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Alumni in the Archives: An Interview with Legal Historians - Part II



Rohit De (BA LLB 2005), Kalyani Ramnath (BA LLB 2009) and Priyasha Saksena (BA LLB 2010) are all currently legal historians teaching at Yale University, the University of Georgia and the University of Leeds respectively.

This interview is the second of a three-part series. In the second part, Quirk spoke to them about the research work they do, accolades they won, and "historical" events at Law School. The interview was conducted by Jwalika Balaji (BA LLB 2023), Lakshmi Nambiar (BA LLB 2023), Chetan R (BA LLB 2024) and V Sreedharan (BA LLB 2024). We'd like to thank the Alumni Officer, Ms Akanksha Sharma (BA LLB 2013) for helping us make this interview possible.


Part I and III of the interview can be found here and here.


Q: Are there any advantages that you get by being an academic based in a prestigious foreign university? We’ve heard how even within India, you have this hierarchy between foreign universities and Indian ones. Do you have any comments on that?


RD: I think that we have to acknowledge two basic facts. One is that the world we operate in is hierarchical, and is marked by forms of credentialization. And secondly, studying at Law School a lot of student motivation is aimed at acquiring these modes of credentialization - because we saw these as things to operate under.

There are ways in which institutional locations privilege us. But there are also ways in which being non-majorities in these institutional locations also hold us back. And similarly, if you look at India itself, the relationship between the top NLUs and other institutions that teach law, the hierarchies between who gets invited to what events or who gets, for the longest time, clerkships to and I'm not sure if it's changed recently, clerkships are only open to a small pool of students who were in these institutions at a particular date. So these forms of hierarchy in credentialization exist. At some point or the other, many of us will experience being at receiving ends. The solutions to that are both macro-structural, but also about our own practice, to look beyond credentials and look at scholarship, or work, when we are inviting or addressing people.


PS: Totally agree, credentials operate in a lot of ways. And I'm speaking as someone who has been privileged by a lot of credentialed institutions over the last 10-15 years or so. You can see that doors are open to you, because people can see your CV and look at the institutions you're affiliated with. This is an unfortunate fact. There's also money and resources that are disproportionately there in certain parts of the world, and even in India, at certain institutions, as Rohit was mentioning. Obviously, I don't think it's about accepting it. But there are small ways that we can try ourselves, as Rohit was saying, who do we talk to? Who do we invite? What kind of networks can we build in order to privilege those or in order to at least provide a platform to those who don't already have one? And I think that's the responsibility of everyone who has any sort of privilege and I count myself in that category. Of course we'll have to wait for a little bit to smash the system but hopefully we'll get there.


KR: I completely agree with everything that Rohit and Priyasha mentioned. I'm trying to think of it from the perspective of the students as well. NLS in that sense is really at the top of the totem pole since it may not be true for other law schools or other institutions for legal education in the country. I am seeing though, with the pandemic, a lot more of a consciousness of these barriers to travel, to access resources. It's not enough, conference fee waivers can only go so far. But I think there is now a new awareness of just how much stands in the way of scholars and students from the global south or from less privileged spaces to be able to access, exchange, network and travel between these places. But of course, there's far more to be done in that respect. I remember writing my very first legal history piece from the Law School library, with just the resources available there, and then rewriting it as an advanced legal researcher at Yale. And it was just unbelievable how wide that gulf is. But it does produce different kinds of scholarship. And the challenge is to see them as being equal and equally valuable. I also see more initiatives largely powered by students and more power to that. One thing I would want to see more of is for [institutional support] to be available as a given, rather than for one to have to ask for it.


Q: Both Priyasha and Kalyani’s scholarships this year got major accolades at the American Society of Legal History. Priyasha’s work on the history of international law, looking at princely states in India got the Sutherland Prize, and Kalyani’s article on debt, international law and decolonization won two prizes. It’s remarkable since both articles bring focus on the history of the region. In that context, and given the current political climate, what do you see as the future of history-related academic studies? And how do you think that has influenced the existing political climate?



PS: Thanks. The win was a surprise - let's put it that way. So if you study the history of international law, in the last two or three decades, the entire field has really been revolutionised. Earlier, most international law was taught by going through an entire row of scholars sitting in Europe, and what they thought. In the past two-three decades or so, there's been a move to thinking about international law a bit more socially. There is one particular interest, which is about how the history of international law relates to the history of the empire, and how those two are entangled with each other - and both are arising around about the same time. So, what is the role that the empire has played in the creation of international law concepts? That's what I started with when I wrote my application.

But the more you read about contemporary international law, the more you realise that it is entangled with all these historical debates and the colonial past. There's been that move in the academy to figure out how the history of international law is affecting contemporary international law. There's also a move to try and look at regions which haven't been looked at so much in the past - for instance, Latin America or Africa. And that's where I was trying to think a bit more about the South Asian context. One of the things which I was trying to think of, in my research, was about how international law has played a role in the construction of the state. And the Indian nation-state is very recent, and it was literally constructed out of hundreds of different types of entities. So my current research is about the role of sovereignty in the history of the princely states. So how the princely states argued using the concept of sovereignty, or by relying on the concept of sovereignty, to try and shape their relationships with other powers - primarily the British, but also anti-colonial nationalists, other types of colonial powers in the region, and how those ideas can still reflect about how people today are trying to shape their relationships with the authoritarian Indian state in particular, but also states in general, across the world. So the way I look at it, I see the history of sovereignty as a history of trying to organise relationships. And hopefully, by understanding that history, we can try and understand how people are currently trying to organise their relationships with each other and with the state. The academy might not be flourishing, but the field of research is flourishing. So in that sense, I think it's an exciting time to do the historical research, although, of course, there is a larger debate to be had about the place that universities occupy in the world, and how we can ensure that this place remains. There's been a long-term defunding of public education across the world, and attacks on universities, across the world and in India. So, we need to understand and think about the space that is available to do this kind of research.


KR: Congratulations, Priyasha it was no surprise to me at all that you won a major international prize. I also wanted to say how much Rohit and you have led the way, both in the teaching but also the research approach to legal history. I've been talking with you about this for 15 years now. You were one of the very first to follow this path. We are all in a sense on this journey together. And it's nice to see how books that are the product of 10+ years of research have come to fruition and the effect that these books and articles are having on the field but also on public discourse. What was really interesting for me when I received this prize from the American Society for Legal History was that the same article won two prizes, and one was specifically for global legal history, but one was for all of legal history. So this is interesting in and of itself, right? Like Priyasha said, there's now a shift in how scholars of law and history want to look at these parts of the world and say, “Hey, there's something interesting going on here”. My own research is on borders, migration and citizenship, which as you guys can imagine, is really salient and timely in unfortunate ways. The article that won the prizes tracks a very small time-debt recovery case that happens in Madras, and how it gets picked up by writers of legal textbooks and how it travels to Europe and becomes a small footnote in a textbook about international law. I was struck by the way in which litigants were using the language of international law, why were they using that language? All of this ties back to a lot of archival work that I did at the Madras High Court. I was struck by the fact that in the 50s, after independence, so much litigation was happening involving colonial-era migrants to Southeast Asia. After independence, all of these migrants are trying to still keep networks and connections with their former homes and places of work. So the article was about that.


But it's really also about how one would conceive of Indian legal history without the larger regional and global framework. How does law travel? With whom does law travel? And what forms does it take - textbooks, lawyers, citations? I'm really interested to see that because that's how we can think of Indian legal history not bound by India, but as this thing that has power more globally as well. Just going back to our conversation about South-South exchanges, how does colonial India serve as a laboratory for many legal forms that circulate between other parts of Asia, but also Africa? It’s a way for us to think collaboratively across these people who work on Singaporean, Kenyan or Indian law. Thinking historically gets us much more of a sense of the shared intellectual history of these ideas, places, and people who travel between them.



RD: When I came to the US to do further studies, I didn't think I was going to do history. I wanted very much to get myself into the field of Comparative Constitutional law. And I was struck by the question about how the Indian Supreme Court became so powerful. Now, it seems a very naive question to have asked, perhaps being taken in by the mythology and not looking at it carefully. But I think when I went over to the US, it became very clear that the American legal system, for all its iniquities, was one that was a part of a broad, shared, inherited legal tradition. A chunk of the population had participated in making the law - and there was a sense of ownership of the law and the Constitution, in a way that doesn’t map on that easily in India. It was clear that much of our legal system had roots in the colonial period, the legal system worked in English, but surprisingly, despite that, whether people believe it or not, it had a lot of salience in popular imagination, popular culture. I was interested in investigating that. In my work, I've taken two directions. The first is a history of how the Constitution exists in the popular domain. Currently, I'm working on a book with Ornit Shani that looks at Constitution-making outside the Constituent Assembly - what kinds of conversations were taking place across the country, within institutions, between 1940- 51, which informed the document or in some ways departed from the document.

The second looks at the emergence of civil liberties lawyering across various British colonies. It's partly in response to work that suggests that modern human rights lawyering is really a product of globalisation, the end of the Cold War and the emergence of certain kinds of internationally funded organisations. And it's also seen as civil liberties, human rights lawyering taking away from older kinds of struggles that are more fundamentally engaged with restricted distribution. And while this description might apply to some parts of the world, it did not seem to describe what I've seen in India, or in other places that I’ve some experience of. So I'm tracking - and this is different, in the sense that I've never worked with biographies before - I'm really following a network of lawyers in East Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia as they moved from the 50s, to the 80s, to look at how the same lawyers start doing different kinds of cases at different moments as the kind of nature of political lawyering changes. And the kind of Indian factor that I refer to is that a significant proportion (for a variety of reasons) of lawyers in East Africa, South Africa and Southeast Asia were either Indian migrants or of South Asian descent. So what does it mean if the majority of the legal profession belongs to a minority? And how do lawyers reconcile their ethnic identities, their political identities and their professional identities? I have noticed that it comes at a time and place where not just universities, but civil liberties lawyers are under attack across the world and the profession is being asked very hard questions about how this is to be practised forward? So, I don't think historians like being relevant - unfortunately, we find ourselves being relevant, which means that things are usually going bad in the world somewhere.


PS: That's the only time people start talking about lessons from history or what can we learn from the past or things like that. Very ominous.


Q: All of you speak about your interest in international law, human rights. What made you pick these particular sections of legal history? And what drew you into specialising in those?


KR: A historian’s answer is that we are always led by the sources we see in the archive. So you go in, you see what's available in terms of the sources, and you start seeing patterns, trends, and you kind of try to fit it in with what you already know about it. So for instance, a lot of the research of the book that I'm writing began with the Madras High Court and with the Tamil Nadu state archives, and seeing on the other side of the Bay of Bengal, cases involving ordinary dock workers in Singapore, who are labelled communist and deported to Madras. And, VG Row - who we might have encountered in a different context, in constitutional law cases - actually picks up their cases and represents them before the Madras High Court in their habeas corpus applications. And then I just literally follow that thread to see where it would take me. I had a chat with Justice Chandru, who had worked with Row & Reddy, the law firm that represented these detainees, and then went back into the archive. So it becomes an iterative process - eventually, this project became a story about conflict of laws, about these different jurisdictions. With the coming up of national borders, how are jurisdictional claims formed? How are they put forward? How does a court adjudicate it? Then what happens to people's lives? And why are they going to the courts because it’s not obvious that they should go to the courts, right? So the question was really about: Hey, what's this court in Madras doing with all of these cases from Southeast Asia? And they are literally everywhere, you see only a small percentage in the law reports. But if you actually see, going to the record room, every other case has something to do with Malaysia or with Sri Lanka. And so I was really fascinated by that. And it became a project about conflict of laws at the intersection of questions that public international lawyers asked.


And once you go back to the sources, you see that it's a lot more about people who are wrongly accused. So it wasn't really a field of legal history as much as it was: ‘Look, the way in which people encounter the law is quite different from the way lawyers kind of silo it off into different fields of practice’; so for a migrant who's standing before a court, law looks like an interlocking system of taxation, immigration and detention - much less as international law or criminal law.


RD: I’ll just briefly follow up about this being driven by sources. While I would describe myself as someone who's a historian of the Indian constitution, a lot of the work I looked at actually cuts across different silos of law. So I looked at administrative law, criminal law, family law, evacuee property law. And a lot of it dealt with municipal regulations, things that no law school teaches you. No one looks at, say street vendor licencing. I think I was really driven partly by a question of time - I'm interested in the moment of the 50s when the colonial regime shifted into these new post-colonial territories in different places. And I'm also interested in what Kalyani points out - the contrasting visions between those who operate within the legal system and those who sit outside.


PS: I agree with Kalyani on it being driven by the sources. As I mentioned, I never considered myself as a legal historian. I mean, I probably do now, largely because I don’t think I have it in me to write like a doctrinal lawyer anymore. As I said, my project was initially supposed to be about how developing countries interact with international lawyers - a contemporary project. In the first year of the SJD, we were supposed to define what the reading list is going to be. Depending on your supervisor, it can be pretty open-ended: mine was really open-ended, so I could read whatever I wanted, vaguely related, to international law. And I just started reading a lot about the historical ways of interactions with international law and how they influence the contemporary world. But as I read more of it, I thought, “There's lots of other types of interactions also going on, right? What about all these other entities, only one of which was the princely states? How were they thinking about this?” And if you step into the archives, start looking at anything, which any of the princely states were talking about, they were really obsessed with sovereignty. Every petition, every letter, everything, had some iteration of sovereignty in it. So I just thought it would be interesting to trace that. And as Kalyani said, you pick up the patterns. it's a laborious process of just stumbling through a lot of material and picking out patterns of things.


Q: If you, as a historian, were studying at NLS, what is one aspect of the college or the campus or the general law school life that would interest you and that you would want to focus on?


RD: That's a great question. Surabhi Ranganathan and I actually started writing a paper on the history of NLS, which got sidetracked with the pandemic. But I think one of the major things about Law School was that it was initially designed and planned in the 60s, for a very different kind of India in a very different kind of economy. Its curriculum, its orientation was all with that in mind, but it came into shape, and its first batch graduated when India liberalised. So, in some ways Law School was out of step with time and conversely, its success, in many ways, was tied to liberalisation. So how do you figure out this tension? I would love it if someone had collected say, stuff taken off 19(1)(a), comments on the sides of things, GBM resolutions, etc.


KR: Your paper with Surabhi also makes me think about this constant refrain that we heard about Law School when we graduated, which is that Law School is set up to train litigators, but no one is going into litigation. That, you were all meant to be social engineers, and you're not social engineers anymore. And I remember thinking about this in quite some detail. There's a lot of social and cultural capital that you need in order to go in and be a social engineer, whatever that means. I mean, that's tied to the question that you and Surabhi are investigating, Rohit. I remember answering someone who asked me, “Okay, so you're all in these law firms. And you're all jaunting off to London soon after you graduate? I mean, what's that about?”


Why don't we do a survey to see what people are doing five years after they graduate? The question isn't what they do one year after they graduate - the question is, what do they do with that education? Like a longitudinal survey of sorts. This assumption that you must have, that you must go out and socially engineer, is quite odd to me. I think that comes from a very particular milieu where people came in with a lot of generational advantages into Law School. that had begun to change when I graduated. it certainly had changed by the time I came back to teach briefly - the students I was teaching were not anything like my peers who I went to law school with for five years.


PS: We face this question all the time at the law school which I'm in right now: what do students do after they graduate? And at least the statistics here in the UK are that only about a quarter of our graduates actually end up in the legal profession at all. It would be really interesting to see what the statistics are for NLS.

One really interesting thing to see would be, how has the teaching changed? Even if it's just something as basic as syllabi, the curriculum or exams over the years, how has that changed? Maybe I'll even start working on some of these things for my next project - let's see, if I ever finish the princely states. I also think it might be interesting, particularly because the social demographics have changed to see how student activism has changed over time. What is the role that student activism has played in NLS? It will be an interesting historical explanation, I think.


RD: This whole social engineering thing was extremely strange because Law School was also very clear that you cannot be involved in politics in Law School. In its early years, if you joined a political party, you would be expelled or suspended. You're supposed to be like some kind of non-state IAS officer who was going in managing these unruly crowds in the districts. So, maybe it's a good thing that that really happened. The other bit is that Law School had a constitutional crisis in the late 90s, where initially, in the SBA, students did not have the vote, only ABC members could vote for the SBA President and Vice-President. And then the student body went on a kind of general strike, and there was no SBA for one year. And they wrote a new constitution. So when I joined Law School, the new constitution had just come into force. And it was a controversial working. I mean, there were lots of people who were removed from their post in earlier years. And the idea was, they were crises of amendments. So there's an interesting constitutional history of law school that can be inspiring, which comes from students claiming sovereignty, from a semi-authoritarian benevolent state.

I mean, the other thing is a great book by Elizabeth Mertz, it's called Learning to Think Like a Lawyer. And she's the anthropologist who goes to law school, tracks how her classmates' teaching and thinking changes over three years. But later on, when I would talk to friends who went to other institutions about something as mundane as you know, “I didn't get elected to a committee” or “There was a protest against faculty and we wrote a petition”. Everyone looked at me as if I was insane! Like, what do you mean, you wrote a petition? And it's a petition, which follows a certain kind of formalistic language with arguendo words and statements. You see that even when these NLS alumni go into other things, there is this kind of lawyer-y thinking that they carry with them - how you argue, how you write. I think it'd be interesting to be reflexive about the process just to see how your own forms of writing and argumentation, not just in law and legal matters, but also in other matters, like how you negotiate relationships, for example, change over the course of exposure to legal education.

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