Crime And Professorship: An Interview with Mrinal Satish (Batch of 2001)
Mrinal Satish graduated from Law School in 2001. In this interview, Quirk spoke to him about his law school experience, his takeaways from his master’s at Yale, incorporating his learnings from both these institutions in his teaching methods, being a part of the Justice Verma Committee, and also learnt more about his interests outside of academia.
Part I — Law School:
1. Who taught you Criminal Law in NLS and how was your experience? Why did you decide to teach Criminal Law and what interests you about the subject?
Prof. Krishnadeva Rao, the current Vice Chancellor of National Law University, Delhi taught us the mandatory courses (Criminal Law – I, II and III). Prof. Joga Rao taught us seminar courses on criminal law. I also did my law teaching seminar in Criminal Law with Prof. Joga Rao. I enjoyed my criminal law courses – one of the reasons that I decided to teach the subject. I also got research opportunities at NLS at Centres such as TILEM, where I got to explore the interface of criminal law with others area of law. The law teaching seminar was instrumental in my realizing that I enjoy teaching law and that a career in academia was an option. After a short stint at Amarchand Mangaldas in Mumbai, I decided that teaching, and criminal law was the career path for me.
I am not sure I can pinpoint one thing that I like about the subject. I enjoy teaching criminal procedure, since rights within the criminal process for all parties involved is something that I find interesting to study, research and teach. In my work with judges at the National Judicial Academy and the Delhi Judicial Academy, I also realized the myriad challenges that procedural law brings to the fore, and interesting ways to explore these challenges. With substantive criminal law, the various approaches to fact interpretation and the manner in which criminal law has developed (and continues to develop) is something I find interesting to study.
2. What was Law School like back when you were a student? What do you think has changed since then?
My batch (LLB, 2001) got to study under the first three Directors (the term used for the VC then) – Prof. Menon, Prof. Mitra, and Prof. Mohan Gopal. So, we got to see different approaches to legal education. In our first year, based on the statutory review of the law school, several changes were made to the academic programme. More focus was given to research (and projects), rather than to exams. Prof. Mitra brought in multiple changes to the infrastructure of the University (we got our first computer, and a computer lab) literally adapting legal education to the 21st century. Prof. Mohan Gopal’s vision document setting forth the next steps that NLS should take, is still followed not only by NLS, but other law schools as well. So, on the academic front, we were kept on our feet.
The thing that most changed is Nagarbhavi, and that has led to many changes in the institution! I remember when I joined in July 1996, the library (which was then in the academic block) shut by 5 pm, there was one shop in Nagarbhavi which catered to our stationary needs, a telephone booth (yes yes, we were the pre-mobile phone era) which also sold ice cream, and there was a bank at the Nagarbhavi circle. There was nothing else around, and it was quite a task to even get to Vijayanagar where there were restaurants etc. Since we did not have computers, mobile phones etc., the campus was a very vibrant place. That led to close bonds forming within the community, and you can see those bonds survive even 20 years after we graduated. The quad was the centre of all activity – we had something happening every day – from classes being held in the quad, to discussion groups, study circles, inter-class events etc. Some of that had changed when I was here for my previous stint (2009-10). I felt that the close-knit community (student-student, faculty-student) helped us both in our academic endeavours and also acted as a support system. I can’t comment on the current situation, since our current interaction has only been online due to COVID-19!
3. What was your favourite subject back then? Who was/were your favourite professor(s)?
I enjoyed a range of subjects beyond criminal law. The social sciences subjects were life-changing, since they built perspective and approaches to looking at society and the law. So, I would credit my social sciences professors – Profs. Elizabeth, Japhet, Pooja Kaushik, and Sitharamam for the foundation that they gave us. That has held me in good stead as I studied further, as well as in my academic career. Law, Poverty and Development, where we focused on issues relating to child labour, was another course which made us think about social realities and the impact of the law. I also enjoyed studying Interpretation of Statutes, Constitutional Law, Evidence Law, amongst other subjects. Many professors have in multiple ways contributed to my development as a student, and subsequently in my career as an academic. Prof. Mohan Gopal, who was the Director in my final two trimesters and who I have worked with subsequently at NLS as well as NJA, encouraged me to consider a career in academia. He has also played a significant role in helping and guiding me to develop into a legal academic.
Part II — Career:
4. Do you plan to do something different during this stint at NLS in terms of teaching methods?
I believe that teaching methods and approaches change every time you teach a course. You learn from your experience of what worked that year and what did not and apply it to the next batch you teach. My initial teaching methods were inspired by my teachers at NLS, and I still continue using some of them. My stint at Yale, where the pedagogy is tailored towards training students for careers in academia, taught me a lot about approaches to legal education. I have incorporated some of those approaches into my teaching. My work in judicial education has certainly influenced my teaching methods. I have learnt from interacting with thousands of judges from across the country, and I use that both in terms of content (especially in criminal procedure) and pedagogy. I also attempt to bring what I learn from my own research, and work in legal policy, into the classroom. So, the short answer is: Yes. I guess my teaching method may be slightly different from my previous stint in 2009-10.
5. What are the teaching methods you’ve spoken about?
When I was a student at NLS, the case-method was used in many law courses, including in teaching of substantive criminal laws. We used a casebook that the faculty had prepared for our discussion in classes. In some other courses, we used readings that were assigned by the instructor, and class discussions were focused on the readings assigned. In most courses, we were encouraged to think about what the court had held, critique, and analyse the rulings in light of judgments in other cases – basically follow a doctrinal analysis approach to looking at case law. At Yale, during my LL.M, I enrolled for a basic criminal law course, which the Professor taught from a realist perspective, which I found fascinating. I also learnt the manner in which readings can be effectively used in teaching, different forms of evaluation methods etc. My stints with judicial education, and my work with courts (both research and as amicus etc.) have given me an insight into judicial decision making, cutting-edge issues that come up before courts, and how academics, and academic research can play a significant role in building/enhancing jurisprudence. I use all of these learnings in the classroom. I don’t use the case-method, as it is conventionally understood. I use cases, and scholarly work (where available), and encourage students to think about the law, its implementation, and what the law should be, through a process of class discussions. The aim is to get students to think, and critically engage with the law.
6. How was your experience as part of the Justice Verma Committee in 2013?
It was a phenomenal experience! It was a challenge since we only had 30 days to complete the task. Justice Verma’s logic was that if the Committee were to take 6 months, the issue would get sidelined and law reforms would not happen. So, it was literally a 24x7x30 days task. The research team went through the submissions that the committee received and then we had detailed discussions amongst ourselves on issues that we need to research further on. There were public consultations organized from which we learnt a lot, and these consultations helped in taking decisions on the amendments proposed. Justice Leila Seth in chapter 1 of her book Talking of Justice records the process, which reflects all that happened in those 30 days. There had been a lot of work already done on issues relating to sexual violence and so, we did not have to reinvent the wheel. We felt that the important contribution would be how the issue is framed. Ultimately, the framing of sexual violence as a violation of sexual autonomy and bodily integrity, is I believe the most important contribution that the committee was able to make. From a personal perspective, it was gratifying being part of the most important law reform process on issues relating to sexual violence, an area that I had recently completed my doctoral work on. I also learnt a lot working with Justice Verma, Justice Leila Seth, and Mr. Gopal Subramanium, as also all my colleagues in the research team.
Part III — Personal Life:
7. What do you do to de-stress? What are some hobbies that you have that help you unwind?
In the recent past, my go-to de-stress method has been spending time with my three year old son. I also enjoy watching docuseries and shows on TV and OTT platforms, reading non-fiction, and going on long drives – although I am certainly not looking forward to Bangalore’s infamous traffic!
8. What TV shows and non-fiction books have you enjoyed watching and reading?
In a book store, I generally pick up any true-crime book or a book that gives you the back story of cases/individuals that you read as matter-of-fact case facts in legal reporters. I wouldn’t use enjoy as an adjective for these books. You learn from them, in a non-academic setting. The ones that come to mind immediately are Gyan Prakash’s books, Emergency Chronicles and Mumbai Fables, Brandt Goldstein’s Storming the Court: How a Band of Law Students Fought the President and Won, Katherine Eban’s Bottle of Lies, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s A False Report: A True Story (which Netflix adapted to the documentary – Unbelievable).
I watched a lot of TV shows during the COVID-19 lockdown! Ones that I found interesting were: Caliphate, Unorthodox, The Keepers, Connected, Unsolved Mysteries, The Salisbury Poisonings, and Trial by Media. A documentary that I recommend watching (if you haven’t already) is Ava Du Vernay’s 13th. It holds a mirror to the US criminal justice system, and many of things that are discussed apply equally to India as well.
9. What advice would you give to your Law School self?
I would advise my Law School self to be more confident, especially in the first few years! I hardly participated in class discussions as a student. Although I had opinions on issues being discussed in class, I did not voice them thinking to myself that it is not going to add anything to the discussion, it may be wrong etc.
10. What is your favourite Law School memory?
My favourite law school memories are activities/outings that my entire class participated in. For our mid-law school celebration, the entire class decided to go to a theatre and watch a movie. I remember the management at the movie theatre being aghast that a group of 80 noisy students wanted to buy tickets for a show. The next trimester, the entire class took a day-trip to Srirangapatana. We did a lot of things as a class, especially that year, and then again in our final trimester, which remain my favourite memories from law school. This year marks 20 years of our graduation, and we are hoping that the pandemic subsides by the end of the year, so that we can organize our batch reunion!