Did your law education teach you to challenge the status quo?

Disclaimer: Today’s blog post is going to be anecdotal and subjective. Constraints of the subject I am writing on.

Let me start by telling you why I decided to study law. From a very young age I saw law as a tool for social change. Growing up as I did in the states of Odisha and West Bengal, it was hard not to feel that way.

West Bengal of course had that glorious (but quite dark in parts) period in its history where the landless and the underprivileged stood up to demand their rights.The need for an equitable distribution of land was thrown into the lime-light and took up a big part of the discourse.

Odisha, while I was there was in the middle of an interesting churning. Mining companies were increasingly trying to make inroads into the land of the tribals. There was a genuine push back from the tribal communities, as the land that was sought to be taken away was often a source of livelihood, cultural identity, and in one case (namely that of the Niyamgiri hills) it had religious significance.

Incidents such as the protests and Nandigram and Singur took place in West Bengal, before I finished my twelfth grade and both these incidents (though largely ignored by the national media) shook the Bengali imagination,

The law seemed like a source of comfort, and the legal system a safe space where one could agitate against the excesses of the executive. The judiciary had inspired, and to a large extent still inspires the trust of Indian citizens. It felt natural then, that law could, and was supposed to be used as a tool by which existing power structures could be challenged, and sometimes lasting change could be brought about.  

Later I learnt  that law was not always a tool for social change. In a large number of cases it was a tool for maintaining the status quo, promoting vested interests and reinforcing power equations. If you look around to see the ‘chattelization’ of women under Indian adultery law, or the treatment given to persons with mental disabilities, the criminalization of certain sexual acts between consenting adults, you begin to realize that like our society, law is a conflicting site of various points of view. There is a tug of war between vested interests, and we can only hope that the march is towards progress and not regression.

I joined ILS Law college in 2007, and studied there for five years. In the course of this I met some brilliant professors, and some genuinely interesting people. These people, like me, joined the law school right after 12th grade, at the age of 18. They studied with me for five years. During my studies, and after graduation, I met people from various other law schools, some of whom  I got to  know well. So I feel that I can write about law education in India with a bit of authority, if not with the same ease and confidence that a pedagogue displays.

Of late I have been thinking of what legal education in India has achieved, and more over what it has failed to do. This got me thinking about one very specific aspect of legal education. Did it in fact teach people to challenge the status quo? And more fundamentally should it teach people to challenge the status quo?

My experience is that there was nothing substantial in the education most law students were given, that really taught us to analyze why power structures exist, and whether we should challenge them. The initiative was largely of individual teachers.For example I must mention Professor Jaya Sagade who completely changed the way I read and understood the law. She taught us at ILS not only to read a statute but also ask ourselves why it exists, who it benefits and whether we agree with it or not. If I had not had the honor of studying under her, I don’t know if I would be here asking these questions.

I asked a few other people people I know this very question question. On asking a classmate whether her law education taught her to question the status quo, she said, and I quote her: 

“no it did not instill in me the spirit to challenge the status quo. my law education except the subject women and law taught by Prof Sagade, was entirely based on the rote approach. I could not appreciate the peculiarities or circumstances that involved the legislature to draft the legislation.
also our system is not dynamic enough we either are under the tutelage of professors who want you to get marks or seniors or partners who want to make money.”
Another person I asked the same question felt that it was not really the job of legal education to teach you to challenge the status quo, but it was their job to give you the skills needed to survive. 
Another person had this take:
“personally dont think any education (law or otherwise) will help you challenge the status quo unless you feel for the cause so much so you decide to challenge it..nope i dont think law education helped with that..its a personal response, i dont think law edu did that for me .. for some maybe the need to challenge comes through law education, but it didn’t for me..”

Of all the people I spoke to, only one person felt that her law education had helped her challenge the status quo, because it helped her understand the rights of people, and if the status quo went against those rights, it had to be challenged.

I have included these anecdotal excerpts because I wanted to paint a slightly more representative picture than simply talk about my experiences. But having considered everything, I must mention certain systematic problems in the way our curriculum is built, financed, and the way we perceive law education.  I will try to list some of them:

The issue of attitudes.

I remember seniors, lawyers, colleagues, and teachers all telling me, in a very well meaning manner, that I should not call myself a ‘human rights’ lawyer because human rights lawyers are not taken seriously. I have heard lawyers representing an NGO just being brushed off in Court (irrespective of the merit of their argument) on because NGOs are ‘publicity hungry’. Whenever people articulate the idea that a law expresses  a male point of view or the point of view of the rich, their objectivity is questioned as they are ‘channeling a feminist agenda’ or a ‘socialist agenda’. However the blatant channeling of patriarchy or capitalism is considered ‘neutrality’.

Products of law school are much more comfortable with ‘doing whatever it takes to win a case’ but uncomfortable with taking an ideological stance, because while the former is what lawyers are supposed to do, the latter is a sign of weakness. Human rights and their allied concerns are packed off and kept in a separate enclosure away from the main body of law, as if most law is not the articulation of the rights of human beings. 

In India people have quite forgotten the link between criminal defense and human rights, and the two are mostly seen in water tight compartments. 

Until issues like human rights and human entitlements take their place in the mainstream of law, I feel our legal education will be stunted, producing people who can accomplish given tasks, but not think critically.

The issue of finances.

Law education in India is not a cheap affair, if you are joining a National Law school. The fees are to the tune of Rs 7 lakhs for five years. (My friends from National Law Schools can correct me if I am wrong). It seems to me that a student from a economically underprivileged background can join these schools if she takes a loan (or is given a scholarship). Scholarship students do not really form a large chunk of the student body, so I am presuming that a lot of underprivileged students who join these colleges take loans. This makes it very difficult for them to take subjects/ jobs that do not make them employable for high paying jobs. So we see a situation where students who would have a rich perspective on  challenging the status quo, themselves being from an under-privileged background, are actually prevented from doing so due to the  financial framework of a legal education.

Litigation is notorious for not paying well in the initial years, which means that we do not really want to give ease of access to those who are not economically well off. There is little wonder then, at the fact that litigation essentially becomes a place for the sons (sometimes daughters) of established lawyers, with little room for a new comer.

The lack of an interdisciplinary approach.

Social sciences are still thought of as ‘matters of opinion’ by a large body of law students. A very small number of law students or young law professional read about politics, sociology, economics, except to pass exams).

This does not leave much room for them to apply an inter-disciplinary approach into making their arguments. At the Supreme Court and some High Courts one does get to see this kind of innovative litigation now and then, but it hardly permeates into all levels. 

This is because while being taught about a law, we are rarely ever asked to think about questions of justice, and politics. 

It is quite like that cave of Plato’s we learnt about. Most people see that dance of shadows, spend five years or entire lifetimes believing that to the reality.

But perhaps I am wrong. Maybe the legal education in India is churning out masses of sensitive critically thinking people, who may not want to devote their lives to public service, but do spend a lot of time thinking of and debating ethics and morality. Maybe they regularly question social organization, or existing power structures.

Perhaps I am wrong at a more basic level. Maybe no education is meant to teach you to challenge the status quo. Maybe the job of an education is to just make you competent at research and well spoken.

Maybe you just need to be taught how to hold a fork and spoon, and never ask why some people go hungry.

If so, the correct my impression with a comment below. If not, let us help everyone (including ourselves) get out of the cave.   

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3 thoughts on “Did your law education teach you to challenge the status quo?”

  1. Dear Srishti, you write very well. Am getting inspired from you. I liked this article. My favorite line is “Maybe you just need to be taught how to hold a fork and spoon, and never ask why some people go hungry.”. Law may inspire to challenge the status-quo or not as ultimate result of 5 years LLB depend upon lot of things you have mentioned but for law graduates who want to bring change am sure would just be part of change and I see lot of them silently do it in court rooms.

    1. I am glad you liked it. It is commendable that despite the constraints of our legal education, so many people are asking relevant questions, and working towards change. But so many others are oblivious to what they are missing out on. Many will not even admit that every law they are studying has a social interface, and can not be divorced from society. Hence, we need a revamped of our legal education. It is people like you, however, that continue to inspire us younger people. 🙂

  2. Dear Srishti,Thanks for this awakening article.In my opinion its a good analytic article.The factors you had mentioned here are very very relevant.We really(not only law student but all) never think critically.It is not just because of the education system but the whole social system is responsible behind it.Social system which include politics,judiciary,governance,media etc.The sources from where we took information,education,knowledge are really responsible.That is the way we have been taught.We were taught that 1 and 1 always make 2, never allowed to learn that 1 and 1 can also make 11.So from the beginning we unable to develop the skill within us from where we can observe the society from different dimensions.Thanks that we have social media,blogs and internet now a days along with people like you which really create an opportunity for at least few no. of people to develop the idea among themselves on critical analysis of an issue.

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