How Background Works – Reflections on NLS Socio-Economic ‘Census’ 2015-16: Chirayu Jain

Guest post by CHIRAYU JAIN

Last year I carried out a study to record background and performance data of all students at NLS. Managing to get 97.9% compliance, the data helped in preparing the report “The Elusive Island of Excellence”, which provides a microanalysis of the institution touted as the country’s best law school, and answers two broad questions: who is likely to get admitted to NLS, and how much does background influence one’s performance within NLS? This article details why this year-long study was conducted, reflections on certain key findings and insights received from academics and scholars hypothesizing probable reasons for the outcomes of the report.

When the final figures of the Census were tabulated, the dearth of Muslims or the financial affluence of the under-graduate students at NLS came as no surprise. But what was shocking was the magnitude. Muslims form not even 1% of the student body and with average family incomes being higher than Rs. 20 lakhs per annum- majority of the NLS students come from top one percentile of the country! Not a single student who declared their caste as scheduled caste/tribe was admitted through general category, and Brahmins continue to be disproportionately dominate the numbers by forming more than a quarter of the student body. Likewise, 77.8% of the students came from families where even their grandparents had gone to college, while 26% are those with even longer history of graduates in their families.

Overall, these findings were not very shocking. Described as an ‘island of excellence’ by former Prime Minister, National Law School-Bangalore is an island unto itself in many ways – ways other than academic rigour alone. Such exclusive and elite student population is not due to a deliberate intention of the university administration, the process for admission is uniform for all. Rather such demographics are a result of exclusion by design and reflection of overall education system and status of the country. Figures reflecting lack of Muslims and SC/STs in general category are corroborated by similar figures found in other leading institutions of the country. Perhaps, financially the student body remains more exclusive than the ones in IITs and medical colleges because of high fee structure and eight times higher entrance examination fee than the one applicable in case of JEE.

I started working concretely on the project a year ago-in June 2015. But it had been on my mind for long time, perhaps since the first few initial months at NLS. Given the minute size of student body, patterns of socialisation at NLS are stronger amongst juniors and seniors than usual. One such form is ‘state treats’, where seniors belonging to same state would take the incoming first-years from the state out for treats at fancy places. Unfortunate people from Delhi would always be denied one, since given their huge number holding a treat was unfeasible. To add to my pain, some batchmates got to go on multiple treats as their parents foreseeing this advantage, had made sure they wards got to grow up in multiple places. But overtime this unexpressed jealousy got transformed into curiosity about group behaviour and patterns of socialisation.

It was very evident. Once the initial enthusiasm of getting to know everyone died out, loose groups started appearing. They were based on backgrounds – people from same city, sharing a language, same high school etc., but mostly on the lines of sharing same amount of disposable money and spending patterns. These patterns were not just visible within the batch, but across the five batches  – of course, a junior would be more likely to open to a senior he/she is comfortable with. And shared experiences based on similar backgrounds contribute to these comfort levels. Curiosity to know how these patterns of socialisation impacted ones law school experience drove me to conduct the census in my fourth year.

Findings were not at all disappointing. Most males having an average grade point average of below 4 on a scale of 7, while women have an average of above 5 was perhaps the most defining and hilarious finding which proved my hypothesis. But of course, every person has multiple identities, therefore in the questionnaire, information was collected across seven background factors – social identity, financial, family education, linguistic, regional, parental, schooling backgrounds. A more sobering find was that amongst the elected batch representatives, a mere 5.6% were from SC/ST background. While one may argue that this might be because students from SC/ST background just choose not to stand, and therefore there is no active discrimination. I invite them to look at other findings – in societies like debating, moot court, legal services etc., and even amongst them, merely 3 out of 55 students who have ever headed such societies are from SC/ST background. This is also corroborated by their relatively lower membership (47.5% of SCs and 61.3% of STs have ever been part of these societies, compared to 78.6% of those from General Category). Amongst the same income bracket, a student applying to these societies is twice as likely to be admitted than a student from SC/ST background. Perhaps it is not a case of intentional discrimination taking place, but what could be seen is that there is exclusion by design.

The students from affluent backgrounds do better at academics and participate in debates/ moot courts at much higher level than those who aren’t. This study corroborate studies conducted elsewhere like IIT Roorkee, where SC/ST students performance was found to be lacking. A young professor at NLS confided his observations – only a third of SC/ST students at NLS are able to graduate along with their batch.  Prof. Hargopal too voiced his thoughts when he compared the NLS’s trimester system with the erstwhile yearly examination system – in the former students are expected to perform and compete in mid-terms within 1.5 months of joining college, while the latter provided a year-long period before admitted students competed against each other academically, which gave much needed time to a person from reservations who came in through lower marks and ranks to develop skills equitably before they got tested. The socialisation in initial period based on background gets transformed into shared experiences of academic performance, mooting, debating and research prowess and student societies-which recruit first years based on performance at school level (Giving definite advantage to those who were lucky enough to attend private schools). But since background influences the performance, with no evidence found regarding its reducing/increasing influence over years, background continues to be an underlying factor – whom you would talk to, who would approach whom for guidance and with whom one is more likely to discuss future plans as well.

Over the years, the census study indicates, there has been shift in demographics – students from relatively less affluent background, non-metro cities etc. are securing admission at increasing levels. A Delhi treat now seems a reality and may come true soon. It is important for the university administration to be versatile to make sure all students are able to perform equitably, or else they would face a situation where a diminishing minority corners all accolades, but their reducing number would also then mean that it would prove difficult for the university to retain its number one tag. An obligation lies on student body as well, to be more adaptive and to ensure students from all backgrounds participate in good numbers in the activities the body prides itself in-moot courts, debates, research work, academics etc. Of course my observations has its share of exceptions – friendships and camaraderie at NLS are found across varied backgrounds and different experiences, but it isn’t a commonplace and not to the blame of anyone in particular. The hope is that current students to take up the non-justiciable duty to assist each and every junior, especially those from less affluent backgrounds, so that accolades we prize are in greater reach of everyone. Only then could any future measures the administration takes to democratise NLS further, would succeed.

The full study report of 168 pages including the foreword by Prof. Marc Galanter is available online at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2788311.

 Chirayu Jain is a fifth year student at NLS, Bengaluru. He is interested in and working on issues of inequality, caste and colourism.

3 thoughts on “How Background Works – Reflections on NLS Socio-Economic ‘Census’ 2015-16: Chirayu Jain

  1. Arun

    Well written with a sly sense of humour.

    I too have been monitoring something similar and my finding are that, due to Globalisation, aspiring lawyers from highly networked Commercially oriented families, irrespective of caste or creed, are avoiding legal education in the subcontinent, because of ‘forum shopping’ away from sclerotic and imbecilic jurisdictions.

    Interestingly, this result holds true even of China and Central Asian Republics where scions of globally networked families (often of very subaltern origin in the case of China, but generally nomenklatura legacies elsewhere in Central Asia) show a hysteresis driven gravitation to particular jurisdictions. The wealthiest, however, still prefer London.

    Lawyers, unlike Engineers or Computer professionals, have a capitalised incentive based on their ability to inspire trust and become proactive in formalizing contractual arrangements within their own communities or those to whom, traditionally, they have provided advisory or advocacy services. The demographic changes the author notes arise for this reason.

    Wealthy Muslim families do send their sons and daughters to train as barristers. They don’t send them to the N.L.S because it is a declasse shithole. All that will happen is that they will pick up unpleasant accents and lose the ability to reason. By contrast, no Muslim or S.C has any compunction about sending their kids to a proper IIT or IIM or some place run by Christians.

  2. shaturya

    I find the results of the some kind of sociological study of the background vs the performance of students at NLS on the predictable lines. Long back , while I was at one of the IITs, the similar pattern prevailed. The students from Bombay ( yes ,at that time there was no Mumbai !) which were mostly english speaking had a closed group , cutting across the seniority. Most of the elected positions were occupied by english speaking students.

    As regards SC/ST students , most of them had to be put in slow paced programme to come up the level of average student. I don’t think there were many Muslim students were there at that time.

    However the academic performance of vernacular speaking students who had come through normal JEE was comparable to english speaking lot.

    So , the situation in such academic institutions remain more or less same.

    This , the situation remaining similar over more than a quarter of a century , points to the fact that there is something which needs to be done apart from plain homilies that the students should be or should be taught to be more egalitarian in approach to improve the situation.

    I believe , that reservation in such academic institutions has not served any purpose apart from some political correctness . While firming believing that the intelligence is equitably distributed among populace , I thing the students need to be prepared earlier before entering such specialized institutions.

    This reservation of unprepared students serve no purpose of inclusivity. They generally remain exclusive in campus and thereafter . This situation is sad but needs to be faced and not brushed under the carpet for lack of political correctness.

    In my view , the primary schools are best place for such preparation. Of course, it will need herculean efforts in terms of sincerity of purpose and political will to revamp our primary schooling in villages, but that seems to be the only way out for real inclusive education system.

  3. K SHESHU BABU

    This again vindicates the upper caste hegemony. The wealth distribution is skewed in favour of brahmins’ and other upper castes. Statistics on the proportion if wealthy people from upper castes to dalits must be analysed. That would show higher percentage if rich in upper castes and that percentage reduces as the ladder of caste comes down.

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