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Of Farewells and New Beginnings, From NLS to TNNLU: An Interview with Prof. Elizabeth [Part II]

Prof.Elizabeth has been a Professor of History at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, for 28 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 second 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: What are the things you would miss about Law School when you leave? Do you have any regrets, anything you’d like to say?

Prof. Elizabeth: When I leave now, the regret would be that I don’t have very close relationships with my colleagues. So when I’m leaving it’s like I can’t say I’m going to miss anybody in particular that I have worked with in all these years. This is excepting some of the admin faculty – Shanta, Padma I will miss, because they were there when I came to Law School, and we had a personal relationship over these years.

When it comes to students, in these twenty-eight years, I had very close friends in the first ten to twenty batches. People that I visit, people who visit me, people who call me up to talk about all the nonsense that was going on over the last six months… That was a horrible time for me in law school

You know, it’s not just the Vice-Chancellorship. I know my God is taking me to Trichy for a very specific purpose so I am really looking forward to it with no regrets at leaving NLS after 28 years.  That was really too long a time.

Q: Generally, over the past few years, it seems like Law School life has become stressful at certain points. So how do you like to destress in Law School?

E: For me, Law School wasn’t stressful. It’s had its challenges, but that’s part of it. It’s become stressful over the past ten years, probably from the beginning of CLAT, because the kind of students who come to Law School are not interested in an education, and come here simply because they think getting this degree will get them that job that gets them a lakh of rupees, without even understanding whether they’ll like the job or not. Some people come because they want to do law and save the world, but they’re exceptions. Evaluation has become a real bore.

I really admire the courage of the first five to ten batches and the courage of their parents for putting their wards in an institution which didn’t exist, but they wanted to see what it can do. I never ever grumbled about correcting their papers – everybody’s answer would be very different and you could see they enjoyed studying it. But slowly it didn’t matter what questions I’d ask, I ended up correcting hundreds of papers with the same stuff for every answer for generations. That’s when the boredom set in, correction becomes a drudgery rather than an exciting thing.

So that became stressful, together with the fact that we had we had leaders who had absolutely no desire to maintain academic standards. We were just giving in to every demand of students, which was ruining their future. I hear from alumni about the poor research and writing skills (of several current or recent students), and for me, it comes from that. Their understanding of law, that rigour of hard work, discipline, all that was completely going away. And as somebody who had been working here for so long, it was hard to find motivation, but I consider myself as having to answer God. So, I maintained my integrity and continued to work hard. Of course, travelling up and down to campus everyday was taking a toll on my peace of mind as well.

To de-stress, I don’t need to smoke or drink or do drugs to feel good. I don’t need to drink tea or coffee to get up in the morning and get through the day. By God’s grace, I don’t need any of these external stimulants. In the past, I could be really depressed, but going to class would be all the stimulant I needed – I’d come back on a high after a class. But other than that, fiction is my de-stressing source – getting into a completely different world, an imaginary world, a fictitious world where everything is good. I stopped reading all these great novels because they just add to your stress, because they all talk about how bad the world is. The reason why I read and re-read Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen is because in the fictitious world, everyone’s having fun, and that’s all I wanted at the end of the day so I could sleep peacefully.

Q: Ma’am, would you like to list certain factors that motivated you to take up this position and to leave NLS?

E: Uh, lots of them. But top of it is that I’ve reached a plateau in my career. I started as a research associate, and that was what I was called when I joined in 1991 and then became an Assistant Professor in 1995 and so on till about ten- twelve years ago or more I became a Professor.

In twenty-eight years of having taught in Law School, I have a great many ideas of what a Law School can be, and ought to be. They may not all be practical, but I have a vision. And I can’t do that as being just one member of a faculty team with no power to implement any of my suggestions or ideas.  My ideas themselves may not be welcome. People might think I am a dinosaur coming from a different time period. There has been little space for my ideas, my views in the last 10-15 years, I’ve seen that.

The vision is going to be the vision that I have, the dream that I had. NLS was based on a dream that (Prof.) Menon had. He of course drew from several people’s dreams, but he was a visionary who made this happen. If I am who I am today as a teacher today in Law School, it has a lot to do with the kind of vision that Menon had and instilled in us. And I hope to be that visionary for TNNLU. This is because, while there have been good people who’ve built the institution, I’m afraid that there is not much of an understanding of the vision that set up the National Law School type model. Therefore that is one thing I want to do.

Apart from that there is all the nonsense that has been going on here. I want out, I’m done with Law School. I can’t do this anymore. It’s taking a great deal more effort to come here every day to teach, to do the things that I have to do. And so I’m just darn tired. Maybe that was a mistake, that I stuck around for so long. But whatever the reason, I’m tired of Law School, of doing what I have to and not because I want to. And if it needs so much effort, then clearly it is not where I ought to be but whereas now I’m excited about where I’m going. And that’s three years that I have, ahead of me there, so I don’t get pulled down by the time that I have to spend there.

Q: Do you think your departure, and hence the change in the history course will leave a void in Law School? And if yes, is there any advice that you would give to your successor?

E: I don’t want to be too full of myself, I do believe no human being is indispensable. For all you know, someone much better will come in. I have brought in all the rigour that I could have brought, and I know that the standards that I set for myself are pretty high. But yes, there are certain things that I have done that my former students say made a huge difference (to their lives).

I’d say to whoever is coming in, don’t have a misplaced sense of niceness. Be firm, do your job and expect the best from the students. Because the moment you compromise on that, students will take your course lightly and you and your course will become irrelevant in Law School.

In terms of leaving a void, it would simply be the fact that there are some things I personally bring to my teaching and my way of functioning in Law School. There are many things that I have done, many roles that I have played in Law School. Only I can do that. Not because I’m some great person or some uniquely talented person, but because of my personality and the reasons that I am a teacher. I am who I am so those are things which only I bring in.

But that void that I leave, yes somebody else may not fill that void but they might do other things. I was speaking to (Prof.) Kunal (Ambasta)- hopefully some of the things that I have done, he will continue doing. But yeah, who I am is who I am and I guess in that sense none of us can be replaced, all of us are unique. But other things, it is for people to consciously do it. It is for the institution to realise what it is I have brought to the institution and to require that of people who come in. It doesn’t have to be the person who comes to teach history.

Q: You mentioned how you had these conflicting roles as someone who is approachable but at the same time very strict in class. How do you think that will translate with you being a VC at TNNLU? What do you envisage as your role there as compared to your role here? How accessible and involved will you be with the students there?

E: I don’t know how the students will be, I haven’t met them yet. I will meet them for the first time on Saturday (late January) as a group, and of course over time. Like I said, I’m consciously strict and distant in the classroom because I need discipline in the classroom. And I know from the way you all treat my colleagues who are not like that, that I can’t afford to let down my guard there. But, sometimes I can let down my guard because my reputation precedes me, therefore people do not take me for granted or try to take advantage of me. So when I go into TNNLU in terms of administration, I’ll be seen as someone who stands for certain values and that I’m honest, someone who has integrity of character and is firm but willing to listen.

I’m in a new institution, so I don’t believe that I need to go and pull the rug from under their feet and start building a new thing. I think even though it’s only six years old, that people before me have done certain things which are good. There may be things which I don’t think are right, in different spheres and I believe that slowly but steadily I can make those things happen. But for that to happen I need to take the students and faculty on board. Without their support there is nothing I can do. I believe firmly in a participatory democracy, where everybody is taking part.

Having said that, I do believe that young people have not yet attained the maturity to decide what is good and what is bad for the institution, in their personal lives also they are still learning. Therefore, while you listen to them, it doesn’t mean you can be guided by them. They cannot dictate the policies of the institution. As young people they may try and find shortcuts to what they think are the goals – which I can tell you are not the right things most of the time. So, I will listen and I will bring about change slowly. My entire idea is to be accessible, to be approachable but with the clarity that you can’t take me for granted.

Fortunately, one of the good things for me is that I have never forgotten any part of the journey that it has taken to get me here – physically, personally and professionally. So I’m going to keep that in mind constantly. I have been a student so you know, I know what students think and want. I have been an ad-hoc faculty, so I know what exactly are the insecurities in being in that place. But I also know what I was through all these stages in life – so I know we can be better. So it’s that I am going to sort of call upon as I take charge. My plan is to listen and then act – and I’m not going to be compromising on any matters.

Q: Will you continue to teach there, ma’am?

E: I do hope I get time to teach, but I’m not sure. There is a history professor there, I’ll not interfere with his class but I might occasionally go into the class because he says he also starts off with Carr so I want to see what he is doing with Carr. Since I started teaching history at NLS, a lot of people have taken the syllabus I prepared in Law School.  I hope to be doing the stuff I do – feminist legal theory, violence against women, feminist jurisprudence – because those will be a lesser burden as electives. I hope to be doing it but I don’t know if my time and responsibility there will permit that.

Q: In the current socio-political context of our country, what do you think is the role that law schools have and how do you think this ties back to what you said, the vision that Professor Menon had starting out with the Law School?

E: I think a lot of people who have welcomed my appointment are people who feel that a person like me needs to be at the head of an institution to have a voice in the public there. So yeah, you can’t be silent these days. As a student of history, one does know that people don’t learn from the past, one does see patterns, and one can’t just sit back and do nothing. And yes, as people who head institutions there are certain roles we have to play. But standing up for what is right, isn’t hindered in that process.

Everybody has to take positions, but it doesn’t always have to be in an illegal or unconstitutional way. I think those are individual choices that will be determined by your values. I believe law schools have a huge role to play. You can’t sit back and pretend this doesn’t affect you. It does. For me, it is very real. It isn’t just talking about something because it is theoretically the nice, politically correct kind of thing to do. And if you’re not passionate about what is right, what is just, then we have no business being there.

The Supreme Court is going to look into whether constitutional values are supreme. I would say, yes, the constitutional values are supreme. Because they play the role of ushering in a new set of values in a country where there are diverse values. At the heart of religion is love, at the heart of religion is justice. But in practice, there is a great deal that has come in which is unjust, which is unfair, and which is not even right. The founders of all these religions will probably turn their backs on these religions because of the things that they practice. So are they subject to the tests of constitutional values? Of course they are. And as students of law, teachers of law, and institutions that are producing lawyers, it is the constitutional values they have to uphold. Anything that is in conflict with constitutional values has no place in an institution.

Q: What would be your yearbook quote?

E: The first thing that comes to mind is what the 2002 batch put on their T-shirt: “Been there, done that”, though, my quote would be “It is the journey through Law School that has brought me to where I am today”.

Q: If this interview were a project consultation for the topic “Prof. Elizabeth: End of an Era”, how would you rate our research questions? And anything you would like to add?

E: I think they were pretty good. All these questions are important and necessary and many former students have been asking me about them. There’s a lot more you could ask me about, but one day, I will write lots of books to answer it all.

But I’ll say what drives me is that I have to do my best for my God. He has done His best for me and I can’t fall short of it. This fits in neatly with the constitutional duty under Article 51A – for each of us to strive towards excellence. Why do we compromise? Why do we think we can’t be better than what we are? Some people are born brilliant but a lot of us like me are just plodders – we just work hard. And look at where my hard work has brought me. You can achieve anything with consistency and I wish people would see that.

I’ve heard people coming in on reservations just give up. Of course, they have the handicaps of language and of not going to a good school but I remember one such student who wrote such good answers that even through the handicaps I could see how sharp his mind was. We have a duty to ourselves and a duty to our country. If all of us saw this, can you imagine what Law School would look like? Instead of those shoddy projects, each of those research papers would be amazing policy papers available to change the way people think. And unless you change the way people think, nothing can happen by any number of laws. Excellence is something we all owe to the nation. You not only do your best not in beating people up because you think they’re non-conforming, but in contributing to make yourself, your institution, your nation and the world get better. If we don’t believe in that, I guess we should just allow Trump to start WWIII and die.

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