“As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
- Justice William Douglas, Former Chief Justice of US Supreme Court
The Student Juridical Association of NUJS strongly condemns and disapproves of the manner as well as the content of the amendments carried out to the WBNUJS Act, 1999. In brief the amendment bill (Bill No. 25 of 2018) notified on November 16, 2018 (Friday) and passed by the West Bengal Legislative Assembly on November 20, 2018 (Tuesday) seeks to bring about the following changes:
1. State Government Control over Student Fees: Section 4A (1) seeks to grant the state government complete powers to decide and fix the student fees without any consultation with the University or its governing bodies.
2. Free-ship: Section 4A (2) provides for ‘free-ship’ in tuition fees for at least five percent of the students from poor and economically backward classes.
3. Domicile Quota: Section 4A (3) mandates the University to compulsorily introduce a reservation quota of at least 30% for students domiciled in West Bengal.
4. Redefining Merit: Section 4B (2) defines merit for admission to be determined on either marks obtained in qualifying examination or entrance examination conducted by University or common entrance test at state or national level.
The students are of firm belief that the these amendments to the WBNUJS Act reek of state government's undue interference in an autonomous University’s affairs, threatens the independence and national character of our prestigious institution and destroys the primacy of merit and aptitude in the admission process.
While student demands before the University’s Executive Council for reducing fees and increasing grants and state government support have gone unaddressed, the amendment grants the state unguided powers to fix the tuition fees. At the moment, NUJS’ finances are completely dependent on fees charged from the students in the face of meagre state government and private funding. The idea of state government bureaucrats deciding the amount of student fees has a direct bearing on the financial flexibility of the University. For instance, curtailing the institution’s revenues will impact its ability to retain existing employees and attract new faculty of the highest competence by offering competitive remuneration scales. The provision of ‘free-ship’ in tuition fees for a paltry five percent of students is rendered redundant as NUJS already provides a ‘merit-cum-means scholarship’ for a far greater number of students each year. This tokenistic measure purporting to legitimise the flawed amendment also brings no added benefit to the students.
Hence, we have strong apprehensions that this is nothing more than a clandestine attempt by the state government to restrict the University's financial autonomy and consequently, increase state administrative control – especially in the absence of any express guarantee in the amendment bill for future state governmental grants and compensatory funding.
Further, in line with the recent developments across National Law Universities (NLUs) in the country, the amendment envisages a domicile quota of at least 30% leaving scope for future increments in the quota. However, NUJS was envisaged in its preamble as “a national level institution of excellence in higher learning of law” and was established with the aid of the Bar Council of India with the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India acting as its Chancellor. The founding values of NUJS including its national character and its role in the process of nation building and development is set to be strained by the state government’s pursuit of narrow regional goals. Secondly, an attempt to introduce one-third or more state-level reservation strikes a blow to the thousands of meritorious candidates across the country who aspire to be a part of a national-level institution like NUJS every year. Finally and most importantly, it strikes at the heart of the rich diversity in student body which is an essential element of learning and personal growth at all national-level institutions.
Funnily in 2015, NUJS under former Vice Chancellor Prof. Bhat was forced to introduce a domicile quota of ten seats in exchange for 3000 sq. mt. of land by the state government. While we remain opposed to domicile in quota in any manner or measure, unfortunately, it appears that this time NUJS is being stripped of its autonomy and character in exchange for nothing.
Lastly, the amendment creates the possibility for NUJS to leave the CLAT setup, which was created in pursuance of a Supreme Court directive in 2006 in Varun Bhagat v. Union of India, wherein the court ordered that a common entrance for all the NLUs be conducted, following which the first CLAT was conducted after an MoU between the existing National Law Universities in 2008, and ever since.
The possibility of replacing this system through a separate University-conducted entrance violates and contradicts the spirit of the Supreme Court order and creates avenues for undue favours in the admission process as is the prevalent practice in many local colleges. A founding member of the CLAT organizing committee, NUJS’ withdrawal from the common exam may prompt other NLUs to follow suit, which would undo the system in entirety. Further, it could mean the crème-de-la-crème of law students may not end up taking the separate examinations, opting instead for the broader CLAT framework. It is beyond any doubt that CLAT will find more takers than separate entrance tests, which in itself should serve as a disincentive for any institution looking to attract the best talent. Thus, any dilution of CLAT as means for student intake in NUJS will detriment the institution in every conceivable fashion.
The manner in which the amendment appears to have been introduced and passed is equally disturbing and disconcerting. The Minister of Law and the Judicial Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal who spearheaded the amendment are also members of the University’s Executive Council. However, no discussion upon the matters contained in the amendment was initiated by them in the last Executive Council meeting on September 29, 2018. Also, given that an Executive Council meeting is set to take place on December 8, 2018, the legislative attempt indicates total disregard for the statutory governing bodies of the University by the state government and its officials. Further, the Vice Chancellor (Acting) Justice (Retd.) Talukdar and Registrar (Acting) Ms. Sikha Sen categorically denied any knowledge of the amendment bill when enquired by the students. It appears that the state government including the Law Minister and Judicial Secretary chose to keep the highest functionaries of the University in dark while deliberating upon an amendment which could potentially change the course of the institution.
Consequently, the introduction of the amendment without any needful consultation or information with or to the stakeholders - including the faculty, administration and governing bodies, creates severe apprehensions about motivated attack on independent nature of the University. Furthermore, the bill also raises conjectures about a possible legislative over-riding of the University's Executive Council's decision last year rejecting the government's proposal for creating two new campuses in Asansol and Siliguri.
Today, NUJS finds itself at crucial crossroads and is undergoing a phase of transition. The University has been yearning for administrative stability and dynamic leadership. There have been no permanent Vice Chancellor, Registrar, Finance Officer, Account Officer and Assistant Registrar (Administration) for a long time now. In light of this, the University administration is in a dire state and the functioning has been temporarily paralyzed. The recruitment process for all of these posts is currently underway after inordinate delays caused by the recalcitrant state government and the unresponsive interim administration. At a time when the University is trying to get back on track, the sweeping changes the amendment bill seeks to make would ensure that the University enters a state of permanent paralysis.
Therefore, the students of NUJS stand in united opposition of the proposed amendment and unequivocally condemn the state governmental interference which threatens its founding values, autonomy and reputation.
Especially given the rising demands by student bodies of NLUs, prominent individuals and legislators, and organisations in favour of centralizing the NLUs and granting them the status of institutes of national eminence, the implications of this amendment by the West Bengal Government seems to be step in the opposite direction. What the NLUs, like the IITs and IIMs, need is greater functional autonomy, not deeper state control.
In the coming days, we have resolved to explore all avenues in our fight against this institutional assault including petitioning our Hon’ble Chancellor, the Chief Justice of India to apprise and invite his attention to the recent developments as well as challenging the issue before the court of law. In these testing times for NUJS we look forward for help, guidance, support and solidarity from the faculty, alumni, the legal fraternity and well-wishers of our University and legal education in this country.