The Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) is being critically viewed by every aspirant who wishes to get admitted to India’s premier National Law Universities (NLUs) for the academic year 2020-2021. Repeated postponement of CLAT, justified due to the crisis of Covid-19 has left the student community and parents stressed. Matters have worsened with the recent unilateral decision of National Law School of India University (NLSIU) to conduct a separate entrance test called NLAT UG 2020 and NLAT 2020 PG.

What causes more stress is that NLSIU has given a one-week window to aspiring students to register for this test, which will be a home-based online entrance examination. The major ground given in NLSIU’s notification is the fear that 2020-2021 could become a ‘Zero Year’ due to CLAT postponements. It has also been contested that since NLSIU follows a trimester pattern, postponement would be detrimental. Besides, NLSIU’s notification clarifies that “No consolidated Merit List or Admission list shall be published by the University”. This raises another alarm whether India’s first National Law University is simply forsaking transparency and fairness in its admission process by not publically declaring its consolidated merit list or admission list.

Let us examine some of the critical issues that arise from this decision. Firstly, a scrutiny of NLSIU’s notification of conducting NLAT 2020, whose Vice-Chancellor is Ex-Officio Secretary and Treasurer of the CLAT Consortium, clearly defies the mandate of the Consortium. It is important to note that CLAT Consortium is registered as a society and hence all members are bound by rules to act in fulfilment of its objectives and purpose. Interestingly, until NLSIU decided to go solo on conducing entrance test, the CLAT Consortium’s headquarter was also NLSIU Bengaluru. The recent clarifications issued by CLAT Consortium and articles published by Vice-Chancellors of other NLUs when read in conjunction with NLSIU’s notification indicate that something was brewing since last couple of months or more. This is based on the premise that NLSIU held its Faculty Meeting at the University on 6 and 31 August 2020 and Executive Meetings on 12 and 18 August to discuss alternative ways of conducting its admission process, in case CLAT got delayed any further. And these facts seemed to become public only with NLSIU’s revised admission notification.

Unless someone from CLAT Consortium clarifies, it would seem that even the CLAT Consortium Executive Body or General Body were not told of such NLSIU’s plans by its Vice-Chancellor. Instead, the CLAT Consortium was equally taken by surprise. If this is true and the minutes of CLAT Consortium do not prove otherwise, it could be a dangerous precedent. Other NLUs may also choose to withdraw from CLAT Consortium on their own will and without citing any reason to the Consortium. Hence, we doubt whether NLSIU’s Vice-Chancellor’s actions can at all be justified for simply flouting all rules and regulations of CLAT Consortium despite being its Ex-Officio Secretary and Treasurer.

On a literal reading of the Bye-laws of CLAT Consortium Society, it appears that NLSIU has not complied with rules and regulations enlisted therein. For example, Rule 15.7 of the Bye-laws provides for withdrawal from CLAT Consortium by any Member Institution (NLU) by way of giving a written notice to the Secretary-Treasurer. In this case, the Secretary-Treasurer, being the Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU himself, neither communicated the intention of NLSIU to withdraw from CLAT Consortium either to its Executive Body or the General Body. The entire scheme of withdrawal from CLAT appears a well-orchestrated, as is clear from its revised admission notification. It surely raises questions. Is it that the Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU miscalculated and hence impacted the prestige of India’s first NLU of which he himself is a proud alumni? Or is it a clash of ideas and personalities between the older and well-experienced Vice-Chancellors in CLAT Consortium and the young Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU? There are two very grounds to support these conjectures.

Firstly, the last line of an article titled ‘[NLAT] Myth of Zero Year & Five CLAT Postponements’ authored by the Vice-Chancellor of NALSAR, published on LiveLaw on 7 September 2020 reflects that the issue is perhaps deeper than the clash over admission process for 2020. It reads: “If he (Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU) really feels suffocated within the Consortium, he has every right to withdraw from it and in future conduct NLSIU’s own admission test.” What suffocation could possibly be choking the interest of NLSIU and its Vice-Chancellor? Why should an element of suffocation at all emerge among a small group of Vice-Chancellors?

There is another tag for our presumption that it is possibly beyond the admission clash. That is an interview of the Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU to Bar and Bench, published on 4 September 2020, in which he mentioned that, ‘Frankly, we might have been the first to stick our heads out, but there are other universities which are hardplaced. We are not the only university that feels this way.’ This again suggests a brewing collision within the CLAT Consortium. What makes it relevant is that we are scrutinizing statements by the Senior Professors and Vice-Chancellors. They may say that views offered are purely personal, but one wonders when you hold public office whether your views concerning the affairs of such office can be personal. In such a case, the Vice-Chancellors shall either speak officially or preferably should not share their personal testimonies.

Hence, it is becoming clearer that perhaps it is not just about the issue of conducting CLAT exam but involves a bigger question of the functioning of the CLAT Consortium. The Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU is certainly in a spot. Simply put, something is not alright within CLAT Consortium and its functioning. Else, why could a smaller group of Vice-Chancellors of NLUs not control this damage. This is especially so when on the other side, we have JEE Mains being conducted by National Testing Agency established by Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MoHRD), Government of India (GOI). And approximately 31 NITs, 25 IITs and 28 Centrally Funded Technical Institutions (CFTIs), participating universities and institutions admit students through JEE Mains – which can be said to be a parallel of CLAT.

Likewise, in the case of NEET, approximately 355 medical colleges and 125 dental colleges accept NEET scores for admission. But a CLAT-like situation has never been reported in case of JEE Mains and NEET, which are much larger in scale to CLAT. Is it because these examinations are conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA) established by MoHRD, GOI and the CLAT Consortium was only developed as a lookalike of NTA but lacks its genes and fundamentals?

Be that as it may, NLSIU’s walking out of the CLAT Consortium should ring alarm bells not only for the 22 Vice-Chancellors of NLUs but also in the high offices of the Chancellor Judges who supervise these institutions and alert them it is time to set the house in order. This must be seen in the light of the petition for advocating a CLAT envelop for the National Testing Agency (NTA) to take over. This petition was filed in the Supreme Court around three years ago but technically is still a live petition.

And at one point in 2018 the Supreme Court was thought to be considering the option of paving the way for NTA to take over CLAT. But when the petition was pending, the CLAT Consortium was created and the petition almost turned infructuous. Hence, the CLAT Consortium needs to look inwards for self-correction before the courts are moved again to bring in NTA and resolve the crisis for good. At the same time, the Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU perhaps needs to adapt a far more administratively sound way of operation.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Therefore, it would be wise for all parties to move towards a speedy resolution. It is sad to see the first NLU of the country which shaped modern legal education being questioned by the entire country. Let us hope the old guards of NLSIU will come to its rescue and provide necessary handholding to preserve its glory.

The writer is Founder and Director of Virtual Law School and former Assistant Registrar (Research) Supreme Court of India.