Donnie’s Fight for Justice: Celebrating Arbitrariness?

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Dear Anuj:

A friend of mine once remarked in jest: “If you counsel Lucifer too often, you might end up sounding just like him, or worse still, becoming him”.

But we don’t need to engage with the devil here. Let’s just go back to the basics and revisit Law 101, shall we?

An underprivileged child is denied admission to a national law university on the basis of a rule that has no “legal” validity… since it very clearly goes against the parent “statute” and regulations of the University-the constitutional charter of the institution, so to speak. A judge sees merit in the case and orders that a seat be kept vacant till the next hearing. The law school sees that there is no point getting an adverse order (and publicity) and settles by offering him admission. They even go to the extent of undertaking that the impugned rule shall be removed from the brochure.

And this boy (and all the people who rallied behind him) are now accused by you of subverting a sacrosanct legal process? Or setting a dangerous precedent, merely because they fought for justice? Of being “hypocrites” that support arbitrariness and autocracy? Of being dimwits (“mindless sheep…led to the gallows” as your article states)) .

I had to pinch myself several times to belief that this was actually written by someone with 5 years of legal training!

You note in your piece that: “The petition also questioned the constitutional validity of particular provisions of the GNLU Act, 2003 and the GNLU Regulations, 2009 but this issue was not pressed before the Court.”

The petition never questioned the constitutionality of the GNLU Charter (GNLU Act/Regulations)! Rather it simply argued that a new admission criteria inserted into the GNLU brochure (that a candidate who clears his or her Class 12 exam only in the second shot is not entitled to admission, even despite a high CLAT score) is against the GNLU charter.

A University is governed by its parent charter (Act and Regulations). It cannot introduce any new rules through a brochure that effectively goes against the charter. If it wishes to introduce a new rule, it has to necessarily amend its charter. Since it did not do so in this case, the brochure condition is illegal. Simple, sweet, straightforward….an argument appreciable by even those that have not had the benefit of a premier legal education like you.

To borrow your phraseology, what good is legal education if you cannot read and understand a simple legal brief?

What good is legal education, if you cannot empathize with those that are born into less privileged families than yours and have had to struggle to just stay afloat? What good is it if you point fingers at a poor kid who had the courage and conviction to fight for what is right and just? Through means that were well within the contours of the law. And succeed he did …in effectively sterilising a highly arbitrary and illegal rule.

News items in the wake of his victory will clearly suggest to you (and anyone else with the patience to do their homework) that GNLU agreed to amend its impugned rule. I quote from one such publicly available news report:

“With GNLU agreeing to modify its rules, Donnie was granted admission into the university and he paid his fees on Tuesday.

The HC disposed of Donnie’s petition after GNLU counsel Dharmistha Raval informed the court about the university’s policy decision.

Besides Donnie, another student who did not get admission at GNLU because he did not clear his Class XII exam in first attempt had also approached the HC with a similar prayer. But, with GNLU changing its rules, his petition was also disposed of by the court.”

So, yes Anuj, several others will benefit from this boy’s courage and his role in effectively liquidating at least one arbitrary rule from the rule book before he even steps into law school. Not sure how many of us have had this kind of an impact, despite flirting with the law for this long!

But perhaps you were so caught up in your indignation at the temerity of a child who dared to “vilify” a law school, that you chose to overlook this aspect.

Or was it that you were outraged that the boy chose to put an end to a legal battle by taking up GNLU on their offer to admit him, without pressing for a court ruling..something that might have taken another 5 years. Damn you Donnie! Our chance for that extra case law and fine jurisprudence just went down the drain!

As the great Voltaire once remarked: “I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death, your right to say it”. And I for one hope that we can have a multitude of views on this issue. But for heavens sake, before you proffer any view, please do your homework…read the petition carefully: if you don’t have a copy, ask me for a copy and I’ll send it to you. In any case, its up on our IDIA website/blog).

I’m still left unsure as to what your key thesis/argument really is. You seem to ask at one place in your piece whether the ends justify the means. This case hardly begs that question at all, since the “means” were perfectly lawful and reasonable, if I may add. We first tried amicably sorting the matter with GNLU, with petitions after petitions driving home the point that their brochure condition was “non est” in the eyes of law (or to reduce the legal jargon for our non lawyer friends, the brochure condition was “illegal”). Since it contravened their own statute, which is their constitutional charter, so to speak. Since our petitions fell on deaf ears, we had no other resort than to go to court. And the process from then on was completely in the public eye and fully transparent. Even the letter that GNLU wrote us offering to finally admit Donnie is a public document—and in fact carried on your very own Bar and Bench website. And this letter was submitted in court, based on which the writ was disposed off. GNLU undertook to effectively eviscerate this brochure condition. So where is the question of “non transparency” as you seem to allude to.

Or where is the question of the means being questionable? Yes, we did have huge public support behind us, and that may have accounted in part for this victory. But, is there something wrong in public support for a cause such as this? Were we subverting the rule of law? Were we forcing GNLU to offer special concessions for Donnie? Of course not. We were simply fighting for what was rightfully Donnie’s entitlement–based on his CLAT rank and the fact that he had scored more than 50% in his class 12. Would a rich kid have succeeded in a similar way? If they took it court, of course yes….the law (at least to the best of my understanding) is on the side of any candidate that wishes to challenge this arbitrary condition. And for all practical purposes, this arbitrary (and “non est”) rule is now a thing of the past.

The end is a good one. The means were perfectly lawful. And surely, none of us expect Donnie to continue a fight when GNLU itself promises to reverse its rule and offers admission. Apart from the snail like pace of courts, do bear in mind that the child has to study at GNLU for five years.

And if his case succeeded in whipping up public sentiment for a good cause, surely we need more of this? Very often, we lose sight of the purpose of law and the wonders that it can do in a society as stratified as ours. You’ll recollect Tom Hanks’ in “Philadelphia”, where he plays the role of an ace lawyer who when asked in court as to what he most likes about the law, responds: “It’s that every now and again – not often, but occasionally – you get to be a part of justice being done. It really is quite a thrill when that happens.”

When we started the IDIA project at NUJS more than two years ago, I remember a student dissuading another from joining the IDIA team stating: Yeh Dehati Log (meaning IDIA scholars) ko idhar laakar hamara standard karab kar denge. We’re still fighting a similar sentiment today. Day in and day out our scholars struggle with this. Some cope…some just cannot, despite the mentorship and support. Our earlier scholar in GNLU, Ria Siuli (a girl from the Sunderbans) could not cope and her parents took her back to the Sunderbans. The ecosystem at these law schools is not a very forgiving or accommodating one. You have to live their lives for at least a day to appreciate what the fight is about. And that they are not being meted out princely treatment, as you seem to allege. Live the life of Aravind, our IDIA scholar at NUJS, Kolkata, your alma mater. He had never stepped outside NUJS’s walls for a good one month after he joined college, since no one had ever invited him for a meal outside (being visually impaired, he could not go on his own). His classmates and friends from more privileged backgrounds would have done Park Street and all its wonderful eateries and bars a hundred times by then. I wept when I first heard this. For it was in my own backyard…and try as I might (I could make excuses about my travel schedule etc etc), it was very clear that I was equally to blame!

The reason I state all of this is because notwithstanding your support for the IDIA support, your piece does great disservice to Donnie’s fight and what it represents.

Its one thing to rally against the constant spate of arbitrary rules that the National Law Universities (NLU’s) come up with (and I am in complete agreement with you here). Its quite another to accuse this child (and those went out of their way to spend time fighting for a just cause) of celebrating arbitrariness and autocracy.

If it is the arbitrariness of NLU rules you’re really concerned about, you should take a leaf from this boys’ book and fight the fight. Rather than resting on your cushy and critical armchair and pontificating on the greatness of your legal education and the kind of things its spurring you to do!

If you’re really serious about reform, make a list of all NLU rules that you think are arbitrary and campaign against them one by one. Perhaps those law school darshans that you routinely undertake might be a good platform for you to launch your crusade from. I will be more than happy to join you in this fight against autocracy. It’s a cliched nugget of wisdom, but well worth repeating: Actions do speak louder than words!

Yours sincerely,

Shamnad Basheer (Founder, IDIA)

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