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Opinion: Student councils should be made compulsory at NLUs, because checks, balances, democracy are good for nearly everyone

Student associations are a standard check and balance for the considerable power at the disposal of a state-funded university’s administration

We vote for organised student ‘Khalbali’ at the NLUs
We vote for organised student ‘Khalbali’ at the NLUs

“It all settles here with the passage of time. That’s the curse, there is no student body,” a student told me recently when I asked him about why the administration was not being called to account for some alleged wrongdoings it had committed.

And there’s a really important point to that, that we kind of see confirmed every year, over and over, when reporting on law schools: those with a strong and vocal student body tend to do better - at the very least administratively - than those where student associations are banned.

We don’t want to go naming names, but this is intended as some advice for law students to be: we think that if are looking at which university you should go to, the quality of a law school’s student council, student bar association (SBA), student juridical association (SJA) or whatever it’s called, should be one factor you should strongly consider.

Sure, law schools can do well without active students, just like totalitarian states like China can outperform lumbering democracies like India that are burdened by dissent.

And there are probably notable exceptions.

But an activist and engaged student body has historically more often than not acted as a very useful check and balance against administrative excess, and worked against the decline of institutions more than disinterested faculty or administration often has.

We have dug out some examples of where students and their bar associations have done great things (and also included a few examples, without naming names, where an active SBA, SJA or whatever it’s called could have made a difference).

Where SXAs can help

There’s this story going around about a certain national law school for a while now. One year, students selected by a law firm for interview via a sophisticated, new and advanced computerised selection process, were passed over for students unfairly favoured by a faculty member because they were not ‘troublemakers’.

When those students complained, they were silenced after the administration threatening their career prospects.

This is according to the accounts by several students. Now, unfortunately we talked to the law firm allegedly involved back then, the law firm said it did a proper due diligence and said that they were not aware of anything like that having happened, so we didn’t chase the story much further because we had a hard time getting an independent and authoritative confirmation of the allegation.

In short, we’re not 100% sure whether that story is true (which is why we’re not naming names).

But, don’t be under any illusions: stuff like this (and worse) does happen in national (and non-national) law schools.

NLUs are state-funded universities, regulated by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and (supposedly) the Bar Council of India (BCI), and watched over by other such as the auditor general, the country’s legal system, and now even the legal media.

But if there is a single more powerful mechanism to keep the closest watch on an NLU administration’s conduct, it is a unified body of its first beneficiaries – the students.

Favoritism, nepotism and opacity are just several features that law schools without a student representative body simply have a much harder time to eradicate or balance out with a dedicated body of students that can impartially voice concerns without fear of reprisals (if the elected students have the will and courage: often they do not, necessarily, but such is democracy).

SXA Victories

Although they often operate quietly in the shadows (or in some cases, not at all), student representative associations, as a concept, have had outsize impacts on NLU history.

For example, at _NUJS Kolkata_ its members dug out financial irregularities at the law school.

Or, more recently, at _NLSIU Bangalore_, the SBA got involved in challenging the law school’s faculty recruitment practices (arguably even indirectly helping the administration by forcing its hand on an issue that’s internally heavily political and contested).

A unified student body also has better bargaining power when it comes to negotiations against the administration, such as when it comes to funds for organising important events, proved RMLNLU Lucknow this year.

And in our _Law School Choice Sessions_ last year we noted how student bodies across the NLU universe have been effective in not just upping the infrastructure facilities at NLUs but also keeping sexual harassment and attitudes in check:

NUJS students had taken the administration to task for a lack of infrastructure and faculty, and had demanded the registrar’s resignation for sexual harassment; at NLSIU students made sure professors know they can’t pass sexist remarks at students with impunity; at RMLNLU students resolved infrastructural issues through meeting the chancellor; at HNLU Raipur students went on hunger strike for the law school’s poor campus placement efforts and for lack of a permanent campus, and both aspects gradually saw improvements; at NUSRL students boycotted exams to protest the administration’s apathy; Mumbai University was pulled up by a student, through his RTI, for its outdated courses.

Students sometimes work with the administration against external forces – at NUSRL Ranchi students won a land dispute against the local land mafia and helped the law school move to its designated campus, for instance. And 500 law students from various colleges pressured the Bar Council of India to intervene and better the circumstances at their law schools.

And sometimes the demands are innovative and practical, if a tad unrealistic to achieve: NLU Assam very recently students went hunger striking to demand a refund of four years of college fees in lieu of deficient facilities.

And here are a few more of the other questions a student body could be regularly asking of its administration:

SXAs are no magic bullet, but...

The concept of student associations may have certainly attracted flack and bad names over time, mostly due to national parties dipping their fingers into student politics, but smaller and remote institutions such as the NLUs have traditionally not really, as far as we know, had an overtly (party)-politicised SXA.

Also, a political body of whatever size and inclination is always susceptible to hazards that go with the very definition of politics – infighting and politicking, for instance.

We may face a lot of pushback here, but if you’re an eager aspirant of a career in law, ready to devote several lakh Rupees in fees and the next few years of your life to an NLU, after getting a top rank in the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), we recommend you consider this: if it’s an even choice between an NLU with an SBA, and one without, choose the former.

Places with a vibrant student community are usually safer long-term bet and investment, compared to those that don’t, where success in 2 years, 5 years, or a decade, more often than not depends solely on the whims and policies (or presence) of a single administrator.

Those NLUs that ban or curtail student associations, are depriving themselves of one of the most useful resources they have: bright students who made it through a (largely) meritocratic system and their passion for the subject to one of many elite law institutes in the country.

That power should be harnessed, not stifled.

And if you are a student at such an elite institution, we think you should loudly call on the administration to give you a voice and democratic say, even if that is difficult.

But that’s just our opinion here at LI.

What do you think? Please do leave a comment below (anonymously), especially if you can’t necessarily do so in college.

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