the URC and the SJA in the past. An SJA general body meeting earlier this week is understood to have vowed renewed attention to these matters.

As I have argued previously, the original design of NLUs is under imminent threat of dilution due to multiple organ failure.

Past experience shows that NLU students cannot depend on myopic and self-serving administrators or state governments.

The NLU Student Consortium may therefore urgently convene a meeting to develop a set of ‘minimum standards’ applicable across all NLUs, including on the issue of domicile quota.

Previously, Debadatta had ensured the introduction of the National Law Universities of India Bill, 2016 to partially address these concerns. With the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha, he has little hope today.

I strongly urge the NLU Student Consortium to draft a fresh Bill and approach parliamentarians; senior advocates; serving and retired SC and HC judges; and the concerned central Ministers.

Despite judicial inquisitiveness, the central government has shown little interest in according Institutes of National Importance (INI) tag to NLUs.

It is perhaps time for NLU Student Consortium, NLUs’ most reliable accountability mechanism, to look into other alternate models simultaneously.

Arjun Agarwal was elected President of WBNUJS’ Student Juridical Association for 2016-18, and presently works as an Associate at Trilegal, Delhi. All views expressed are personal.

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