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


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 third of a three-part series. In this fun third part, Quirk spoke to them about their life in law school and if they had any advice for students who wish to be legal historians. 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 II of the interview can be found here and here.


Q: Finally, we have a short fun segment, which is the rapid fire round. So the first question is, what was your most hated and most loved course at NLS?


PS: I would suspect that my most hated course was trusts, even though I teach it now. So I think that's probably a reverse of law school. I didn't get what trusts were. I ended up drafting a bunch of trust deeds when I worked at Amarchand, and now I teach trusts. So I don't know what that says about me - but you can put that in and the readers can judge [laughs]. Most loved - Rohit will be glad to know it was History II. Rohit taught us History II, because Prof. Elizabeth was on leave for the first couple of months of that trimester. We re-enacted the Constituent Assembly debates, and I was cosplaying Begum Noon. There wasn't much that she did in the actual Constituent Assembly - so I had to assume some of the positions that she would have. Basically I knew she was a member of the Muslim League - so I had to assume what she would be saying. But it was great fun! We had a viceroy, we had the press running scurrilous articles on our Google group and stuff. That was memorable. So thanks, Rohit.


RD: Kalrav Mishra (BA LLB 2010) made both the Muslim League and the Congress split. And they formed a third party. Yeah I had my notes for this.


PS: Haha, yes. I must say, I'm still sad. Despite knowing everything that happened, we still voted to partition and I don't think I'm ever going to get over it. Regardless of the fact that it was a great exercise, I'm still a bit depressed about the outcome.


RD: History I was my favourite class. I had just gotten into Law School - and it seemed to be in those days the closest you could be to having a liberal arts education, but also have a professional qualification. History I was such a refreshing breath of air - to have the class constantly challenged.

I don't think I hated any course. But I think I spent most of my fourth year in a bit of a blur in several of the classes. I don't really recollect anything that I did in Banking, Insurance or Trusts Equity specifically. I read a lot of Robert Jordan that year, so I don't think it was hatred, but I guess I was disengaged in those classes.


KR: History I was my favourite course as well . It was also the first time I got to write or learn to write a paper with different kinds of sources, and I just found the whole experience really, really fun. I got to visit a lot of different libraries and deal with different kinds of sources from different periods of time. I really also enjoyed Professor Mrinal Satish’s criminal law courses - they were amazing. And, Sitharamam Kakarala, who taught us in our final year. For me, these three were my favourite. Fourth year was a blur for me as well - I spent it doing the Hindu crossword under the table.


Q: The second question is, what is a very funny or cured fact or some piece of information that you come across while doing research for any of your project?


KR: I have to think about this because my research is super depressing. Let the others go.


RD: There are two. One, I guess it's funny in a kind of meta sense. So one of the early writ petitions that went to the court, the state asked for a delay because they had not budgeted any money to be sued. They were just so unused to being sued in the colonial period they never anticipated that the municipality could be sued after independence!


And the second is a hilarious anecdote in Shanti Bhushan’s autobiography where he's a young lawyer, who has just learned about this thing called writ petitions. And he gets challaned by a traffic policeman in Lucknow, Allahabad, and he's like, “I'm gonna file a writ petition against it”. And he goes to court and the judge has no idea what a writ petition is. So he's sitting and explaining the process of the writ petition to the judge. I mean, this is a really sad, almost dad level joke, but I found it hilarious when I was reading it.


PS: Not sure about ‘hilarious’ but given that there were a bunch of very rich monarchs involved, there's loads of scandalous stuff in the archives about the princely states. Pretty much everything has to do with them being petty, or vindictive, or trying to get away from responsibilities in some ways.

So, Sayajirao of Baroda was once dragged to court in England in a divorce petition. Some guy is saying, “I want to divorce my wife”, except you can't just divorce your wife, you need to have a ground, so the ground was adultery. And he said, “My wife committed adultery”. Who did she commit adultery with? It was Sayajirao. So his name was dragged through court because of that. He, of course, just claimed “You can't sue me. I'm a king”. And actually, that did ultimately happen. They couldn’t sue him because he was king! This is one of the ones which didn't have a very sad outcome because a lot of the others were “Yes, you killed a couple of people in your court, however, we can't do anything about it.”


KR: I don't have an anecdote that I can think of that's funny. But I will say that the process of researching for this project and figuring out having conversations with archivists and record room workers as to why I'm interested in this topic has always led to some hilarity. I have to use multiple languages to navigate these archives, switching between English and Hindi and Tamil and Malayalam, and they just can't figure out where I'm from. And they always try to guess from my accent, and they try to pin me down in terms of my identity before they will give me access to these archives. That's an interesting, but also somewhat funny anecdote about who gets access to all kinds of information. How do you have to present in order to be able to do that? When I go to Sri Lanka, for example, I get the same set of questions. And sometimes I just smile, because it's funny to me, but it's not funny to them - at all - they’re deadly serious. Whether I should have access to this material at all - “Why do you want to work on plantation labourers in Sri Lanka? Are you Tamil? Are you a Malayali? Are you Indian? Are you Sri Lankan? Are you Sri Lankan Tamil?” And it's just like, you know, sort of like these rapid fire questions, and I have to somehow find a way to smile through it all. That's not funny. It is what it is.


Q: What is your favourite hangout spot? Either in Law School or Bengaluru?


RD: Okay, gosh, this is just like waxing nostalgic. It might have changed, but in my time it was the quad, because the libraries were all there. And you know, this is sort of between vivas we would hang out. And it would have music and dance practice late at night, and quad parties had just started happening when we were there. I think I was part of the generation where quad parties had shifted from playing English music to Hindi music. I remember the horror in the senior NLS batches when that happened as well. it was sort of the real heart of the thing. And we had no internet. there was only one phone in the hostels - I sound ancient right now [smiles]. But that was basically if you wanted a break, you go to the quad and you find someone you know, then you hang out. So yeah. And in Bangalore, in general, I discovered something called the Eloor Lending Library in my third year, and it allowed you to rent books. And then a bunch of friends got together, it became a major hang out space. And obviously, Pecos.


PS: Yeah, I also spent most of my time hanging out at the quad. I used to study in the acad - I know, people preferred the library but I prefered the acad - so that's where I used to hang out most of the time. In the last couple of years, Chetta had come up and it was conveniently located in front of the girls' hostels. So I think, most of our fifth year, some one or the other - I mean, in fifth year we didn't have a lot to do anyway. And so we spent a lot of time just hanging around barbed wire and Chetta.

Bangalore, I probably spent a lot of time hanging out at Blossom Book House. That's probably the place I spent the most time in, in town.


KR: Yeah, Chetta was definitely a favourite spot. Also the library. In town, yes blossoms in the early days, and all of those bookstores around there. Koshys, for the Smiley's - I don't know if that's still around. The ice cream place where they have like chikoo ice cream and that sort of thing? Naturals?


Q: Who is one person from history that you would like to meet and have dinner with?


KR: I think I'd love to meet some of the old, sort of, like, early Madras lawyers - V G Row is coming to mind just because we’ve been talking about them. I'd really love to know what that court was like at that point. But, you know, what is really interesting is that, for a lot of the people that I write about, there are no names or they're just first names. And sometimes I catch myself wondering, you know, I'd love to know a lot more about their lives. Apart from the details I can glean from archival materials. It is always poignant researching migration, especially migration of nonelite peoples, so yeah, any of them.


PS: I’d prefer to not meet any of the people I write about because I don't think that would go very well. So, if you're not talking about research, in the last few days, when I haven't been marking trusts papers, I've been reading up a bit about DD Kosambi. And he is phenomenal - mathematician, historian, a guy who taught himself several languages. So I think, you know, if I had one person maybe, probably him.


RD: I think I share Priyasha’s response, in that one of the reasons I became a historian is because I don't want to actually talk to anyone that I'm studying. But if I had to pick I'd probably like, you know, have dinner at the Constituent Assembly. I sort of feel I know everyone who is in there. And I also know that we're eating in nice places like the Imperial Hotel. So, yeah [laughs].


Q: And just on a parting note, any final advice you'd like to leave for students who wish to take up this as a career path - studying legal history and being involved with it in some way?


PS: I would probably say, ask yourself what it means to pursue an interest in legal history. What what does that mean for you? Does it involve being an academic or does that mean something else? And how does that relate to other possible careers that you have in mind? I've mentioned this a couple of times before, but there is also a practical question about being an academic in the world today. And it can be a sign of privilege to say that I'm willing to give up something else in order to pursue a research interest. that's a serious question that you have to ask yourself in, you know, particularly given the circumstances of higher education, and academia today. So I think it would be helpful to think seriously - practical questions such as, is it possible? Should I be doing this? And you know, think about it deeply. Because of the nature of the beast, you should also probably think about, right, okay, if you do want to be an academic, where would you be housed right? Doing legal history at law schools is different from doing legal history at history departments. I do it at a law school, but Kalyani and Rohit probably have very different experiences from mine. So I think those are some of the questions which people should be thinking about.


RD: My only advice would be for people to read - not just legal history, but also history more generally. And it's always something that holds you in good stead, no matter what you do. Legal history as a career or as a research focus is something one develops, once you know what you're interested in, rather than saying, I'm interested in legal history, per se, so I think that we’ll only get to if you just read more history in general.


KR: I couldn't agree more with both Rohit and Priyasha. For me, studying legal history, or reading legal history is also a process of finding joy in the process of research. There's a joy in that process - it's a bit like being a detective, a bit like being a judge, a bit like being a lawyer, it's a little bit of all different kinds of things. And it helps you in a sense to imagine and inhabit different worlds. And one has to really enjoy that process, it has to be an end in itself, before it becomes a career choice. It also then allows you to imagine alternate possibilities - what would the world have looked like otherwise? What could the law have looked like otherwise? And that, to me, is exciting in and of itself. I would always sort of encourage those who are drawn to the study of legal history to find joy in that process of researching, and, and sort of learning about the past and kind of inhabiting that world and hopefully that leads to good things, no matter where you go.

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