From 19(1)(a) to a Digital NLS
This article was written by Aditya Patel (Batch of 2016).
19(1)(a), the board squeezed in between the Moot Court Hall and the Estate Officer’s cabin, has seen a visible reduction in frequency of use, being used now for general Law School notifications and for Litigation Advocacy exam schedules. However this was not always the case.
In the year 2011-2012 it was the center of two controversies.
The first controversy concerned the Freedometer (2011); a chart put up by two fourth years where people could post any word they liked anonymously. What was published on the subsequent days on that chart transformed the lingo of a generation of Law Schoolites. Creative new words, often hybrids of English and Hindi, were immediately and readily inducted into the Law School lexicon. Not everyone enjoyed this and there were vociferous protests, although it seemed that the protests stemmed, not from offense at any of the words but from the fact that there was something to protest. Jurisdictional issues were raised, as to the permissibility of anonymous posts on 19(1)(a); the board was controlled by Stud Ad, and no post could go up without the approval of a Stud Ad member. Constitutional issues were also raised as to whether the words on the Freedometer were reasonably restricted by 19(2). A 19(2) board was put up next to the 19(1)(a) board by two students. There was a buzz about 19(1)(a) around Law School, whichever side you were on, you were thinking about 19(1)(a). The matter was decided in a packed GBM in the first year classroom where both sides argued with all the standard elements of a Law School GBM; fraying tempers, ad hominem battles and the inevitable calls for calm, passionate speakers, the thumping of desks and the usual jurisdictional-existential issues of whether a GBM could discuss such an issue. A vote was called. The result of the vote was that the power to decide this issue did not rest with the GBM but with Stud Ad, through an internal committee vote.
The second 19(1)(a) controversy, slightly smaller than the previous one, centred around the pasting of the resumes of a handful of professors at NLS juxtaposed with the courses they taught at NLS. The results showed that the teachers picked did not teach the courses that they were experts in (according to their CVs). This was hugely polarizing, with the student community divided into three; vociferous supporters of the move calling for systemic change, vociferous opponents criticising the motives and methods of the person who put up the CVs and a large quiet fringe of people consisting of a wide range of students, from apathetic seniors to hapless first years.
In 2013-2014 the board was witness to a movement called #NLSSpeak. Started by a student of the second year, the movement sought to respond to an allegedly homophobic slur written on the bulletin board of a professor at NLS. The post drew strong reactions either in support or in vociferous opposition at the methods employed by the propagators of #NLSSpeak. Though the movement ultimately died down, it still generated consciousness about a particular issue on campus, entrenched by the vocal debate and discussion it engendered in hostel rooms and the corridors of the Academic Block.
However two of these three controversies happened way back in 2011-2012 and the third one happened two years ago. Between these episodes, there has been declining activity on the board.
This was not the case earlier. A student of the Batch of 2013 recalls his experience of 19(1)(a) “I remember posts on the ways in which things were done at Law School – committee politics, stances on ongoing political issues. Later on, there was briefly a time when Stud Ad would occupy it more actively by sharing short pieces, a recap of recent legal developments. Around election time, it would descend into bedlam, with campaigns, mandates and what not.”
None of this happens on 19(1)(a) anymore. Dibyojyoti Mainak, Batch of 2015 sees this as a direct product of the increased proliferation of online discussions. “The actual discussions have moved online over our Facebook groups and over the NLS mail.”
Mainak sees this as an inevitable change, “This shift is good and dynamic and natural. Our free speech forums change over time.” Online communication has democratized access to a public voice in Law School. Before online access, it used to be really hard to post on a public forum. To post on 19(1)(a) meant physically putting up a chart in a central Law School corridor with a very high possibility someone else was in the same corridor as you. Even with anonymity, posting was a visible public affair; a huge deterrent for many, especially juniors. It was also a tedious affair for many, for whom the physical effort expended in posting on 19(1)(a) was not worth the opportunity cost of valuable Law School time.
Online discussions changed the equation completely. Now juniors could post on a forum familiar to them, where despite everyone seeing your post there was no inhibition due to lack of physical proximity with actual people. Busy (or lazy depending on how one views them) people didn’t need to trudge to the Acad to post a thought, a few smartphone swipes would do.
This has made it easier for sub-groups within Law School to coordinate activity and facilitate discussion, from the Debate Noticeboard, for debate scheduling and matter sharing to Mess Comm pages where merits and minutiae of mess policy are heatedly argued, to the SBA Noticeboard, the spiritual successor to the 19(1)(a) board that has become a venting board for any and every grievance a Law School-ite might have.
Political discussions, earlier on 19(1)(a) have now turned to ugstudents, the mailing list of all nls ids of Undergraduate students at NLS. Recently an email by a fourth year student calling for a Beef Party on NLS campus sparked a long conversation thread with unflinching supporters of the Beef Party clashing with people strongly opposed to the idea of such an event on campus. Nuanced arguments mingled with below-the-belt ad hominem remarks, cries of spam, and searching questions as unflinching supporters of the Beef Party clashed with people opposed to the idea and neutrals who had questions about the enterprise. Another discussion on whether CDMC buying fire crackers violates the principle of secularism resulted in a multi-layered Facebook comments thread. Irregular committee activity continues to be a mainstay as a generator of long email threads on ugstudents as seen with the recent fiasco over ADR ranks shows. A recent move by the Mess Committee of the MHOR to introduce a coupon system in the mess has produced a sizeable corpus of ugstudents threads and Facebook posts.
More exclusively, Batch WhatsApp groups coordinate most intra batch discussion and many Law School-ites subscribe to multiple WhatsApp groups with different sets of people with the likelihood of heated discussions constantly going on in each group. There have never been more opportunities for a Law School student to express their voice. This mushrooming of online forums has “resuscitated conversations among participants that may not have otherwise taken place” says the Batch of 2013 student quoted earlier.
The ease of posting something online has seemingly multiplied the number of grievances visible to any Law School-ite, resulting in an air of general cynicism about the unsolvability of Law School problems. While the Mess has always been deemed substandard and the Internet always a perennial problem, never before have these problems been constantly been highlighted with consistent outrage. As more and more complaints and rants pile up, the perception Law School has about itself diminishes into gloom. Personal interaction has been minimised as Law School-ites can now socialise with their friends, watch a movie and comment on the latest MCS Offering policy all while sitting on a soft mattress in their room.
Some people dismiss this volume of Facebook outrage and discussion as a sign of increased pettiness and narrow-mindedness of the Law School community. With the vile ad hominems and personalised attacks on online forums being seen as a sign of an uptick in cyber-bullying. However closer examination seems to suggest that the general tone of most online discussions is largely rational and the few who do play spoilers to discussions with instances of ad hominems or cyber-bullying are largely in the minority. A similar minority has been witnessed regularly at GBMs of the past or on 19(1)(a) posts, putting doubts on the claim that online discussions have resulted in a falling standards of Law School discourse.
The real problem
A more meaningful question to ask is perhaps why Law School’s discourse has rarely resulted in concrete tangible real world action. A Beef Party never materialised, Teacher CVs being posted up were not used to generate any meaningful demand for reform of courses in Law School and most outraged polemics calling for systemic changes in the way hostel functions have not materialised in a set of amended hostel rules as yet.
This inability of discourse to translate into action cannot be pinpointed to one single factor. One reason is perhaps that the energy spent on outrage dissipates any will towards making efforts to effectuate concrete change. Most of the problems agitated have systemic causes that require more than a simple discussion to solve. Another is that Law School-ites are perhaps too utopian in their vision for what constitutes desirable action. Instead of being pragmatists and acknowledging that any form of action on a problem comes with its own problems, the Law School community strives for a perfect, problem free solution that inconveniences no one. It is impossible to have Mess Reform without some acknowledgement that payments for Mess Bills need to be made on time. Or for example, to improve Internet speeds without banning access to high resolution streaming websites. Thus, arguments against a proposed action that highlight certain problems become the reasons for which that proposed action is not in fact carried out. Inaction is thus preferred to imperfect, but meaningful action.
Law School discourse is also characterised by a self-obsessive streak. Some of this is natural and understandable; Law Schoo-lites will be more concerned with issues that impact their daily lives, like non-functioning shower-heads and symposiums by speakers on campus. However, this has often been to the exclusion of discussion on important issues that take place outside campus that are important to us as a community of Indians and not just Law School-ites. There are noticeably less ‘Likes’ and online attention paid to posts that seek to highlight national issues such as the recent Rohit Vemula suicide or the Dadri lynching than there are on posts discussing how to deal with dogs on campus or ranting about patchy Internet networks on campus. The recent FTII protests were barely discussed on campus despite the sentiment that we in Law School are also constrained in our freedom by similar administrative constraints like UGC Rules and BCI Regulations. There is a fundamental insensitivity towards the world outside our red walls that makes the community appear petty and self-centred. Recent attempts by the SBA representatives to issue statements of condemnation on the Jadavpur University police action and the Dadri lynching were blocked by students who prioritised jurisdictional issues of SBA representative competence to make such statements and baseless questions of consent rather than on the merits of what the statement would contain.
There are no easy solutions to these problems. It is natural, and justifiable human tendency to focus on the problems that affect us more than those that affect others, partially due to self interest but also due to an ability to effect changes to problems closer to us than seemingly intractable issues like caste violence and communalism. However the question still lingers. If American universities in the past have sparked movements that have stopped wars, if Indian university students have agitated not just for basic rights as students but for rights of the marginalised and downtrodden, should there be more active discourse within Law School on how the student community can influence broader social and political change in the nation outside our walls? With the tools of critical thought and reasoning our university imparts, Law School-ites are best placed than most in society to make positive things happen. The discourse we have can be critical in developing path-breaking solutions, not just to our Law School problems, but to problems in the world around us. The NLSIU Act mentions that one of the Objects of our institution is to “develop in the student a sense of responsibility to serve society” through the legal education we receive. Perhaps our public discourse needs to reflect this as well.