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History and her story at NLS: An Interview with Prof.Elizabeth [Part I]

Prof.Elizabeth has been a Professor of History at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, for twenty-eight years. She has taught generations of Law School students, and left an indelible mark on the institution. In 2020, she will begin a new journey, as the Vice-Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu National Law University.

This interview is the first of a three-part series, conducted in collaboration with Vaanavil, the literary magazine of TNNLU. The third part of this series will be available on the Vaanavil website.

This interview was conducted by Aman Vasavada (Batch of 2021), Pallavi Khatri (Batch of 2022) and Lakshmi Nambiar (Batch of 2023).

Quirk: Congratulations on your appointment as Vice-Chancellor of TNNLU! Our first question to you is: who is your favourite historian and why?

Prof.Elizabeth: I value different historians for different things. (Romila) Thapar for her unfatigued approach to her study and her ability to stand up for what she writes, (R.S.) Sharma for being one of the best users of historical materialism to study the past, and (E.H.) Carr because he blew my mind. His book What is History? is what made me fall in love with history – no other book challenges stereotypes and status quo as this one does.

A. I value different historians for different things. (Romila) Thapar for her unfatigued approach to her study and her ability to stand up for what she writes, (R.S.) Sharma for being one of the best users of historical materialism to study the past, and (E.H.) Carr because he blew my mind. His book What is History? is what made me fall in love with history – no other book challenges stereotypes and status quo as this one does. nn

Q: History in Law School was an eye-opener for all of us, largely due to your Marxist-Feminist approach. Has this philosophy of yours ever stirred up any problems, whether at church, or in Law School?

E: Personally, it has not troubled me. I’m a practising, believing Christian and that’s all the more reason Marxism appeals to me. I don’t see discomfort between believing in God, and analyzing the past through a Marxist perspective. Marxism is about social transformation, for the purpose of justice and God stands for justice.

Fortunately, Law School has given a great deal of autonomy to teachers, but occasionally yes, I have faced some trouble. I think the first challenge came when Prof. Mohan Gopal was the Vice-Chancellor. I wanted Mr. Ramachandra Guha to come and address the then second years on Gandhi and Prof. Gopal said “Why Guha? Why not LC Jain?” I told him I’m not teaching Gandhism, I’m teaching about Gandhi in the context of the national movement, and Guha knows so much more about him than I do. So I stood my ground, and of course he didn’t say or do anything after that. Another time he questioned me regarding my ideological position.  He said that he had heard that I was a Leftist.

Prof.M: “I’m told that you teach history from a leftist perspective”. Prof.E: “Yes, I do! I find that the most suitable approach to the study of the past, very scientific, organised and systematic.” Prof.M: “You shouldn’t be teaching from only one perspective then, you should be (teaching from) all perspectives.” Prof.E: “If I did that, even a year wouldn’t be enough to complete one course. All of us have positions, and therefore I am using a Marxist perspective to teach history, and I don’t see a problem with that. I recommend the books of the other approaches and students are free to go and read them. It’s just not possible to teach from all perspectives.”

In terms of students, yes, not everybody who comes to Law School is interested in the non-law social sciences. A lot of teachers and students think law is not a social science, which is not right. I have had batches which have been very disinterested. In the last 28 years, some batches have made me question myself, “Have I lost the touch?” or “Am I not good enough anymore?” till the next batch comes along, like the current first years. I’m sad I’m leaving now, because that’s a really amazing batch (Batch of 2024). The batches that I taught before that, you know, the current fifth-year down, didn’t show as much interest. Not to say that there weren’t individuals in the batches who liked what I was doing, but as batches they didn’t seem to care. But it’s batches like the current first years which have restored faith in myself and what I am doing. So, yeah, those were some of the challenges I have faced because of the approach I use.

Q: Looking back, is there any advice you would like to give to your younger self before starting out?

E: When I entered Law School in ‘91, I was doing my Ph.D, with just a year to go to submit my thesis. I loved the History Department of Mangalore University, because there was no hierarchy, and I had made great friends there. I was very reluctant to leave but it seemed like I had no options, since there was no guarantee of a job there.

I resisted the urge to do legal history because I was in love with pure history. In ‘94, they asked me to head the Centre for Women and the Law. More and more I was being taken away from history. But, when I look back today, I realise that it was preparing me for now. If it wasn’t for my work at CWL, I wouldn’t have any kind of credibility for this position that they have offered me. One of my friends from an NLU told me that I am creating history right now, because I am not a professor of law. So when I look back, I wish that I had done my LL.B. more seriously. I did my LLB because I was heading the CWL, but I did it so reluctantly. I just scraped through – like some of you.  I actually passed a few of those courses through the supplementary exams.

I remember going back to Mangalore and telling my Ph.D supervisor that “I really don’t like this and I have absolutely no time to do any research in history”. He said, “None of us are born to become a historian or something else – you got certain skills and capacities and you bring that to the study that you’re doing now and who knows where that’ll go. So, you need to stop wanting to be a pure historian.” I think that breakthrough came around 2010. I was doing history, I was doing feminism and I was doing law, so my interests in all three came together. They converged very well. And from there came my understanding of the law and the kind of courses I began to teach since then.

But I wasted a lot of time coming to terms with the fact that I was teaching history in a law school and therefore, resisting instead of learning. If I was to advise myself, I’d say “Hey, embrace this. It’s new, it’s different but history can become more meaningful and you can make a difference in the way you’re teaching by integrating all of them rather than resisting it and rebelling against it.”

Q: You spoke about how you have integrated a lot of feminism into your history. We were given to understand that History II in my batch became even more about feminist theory than it was in the previous years. Would you say that events occurring in Law School affect how you’re structuring your syllabus?

E: One thing is, I’m a person who needs change and Law School made it possible for me. Professor Menon was insistent that every trimester when we taught, it had to be a new and upgraded course. For a long time, I was just teaching from a Marxist perspective simply because I found the materialist conception of history meaningful.

In the early years I wanted to sensitize the students that entered Law School to communal issues. That informed my course structure for a long time – I focused on nationalism, colonialism and communalism. But I changed that the February of the year that Kanhaiya (Kumar) got elected in JNU and (Rohith) Vemula died in Hyderabad. That vacation, I came across the works of Sumit Sarkar and Uma Chakravarthy. Communalism, caste and gender all came together fantastically and I decided that History II will be from the perspective of gender and caste.

I think that it was in December of the same year when the AOW was formed in response to the sexism that systemically occurred in Law School. I was horrified, because I’ve been in Law School, I’ve headed the Centre for Women and Law, I’ve been the Sexual Harassment Policy Advisor, I do the Sexual Harassment Orientation every year for the first years and in an institution like that, how can there be so much sexism? Of course, there has always been sexual harassment, but it just seemed like it had escalated to another level.

So, what I did then, was decide to teach History II purely from a Feminist-Marxist perspective – not Marxist Feminism, but from a very definite Feminist perspective, alongside a Marxist perspective. It was a radical feminist perspective that I was employing, introducing them to feminist theories and methods. That would become the foundation from which they’d be looking at the past and hopefully their lives and the society they live in so as to enable the students to understand the issues relating to women’s status, sexual violence, sex discrimination etc.

Q. One of the common maxims passed on to juniors about your course is “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It is an institution in itself, your course; when you enter first year History I is something that just occupies your mind. What do you have to say about this?

E: I was telling some of the alumni on Sunday when a few of them hosted a party for me, that I consciously, deliberately became strict. With the ‘97 batch, one of my favourite batches, because I was approachable and friendly, these four or five guys used to talk to me in class saying “Okay Ma’am, please let’s stop the class now” and so on.  Which obviously weakened my control over the whole class and was disruptive. So then I had to build this image of me being unapproachable and a tough taskmaster.

So, I’d distance myself when I was teaching the course, but I was always available for anyone who wanted any help. I have done rough drafts of projects and worked out whole question papers numerous times. And more importantly, I was always available for students if they had any kind of personal or emotional issues. Over the years I have been there for them because that’s the reason why I became a teacher, to be accessible to young people. Because, as a young person when I joined college, way back in 1977, I became just a number, the lecturers who I was. In school everybody knows you by name, they know you personally, they know your capacities and your weaknesses and you come into college and you’re just a number, nobody cares whether you are there or not. Those five years in college made me realise that it doesn’t have to be like that. Therefore, when I decided that I’m going to be a lecturer I decided I will be a lecturer that’s always accessible, available so that young people can come and talk whenever they want.

And in Law School, I know for the first 15-20 years I was like that when I stayed on campus. So while I was known to be a strict teacher people knew that they could come to me. But, in Law School, the overall culture has resulted in a growing gap between students and faculty. That’s been going on for a long time – more than fifteen years.

Initially Prof. Vijaykumar, Prof. Mallar, and I used to share the office downstairs. We’d have students come and engage with us on issues that they had taught in class in Consti or just come to talk. When I moved into a separate office I’d still have students come in on the way to the library (back when the library was where the accounts office now is). I could be doing the busiest thing, but if somebody walked into my office and said that they just dropped in for a chat I would just stop that, I would listen to them. I’ve done that through my twenty-eight years. Sometimes, I have regretted it, but then I say no, this is why I came into teaching so you can’t regret doing that.

So I have built relationships because of that. There are people who have invited me to their weddings, and I have travelled across the country and the world (one student even flew me to the Virgin Islands), going to different people’s weddings. And now  it has come to the point where today I don’t even know when somebody gets married.

But yeah, I wouldn’t stop being strict. I would say that a lot of the image of me that exists today has been consciously, deliberately built by students to badmouth me, to badmouth my course. But, I am glad that there have been students who despite it, have seen through it and come to me when they needed it.

I do think teachers have to be strict. Strictness doesn’t mean you’ve got to be unkind and I know that I have been rude, and that I have been unkind to a few people. And I have tried to change to a certain extent. But the problem is you know, we always take niceness for weakness and therefore I’m not very comfortable in letting down my guard altogether. But, outside class I’m happy to engage with students.

Q: Ma’am you spoke about falling academic standards at NLS and how over the years academic rigour has gone down, so what are your opinions on some of the new and proposed reforms brought by the college administration?

E: I haven’t looked at the AER changes, but just going by what Prof. Sudhir has been saying, I’m glad. Maybe he should have waited a little time before starting to do these things, but I think he’s on the right track altogether. Because, we’ve just gone so low academically. I’ve told him myself you have a really huge task because both faculty and students have had no one regulating what they’re doing.

Some of the faculty, of course, keep doing what they’re doing, irrespective of who has been the VC and whatever may be the kind of compromises with academics that have been done. But some of them who have not imbibed the Law School culture and why we do what we do, have compromised on these (academic standards). There are what, four or five of us who are reading projects and giving feedback? As an institution we have failed to conduct an orientation for incoming faculty to teach them why we do what we do. And therefore they do just whatever they know, the way they’ve been doing it.

For the students, yeah, I mean there has now been fifteen years of getting away with extensions and exemptions and all kinds of nonsense. Everyone says “We were allowed to do this, or that”. So yes, there will be a lot of resistance, but I am glad that Prof. Sudhir is doing what he is doing. He is a tough taskmaster – he is very hands on. It is a difficult task, but I think Law School needs it. These fifteen years have really pulled us back.

Q: Ma’am, your course of feminist legal theory and History II generally, has informed a lot of our mindsets and has definitely changed the way we think about gender and feminism. Further, your role as SHARIC advisor is also something that we will always be grateful for – it has certainly changed the way in which gender relations function on campus. What would be your parting advice to the Law School community so that we can ensure that we keep Law School a safe space and strive to make it an even safer space?

E: I think every individual – in terms of gender, caste, religious and cultural identities – has to always just think about how they would want to be treated. It is the way we think which informs the words which come out of our mouth and our actions. And saying sorry after you have said or done it, you can’t undo it, you can’t take it back and you have traumatised somebody.

I believe that people can change, and that people have changed. I know my courses have changed people with different ideologies. I know that I have had to question my own biases. But, as you grow older, you become more conservative than when you were younger. The challenge that the Batch of 2017 put to me when I was teaching them History-2 was this — A couple of women in the class used to wear really short shorts to the class, and I used to justify my attitude against it. They pointed out that the issue exists with me being uncomfortable with the clothes people are wearing rather than the clothes themselves. So I may still be uncomfortable with the clothes people wear, but I have no business talking about it. And I think if people can just realize that- we all can have opinions and that we don’t have to like the way others behave, the clothes they wear, or the ideas they hold, but that doesn’t mean we need to disrespect them for that. I think that if everyone can just determine that ‘I will respect everybody because I don’t want to be disrespected’, then this place can be so much better.

I used to be proud of the fact that the NLS Campus used to be a safe space, and then, when that changed, it made me feel unhappy that I failed to do what I ought to have done to make this place a safe place. For years I used to proudly proclaim it was a safe space, because even if one sexual harassment case emerged, we came down on it – there was zero tolerance. But now people don’t even complain – there are people who have gone public saying that they have done these things, but not even one complaint has come. I mean how can something like that happen. It’s not like no one wants to, but there’s all that social pressure. So what kind of people are these, that think that this kind of behaviour is okay.

That just means we don’t really think people deserve to be treated well. Why do we think that? How can we think something like that and then claim that we are human beings who are training to be lawyers to fight for other people’s rights?

So that’s why, it’s so much hypocrisy- a big protest about CAA and all that. Hello! Respect the people here! That’s even what feminism preaches. It’s an ideology, it’s a theory. That ideology can’t result in destroying human beings. Because I’m a feminist doesn’t mean I go around bashing people. Yeah, I try to change people’s minds, but I can’t turn around and say, “Oh, she’s so horrible, because she doesn’t believe in equality between women and men,” because we need to keep in mind that we’re dealing with human beings. We talk about animal rights but if we can’t respect human beings, you can’t be fighting for animal rights. If you can’t love the people that are like you, how can you love things that are completely different from you? That’s just hypocrisy.

If NLS can once again become a safe space, I’d be proud of that.

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