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What intrigues Law School’s very own Enigma — Interview with Prof. Rahul Singh – Part II




Prof. Rahul Singh is a Law School alum who is currently an Associate Professor of Law. This interview is the first of a two-part series. In the second part, Quirk spoke to him about adapting to the pandemic, coming back to campus, student-admin relations and his interests in literature and poetry.

This interview was conducted by Pallavi Khatri (Batch of 2022), Anshita Agrawal (Batch of 2023), Dhananjay Dutta Shrimali (Batch of 2023) and Digvijay Singh (Batch of 2023).

Part I of the interview can be found here – What intrigues Law School’s very own Enigma — Interview with Prof. Rahul Singh – Part I (nlsquirks.in)

Part II

On Pandemic Challenges and Adaptations

Quirk: How has your experience been teaching online and what are the challenges you faced?

RS: I would say there are two positives, because everybody talks about negatives. Two positives that stood out for me personally were – One, The takeaway bit[1] is something, which I think I will probably implement in the offline world. My biggest learning has been that it’s important at some point of time to think not just about those students who are up to speed, following exactly what’s happening but maybe also to leave the students with a certain kind of takeaways at the end of the class. It’s easier now on an online platform, right? I’m not sure whether this would have occurred, had we been in a physical classroom. And because we have this Google spreadsheet, everybody can look at the same document.

I feel that the online platform can be more empowering sometimes. In a physical classroom, one would say, “All right, let’s look at the bare act” and then people have different publishers for the bare acts. So which page number, which section – particularly in corporate law where Bare Acts themselves run into pages after pages. The online mode sort of helps us by saying, “Okay, let’s look at the same screen”. Anybody can project that screen, it doesn’t matter which publisher and stuff. So that would be the first positive from my side.

And I think what has been positive from the student side is that, in the offline world, some students used to be hesitant in asking queries and used to just keep to themselves. In the online world, I see many of them use private messages. Sometimes I point out that I’ve received a private message and I’m answering that and sometimes I just type out, yes or no, in the chat. Therefore, to that extent, I think that even from the student’s perspective, there is a positive.

Of course, all of us are yearning to go back to the offline world. But maybe the other lesson from this experience could be that we have some kind of a hybrid model – which is something everybody says but doesn’t necessarily specify what such model might mean. For me, a hybrid world would mean that regardless of whether somebody is physically present or not, people can log in, if they want to, even based on turns. Or they have access to a Google search document, based on which they can do the takeaways. Even in an offline world, somebody is video recording our classroom interactions, and putting it up on LMS, so that people who want to access them should have the opportunity. Of course, we shouldn’t think about forcing people to access it.

I’ll only add one more thing, which is the other learning for me in an online model. That is, maybe we should be a little more ambitious – I am just speaking for myself here. Considering that sometimes we pay lip service to our so-called obligations towards society, I think that, for corporate law, it would be desirable ( and I wouldn’t mind) if all of these lectures, after a time lapse of say a year or so, are put up as open source on YouTube channels. This is so that somebody who is the modern day Eklavya out there, and presumably wants to listen to what is going on in NLS classrooms can do so. I would be ambitious and suggest that maybe we should think at least on those lines.

Of course, I’m sure there are challenges. Some teachers might be conscious of what all we speak, because some of them might be making political statements. But because these are the conversations that we hear, but even as teachers, maybe we should learn and we should not, largely how the law tells us, refrain from what outside world’s politics might be trying to suggest to us. Anyhow, that would be my response to this question. Not sure whether all of you will agree but overall I have a positive sense is what I will say. Back to you.

Quirk: One thing that all of us have been facing during lockdown is the pressure that has come with staying indoors. A lot of us aren’t accustomed to staying indoors for so long and that has been affecting everyone. Following that line of thought, we want to ask you what you like to do to relax during the lockdown? Are there any hobbies or interests that you’ve picked up again?

RS: So, two things stand out. One is that my yoga and pranayama routine now goes on like clockwork without missing a single day. I think during the last lockdown period I was doing it just once in a while. Like every other human being I would rationalize and say “No, not today, I’m in a rush and I don’t have time. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.” But that doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t think that I have skipped any day in the last few months or so.

The second thing that I do more regularly is cook, which puts my culinary skills on display – just for myself of course (laughs). Again, earlier there was self rationalisation that “No, today is a very hectic day let’s order in from Swiggy or Zomato.” There is this new app called Cumin started by the Tatas, and it’s linked to some of these restaurants which operate out of hotels. So, amongst the three (Swiggy, Zomato and Cumin) one used to pick and think in a self rationalised fashion that day. That doesn’t happen anymore. I manage to cook all my meals. It also keeps me preoccupied because the day is structured and has some predictability attached to it. And I like that sort of predictability, where I can say that “All right today I’ve done these things”.

And another thing I must mention, even though it does not strictly fall within the definition of hobbies which you asked for, is that I really look forward to the classes. Frankly, I think it has helped me a lot to also think and prepare in a longer fashion. We do save commute time, and that’s a big save. If you look at the commute in our lives for the past 18 months or so – everyday if you calculate one and a half hours of commute time, that’s an ample amount of time that you guys save. It could help us in a lot of ways – one, it can help increase the sleep time and two is, I suppose, one can read a little more, and on that lighter note, let me take a pause there.

Quirk: In the lockdown all of us, specifically the incoming batches, have been facing many challenges. The same has been documented in many quirk articles. The last 2 incoming batches have been studying at NLS through an online platform. They have faced difficulties in the transition from a school-style education to college-style learning mechanism, while still being on the online platform, along with the lack of support system. So, they feel quite overwhelmed about the academic and other pressures. According to you, how can they cope up with those challenges they might have faced or will face?

RS: I think, both from the students’ and teachers’ side, the basic challenge is that a lot is changing and we have not seen this world. Therefore, it seems like we are on a treadmill, where we are constantly juggling and we are constantly trying to catch up with something that we don’t understand. I don’t think it is only from the students’ side. I think it appears to the students that they are on the wrong side of the stick only because, I suppose, we all are human beings, and we have a very self-referential way of looking at stuff, very inductive.

Putting myself in the shoes of students, away from the university there is a lot going on in the outside world like medical emergencies or even running a household, which could be challenging. Being at a university gives you the time and space to do nothing else except reflect on yourself. Regardless of whether you utilise it or not, university provides the opportunity that you do not have to worry about so many other things which might preoccupy our lives.

From the students’ side, I see that challenges will continue to exist even at the time they open up the university. I don’t want to sound alarmist here, but based on what I have seen or read till now, it seems that things are not going back to any kind of normalcy until 2024-25. There will still be some kind of hybrid model even if people do come to the campus, it might be half and half or some kind of juggling will happen. Therefore, I suppose, one way to cope with this is to acknowledge that maybe it’s not the students’ fault, it is also part of the wider society’s set of challenges – how clearly can we convey this message? It looks like we are not prepared, as a society, to confront the reality which is staring at us – because, right from the beginning, the way it has been done is to only suggest that this challenge is temporary.

However, I think, the sooner we get to the stage where we say “No, this is not temporary but we are in this together, and these are the plans we have in order to manage this and let’s get around to managing this” the better. Not everybody can be happy but this is one particular model which might work. This model might be anything. From a hostel context, (I know the boy’s hostel very well for obvious reasons), it has these cubicles – it could mean that, each term, it has only one student in that cubicle – or just one cubicle is occupied in that room – because of the way the pandemic is behaving. But regardless of whatever it might mean in practice, because of course the moment you say that “not everybody will come” – we have the term system anyway – and in the first term let’s say that the first student from cubicle No. 1 comes in and in the second term, cubicle No. 2 gets occupied and so on. So, you see that it’s not a good solution – but it has the benefit of being transparent and we could say that “we need to realise that we are in a difficult situation and this way we start thinking of a path forward”. This is something which would certainly help the students as well – because then in this era of uncertainty, there are some things which are predictable and certain.

But you know, there are also things that not all of us can control. Even the kind of messages we have received from the Government – in Karnataka, for instance, they opened a lot of schools l, even though the teachers and students were not vaccinated and then, very quickly, they had to shut them down because the number of cases went up. The problem with these situations is that, since nobody understands how the virus is going to behave (because that’s futuristic) – the problem is of liability. Because it’s okay to open schools, but then if something goes wrong, who will be liable? That’s something which scares off everybody, whether it is the administration or the students. An open channel of communication with some sort of transparency, where we note and also concede that “these are the points which we don’t know, but this is one pathway which can lead us to the way forward”.

I think that only partly addresses it, because your question is more complex. Because you also mentioned the stress – that students are facing – that’s something which I want to touch upon briefly. From the students’ side, everybody feels that their stress is somehow unique – and it’s okay to believe that because, after all, all of us are inductive in nature, when it comes to reasoning. But I would suggest that one look at this stress in a slightly broader fashion. I think all of us are facing stress. There will always be anxiety and stress in life – the question is are we supposed to cope with it? And there should be, to my mind, an optimal level of stress otherwise we’ll all become very complacent.

Certain things work for certain people and other things don’t work for others. It’s hard to say what will work for everybody. But in general, maintaining some sort of physical exercise routine, whatever that might mean in practice. Having a to-do list with small things – say “I have three things to do today and I was able to do two of them” that may also give a sense that, “okay, we are running a life which is meaningful”. Last one could be, and some people suggest this these days, is returning to your hobbies which you might have lost out on when you started law school. Some people are going back to painting, there are others who are journaling, there might be others who are writers and authors. Law school might have killed those creative instincts. It might be useful to rethink and maybe go back to those kinds of hobbies, and to not see this time period as just a challenge or uncertainty in our lives. It could also be a portal through which we can reset, revisit and redesign all of our lives, not just from students’ perspective, but also from the faculty’s perspective.

On college reopening

Quirk: That was going to be our next question – if you’ve seen any positives in the past. As you said, we are all pretty excited to go back to campus whenever we can. Are there things that you’re looking forward to when the campus reopens?

RS: Of course. I think, as teachers, we love our students, right? But we probably don’t confess it often enough – and that’s something which I suppose is undesirable. Because, unfortunately, like a British upper lip society, Indian culture is such that we don’t confess our love, often enough. But I suppose the teachers want to go back to the classroom context, as well. Given the challenge, let’s see when exactly the physical classroom opens up, but whenever it does, I think all of us are looking forward to going back, with the sine qua non that both doses of vaccines are done for everybody. Regardless of whether we are people who believe in vaccines, or are anti-vaxxers, I’m sure all of us would be pleased if we know that everybody has been vaccinated with both doses, and maybe a 15 day gap after that, just speaking for myself. I’m waiting for the second dose to be administered myself, which will be next month. 15 days after that, I’m planning to drop by campus, because I’ve also not been to campus for a long, long time. So, in that sense, we are all in the same boat, I suppose.

On Student-Admin relations

Quirk: Quirk recently did a series of articles on student-admin relationships. The authors of the articles discussed some of these issues which had cropped up – where do students express their concerns, for example, because there had been instances where they were not feeling heard enough. And we were wondering if you’d read those articles and your thoughts on them?

RS: Unfortunately, I’ve not read them, but this is a recurrent theme, so here is what I’ll say. When we speak of institutions in the Indian context, to my mind, it is very very unfortunate that they have always been dependent upon individuals. We don’t really have an institutional culture. We have just individual cultures and whatever style of administration a particular individual brings to a particular office. And that is unfortunate because then we don’t have an agreed set of “dos and don’ts” or maybe a consumer charter if one wants to sound a little pompous about it. Students can be seen as consumers of the so-called education that we are offering. In this context, if there is a consumer charter from the side of the university stating that “these are the kind of obligations that we discharge”, I think all of us will be better off.

There is a sense in which one can say that maybe the AER, in whatever form it is now, is supposed to discharge that role. But, to me it appears like the AER is a document which is in need of interpretation. While all documents do need interpretation, there isn’t really a community of principles associated with the AER, to interpret it. And in the absence of that it looks like we don’t really have a lot of hope from both sides. This gap that we think of is going to evaporate from the community of principles perspective.

I must also add that maybe there is hope. Now, as the individuals change in the offices which are there, there is always this promise that there will be a beginning that could be hopeful. Maybe there is also something that the SBA also needs to do. And I’m sure they are doing it; this is not to say that they aren’t doing it. We should reach out to newer incumbents of these offices and see what is the kind of culture that they want to bring in, ask about what is the vision that they have for the university or the office that they are now entering. Let me stop there and hand it back to you.

Quirk: Thank you for the response. The next question I have is a related one: How do you think the new administration after the appointment of new VC has been with respect to admin and student relationship?

RS: In a certain sense it looks like it’s too early to tell. And that’s quite interesting, because unfortunately, our lives changed from March 17, 2020 and it also may look like a washout, because since then we are not there on campus in person. Sometimes, in-person is vastly different from the way it might appear on an email for instance right. Because some people could be quite curt and there may be others who might actually write long emails. For instance, even speaking for myself before I judge anybody else, people write long emails to me and since I’m somebody who would be brief and get to the point, I mostly write half a sentence or maybe you know 2-3 words saying “yes” or “no” or “sure” or “thank you”. The only thing which is constant and I think something which some people would be making fun of is ‘Kind Regards, Rahul’ and that’s only because the phone has a default, not because I type it out. (laughs). I’ve changed that default setting that always says, “kind regards”, instead of saying, “sent from my iPhone”, because of which it may look like, okay, “if he was curt, he was kind enough to be curt.” Therefore, you might not know what it may look like from the other side.

Something similar could be said about everybody else, whether they are in the administration or not. Sometimes a lot is lost in this idea of interpretation and translation. In-person physical meetings help. I think it would be important whenever students are permitted on campus (and in whatever form), that at least some of you go and do these in-person meetings with whoever you would like.

Let’s say, for instance, SBA right? The feeling is that now, they are being neglected and somehow the Administration is not being sympathetic? My point is that in-person meetings might help. We have done it too and I’m saying this out of experience. Even as faculty, because of this online culture, they could be feeling that there are only these factors. We are only supposed to say certain things and you know that he [Vice-Chancellor] limits time. So I have personally, for myself, gone and done an in-person meeting when I’ve had a concern with the Vice-Chancellor. So, it’s taking a risk, right? In March, before vaccination, I did an in-person meeting and I thought that it certainly helped even for my own purposes. Therefore, based on that kind of experience, it may seem a bit inductive, self-referential. But nevertheless, I would imagine that it would be true for students as well – wherever, whenever, and whatever form, they are permitted. I think we should try and meet people in person. So long as they are willing to try and resolve some of these offenses which might have cropped up because of the circumstances that we are in.

On fiction, fantasies and fun

Quirk: Growing up, was there any source of inspiration or an idol that you looked up to, whom you followed, and that inspired you to, perhaps, attain the position that you have right now? Any role model in a way?

RS: An interesting question, because when we think of role models, I think we think of individuals but one of my best experiences has not been about individuals. I mean, there are, of course, individuals per se. But I think that an institution has played a far greater role. I would pay tribute here to the British Council library. Incidentally, I’m not even suggesting National Law School, as an institution when I was thinking of the British Council library. Growing up, very early on, I got introduced to the British Library in a very interesting fashion. The fact is that I was too young to become a member so I persuaded my elder brother to get enrolled, so that helped me out. I spent a lot of time just reading books borrowed from the British Library. Indirectly, I suppose, although it might sound like another halo effect of the economy, it looks like it helped me a lot. The British Library was a treasure house of all sorts of books and not just textbooks. I would say, it’s not just books on law, because that came in much later – only in Bangalore and only when I entered law school. Just the idea of having that access to the world of books and knowledge – that’s something in which I think the British Library certainly helped with. Unfortunately, many of them have now been closed down.

And that’s something which I think is important for us to bear in mind as a society. While the British Council might be closing down these libraries, maybe there is a need for all of us, as a society, to open libraries individually, or maybe when I say individually, the municipal councils here, should be opening these public libraries, right? That might sound like a big thing. But in the West, it’s very common. All Municipal corporations or municipal councils in the West have a public library – that’s what I’m trying to suggest. In terms of role models, I think these institutions do play a role, which might seem underappreciated at the time when we are undergoing them. But with the benefit of hindsight and reflection, my sense is that an institution like a library has a tremendous role in our lives. At least in my life, it has played a very big role. Let me answer the question in that manner. Back to you.

Quirk: Right Sir, so since you talked about reading, we would really like to know what you’re currently reading. I remember when you were taking Corp II, you mentioned how you were very interested in cryptocurrency. So now what is your interest?

RS: Right now, I’m reading this book because the Law and Economics course is going on. Unfortunately, while the term goes on, I’m not able to read anything else. I say “unfortunately” only because we miss out. The book is called ‘The Economics of Lawmaking’ by Francesco Parisi. It was published a while ago, but I came across this citation while doing the Law and Economics course, just two weeks ago, because of which I started reading it. That’s what is right now on the menu and let’s see how it goes. Maybe if I finish it, it might become part of the seminar as well (laughs).

Quirk: Just one more thing – we would like to know if you read any fiction and what your favourite authors are, or what your favourite genres are!

RS: Sure. I read all sorts of fiction, actually, and I love reading them. That’s why I said that unfortunately, the term is on and I can’t read. The genres are varied in fiction, and sometimes it’s whatever I can pick up. But for instance, I really like the Dan Brown series. I like them more than the movies – like everybody else, right? I also like the Harry Potter series. All of you know that. Even in the Legal Methods course for instance, there was a Harry Potter reading. Just like many of you, I finished all of the books. I tried not to watch the movies. I watched them only much later when I had finished the books, and that too, not fully. So, in terms of the genre, it’s very hard and sometimes it’s dependent on what I am able to pick at that point in time. For instance, a few years ago, at the airport, I think I picked Anna Burns’ The Milkman, mainly because the Booker Prize was given to her. And so sometimes the reasons could be very varied, or it could also be because we’re just travelling.

This is something which I do look forward to, particularly during the term breaks, because we also get a few moments or a few extra hours to do other readings, which are not academic readings. But I also deliberately set up during the term time, to try to review only academic things. The term also gives us this discipline. It’s like an excuse. Otherwise, we are all cooped up at home and we can start doing whatever else and we’ll probably binge watch etc.

But, to go back to law and economics, it’s like what Calabresi mentioned in his ‘Cathedral model’ piece. It’s like a Ulysses contract. Ulysses’ contract is the Greek story where the thinking was that anyone who hears this particular sound goes mad. Ulysses wanted to hear the sound, while at the same time, he wanted to make sure that his colleagues were not harmed. So, he enters into a contract with all his colleagues wherein he tells them to tie him to the pole and not to untie him even if he orders it (because he was the Captain). You can see where this is going.

Essentially, he manages to listen to the sound, and of course, he goes mad. He tells them “No, you must untie me.” But because his instructions were clear, people don’t untie him. And therefore, I also use these terms as Ulysses’ contract for me when I deliberately push myself to say, “Alright, I don’t have time to read anything else, and only read Academic stuff”. Otherwise, there’s so much to read that we will never be able to finish stuff. It’s reading additional stuff versus Academics. I also read some non-fiction as well. Sometimes I read the newer stuff, which is just being launched – like this crypto veteran that I had mentioned. Then there are also others – the popular culture and the newer books which are launched. But all of those are for during the breaks and not during the (trimester) time. Back to you.

Quirk: I remember there was this one time, in this semester when Clubhouse had just hit off and everyone was installing it. You joined one of our meets, where we were discussing poetry, where we also had a few poems written by Aditya Krishna and a few others, which they recited. And there were a few discussions about that. We would like to know if you have ever dabbled in poetry, or do you follow a particular poet or something of that sort?

RS: That’s a good question. When I was speaking about the hobbies that law school manages to kill, I was pained internally, even though I didn’t articulate it, only because I used to write poetry before coming to law school and law school managed to kill that hobby of mine. So, yes, I’ve dabbled in it. I used to write prior to law school. Now, that is the first part of the question.

The second part is, if I follow any particular poet, right now. No, I don’t follow any particular poet. But, in the New Yorker magazine, these poems come out now – every week they print somebody or the other – so once in a while, when one of them catches my attention, I read them. But my general sense is that their fiction is more attractive. I suppose that it is because fiction is more accessible to people like me, and  poetry can be very deep. So, unless you have a context, it sometimes doesn’t make sense.

Since you refer to this Clubhouse session – even about Aditya Krishna, I was asking him what the context is, so we can appreciate the poetry a little more. Once the context is clearer, then one can appreciate deeper thoughts, like in poetry. I sometimes feel that maybe there is still something to look forward to in life, which is to manage to understand the depth that some of this poetry brings about. And sometimes they are just reflective of our own potential to grow. And that’s a good thing, I suppose, something to look forward to.

Endnote

Quirk: Could you leave us with an endnote, perhaps to the new upcoming batch. Something which we can publish at the end of the interview?

RS: Here, let me lean on the giant shoulders of Corinne Cooper. I’m sure all of you are familiar with her. Therefore, I’m not hesitant to lean on her shoulders and just say, “try to have fun at something”. This, sometimes, is under-appreciated in terms of what Cooper says. Of course, it’s all hard work and we are all in the midst of so many challenges, but at least make an effort to have some fun. While we are working very hard, if it can also be a bit of fun, I think the journey is more tolerable. That’s all I’ll say. Of course, this, hopefully, will mean that some of the first years will pick up on who Corinne Cooper is and maybe they take the opportunity to read the article (laughs). This is my way to ensure that at least some of them also get to read that. That’s about it.

[1] “Takeaways” are a system wherein one person from the batch takes very brief class notes and screen-shares it after the end of every class. If there is anything missing then Sir adds to it. It’s to ensure that the Professor and the students are on the same page in terms of what they are gaining from the course.

Part I of the interview can be found here – What intrigues Law School’s very own Enigma — Interview with Prof. Rahul Singh – Part I (nlsquirks.in)

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