• Quirk NLS

Dialogue, Dissent and Demonstrations: In Conversation With Sachin Malhan, Sarayu Natarajan, Tanmay A

At the dawn of this new chapter, Law School finds itself at the threshold of new possibilities. Getting here has not been easy. This phase was heralded by demonstrations of dissent and a breakdown of student-administration relations. And as we enter this new dawn, it is essential to re-examine the way in which we express our dissent, as well as the way in which we are heard, in order to ensure a free flow of ideas and opinions amongst all institutional stakeholders. Only then can we fully realize these possibilities and reach the heights that the institution is capable of.

Mallika Sen, Smriti Kalra, Jyotsna Vilva (Batch of 2021), Jwalika Balaji and Lakshmi Nambiar (Batch of 2023) interviewed Sachin Malhan (Batch of 2002), Sarayu Natarajan (Batch of 2006), Tanmay Amar (Batch of 2006), Vikas NM (Batch of 2008) and Srijoni Sen (Batch of 2009), all alumni of Law School, to gain some insight into dissent in their times and the student-faculty-admin relations. They were a few of the many alumni who came down to Law School to sit with the students during the recent protests, which is when the Quirk team got an opportunity to interview them. All opinions expressed are their own.

Q: What sort of issues did you have with the administration and the exam department during your time in law school?

A1: It’s been a while (laughs). There were smaller issues in terms of people facing academic consequences or just the level of freedom that you had on campus, and there was often a back and forth between the students and the faculty regarding these. I remember coming in, in my first year, and immediately being very impressed by the way students collectively spoke to faculty. But we also got the sense that beyond a level, it wasn’t really participatory, even though it affected students’ lives very much. Even at that time, the Executive Council’s decisions were very opaque – maybe it’s okay for students not to have a voice there, but even knowledge about how critical decisions were made about the University – that free information sharing was not there – and you guys are doing a great job of at least making that transparency come into the picture.

A2: I mean we all hated the exam department – but that’s natural resentment right. If they aren’t hated, they aren’t doing their job. Denial of project exemptions that were valid under the UGC Rules was always an issue. There were often battles but it was at the level of individual batches. We had issues with the quality of professors. We gave bad reviews but it’s hard to say if they were taken seriously. So we found solutions outside the system – we got a student’s dad to teach us tax.

Q: How were conflicts resolved? How did the student body handle it?

A: Dialogue. It has always been a very democratic process, especially when it was a collective issue that people faced. One of the great things about this campus is that it has quite a popular President and Vice-President chosen by the student body – it’s not factionalized, it’s not divided up into camps. We trust them to speak and there are always legendary GBMs, of course. If issues were not so big, it would be routed through the President, Vice-president or Class Representatives. There has always been that spirit of dialogue and negotiation, but it was only up to a point.

Q: How successful were these dialogues?

A: With the smaller things, yes, they were quite successful. When it came to things like drugs on campus or disciplinary issues, I do think we had a good thing going in terms of the faculty and administration trusting students to work it out themselves. There was a lot of trust placed on matters like that. Even with individual academic issues, they listened. When it came to things that were much bigger, usually you wouldn’t get your way.

Q: Was there a lot of dialogue between students-faculty-admin or was it only among the students or among the faculty? Was there cross-dialogue?

A: There was a decent amount of dialogue. Resolution is a different matter but dialogue was pretty much up and running. It is actually the same set of people as today, because it is a small community and the same teachers are there for a very long time. I would say that things have not really changed that much. There is a degree of freedom and a degree to which you are invited to have a seat at the table and talk. But if things are very critical in the way that they see it, beyond that, it became much harder to influence them and then perhaps it becomes necessary to go to the length that you guys are going.

Q: What was generally the way in which law school dissented and protested in your time?

A1: I think it was kind of like this, but smaller. 19(1)(a) has always been the flashpoint for things. What was different was that it was much harder to get word out. Not just media or social media, but there weren’t any publications that kept a close eye on law school. What happened on campus stayed on campus. You would hear about it days later saying something has happened. Word gets out much faster (nowadays), which has good and bad consequences. The good thing is that you can mobilize a lot more people but the bad thing is that it’s hard to get one clear answer – different people say different things, you don’t exactly know what’s going on, there’s no substitute to being here in person, which is why when someone says that we’ll take care of it outside, it’s really difficult because they’re not in it the same way.

A2: Professor Devidas, when he came in, he sort of lost his marbles. For 10 days, he taught us a 2-page article that he had himself written. So, we as a class protested against him teaching us. We all stood in protest front of the VC Office and it was resolved – Aditya Sondhi came and took that course. Barring this isolated incident, there was nothing of the magnitude we are seeing now. There was a black-band protest against Professor Mohan Gopal when he was the Director. We all stood with black-bands and Professor Mohan Gopal himself stepped down. But it was not for a procedural violation as we see now – it seemed to have a broader socio-political basis.

Q. Were students recognized as stakeholders at all times?

A: The fact that Mohan Gopal left in 2001-2002 because of the protest is a sign of that. There was also a change of rules with 50 instead of 40 becoming the passing mark. C and C+ was removed as a grade and class participation marks were introduced. He had this small council to help him make decisions – it consisted of the top rankers of the batches who would override the democratically elected class representatives (they along with rest of the batch also hated this but were picked by the VC, so they had to do it).

The Law School that is described by our alumni is one where speech and dialogue seemed to have been the foundation of the relationship between the students, the faculty and the admin. We must reflect upon what version of Law School we would like to envision and create for ourselves and how best we can achieve it. We are a small community, yet we are so diverse. How we express ourselves and how we re-establish student-faculty-administration relations to realize the Law School that we would want to proudly call our own is a question we all must seek to answer. 

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