Few in the state government of West Bengal know that Justice M Hidayatullah, a former Chief Justice of India and Vice President of India, spearheaded the concept of a national law university (NLU), along the lines of the Harvard Law School, to be “autonomous in nature, completely self-financed, not take any financial aid from Government or regulatory bodies and in turn not permit their interference”. The dream of the founding fathers of the NLU was actualised with National Law School of India University, Bangalore’s (NLSIU) establishment in 1986, which had Dr N R Madhava Menon as its founding Vice-Chancellor (VC).

National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (NUJS) was conceived by the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mr Jyoti Basu when he had visited NLSIU in late 1990s. At the time, West Bengal was facing severe brain drain as lots of students were going South to study engineering, medicine and law. Mr Basu and his senior colleagues felt that a NLU modelled on NLSIU would not only help stem the brain drain but also attract best talent from rest of India to Kolkata.

Dr Menon, the founding VC of NUJS, was personally invited by Mr Basu to come out of retirement and set up a NLU in Kolkata. He fondly reminisces in his semi-autobiography, Turning Point (The Story of a Law Teacher), how despite not being a Bengali or communist, he enjoyed the unstinted support of Mr Basu, his Law Minister (Mr Nishith Adhikary), the then Acting Governor of WB and also the then Acting Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court (Justice Shyamal Sen), and other senior leaders such as Mr Somnath Chatterjee so much so that he was able to secure “the institutional autonomy [he] asked for which was something unprecedented in higher education in West Bengal” then and probably now as well.

Although NUJS’ building loan was underwritten by the Government of West Bengal, WBNUJS under Dr Menon enjoyed absolute financial and academic autonomy. Apart from ad hoc grants, NUJS never did and still does not depend on the state government’s financial support for meeting core recurring expenditures such as salaries and benefits to its employees (at central pay scales) and student welfare. Unlike other state universities, NUJS embarked on a model of self-sustainability from the start through a combination of student fees, philanthropic grants, and project consultancies. As of today, 153 per cent of NUJS’ annual expenditure is funded solely by student fees.

The 52nd NUJS Executive Council (EC), despite detailed evidence of maladministration presented by students, controversially rewarded the then VC, Prof P Ishwara Bhat a second term for including a curious, last-minute proposal by the West Bengal government for doubling intake, and setting up two new campuses of NUJS at Asansol and Siliguri. This proposal was rejected by the 57th EC following reasoned opposition by students.

Thereafter, the 60th EC and the 61st EC acting on the evidence presented by the students on 7 April and 12 May, respectively, replaced Prof Bhat with Justice (Retd) Amit Talukdar, installed a new Acting Registrar and a new Assistant Registrar (Administration), and instituted three inquiries. These developments led the students to strongly believe that Justice Talukdar and Mrs Madhumati Mitra (presently a High Court judge), later Mrs Sikha Sen, not being academic bureaucrats, were best placed to ensure that inquiries are conducted fairly, transparently, swiftly and ensure that consequent disciplinary actions are executed without fear or favour.

Disturbingly, Justice Talukdar is giving serious competition to Prof Bhat’s flawed reign. The inquiries have gone nowhere. In addition to the legacy issues concerning the complete inaction on the Calcutta High Court-instituted Justice (Retd) P.N. Sinha’s inquiry into the multi-crore University Grants Commission (UGC) grants’ embezzlement by a former Registrar, Dr SC Mukhopadhyay, Justice Talukdar has exhibited inexplicable apathy over grave issues such as the University running distance education courses without due approval from the UGC; persistent violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010; and years of cumulatively bleeding crores of rupees in overpayment to Data Entry Officers. These and other unaddressed issues have compelled the students to scrutinise the actual motivations of Justice Talukdar and Mrs Sen.

Disregarding swift resolution to these issues which have been haemorrhaging NUJS, the Government of West Bengal surreptitiously legislated a questionable Amendment Bill to WBNUJS Act, 1999 – without any consultation with its Chancellor (the Chief Justice of India); its administration; or its state government- dominated statutory bodies.

This Amendment provides for at least 30 per cent reservation for West Bengal domiciled candidates; freeships in tuition fees to at least 5 per cent of total strength of students; bestows student- fee setting powers on the state government; and contemplates admission based on “merit” determined either on basis of grade obtained in the qualifying examination or on the basis of marks of grade obtained in a relevant entrance examination conducted by the University or by Common Entrance Test conducted at the state or national level.

Given the state Government’s dire financial strait and the Amendment itself underlining that it “has no financial implication”, students fear that populist fee reduction will reduce the financial autonomy of NUJS thus affecting its ability to retain and attract quality faculty. Similarly, the 5 per cent freeship is tokenistic as NUJS already has a better scholarship policy in place.

In 2015, the Government of West Bengal had received 10 seats under domiciliary reservation against the provision of 3000 sq. mt. of land to NUJS. At the time, the state government- dominated EC had resolved that such seats would be filled based on results of the national Common Law Admission Test (CLAT). Recently, the WB Law Minister, Mr Moloy Ghatak reportedly stated in the Assembly, “seats would be reserved up to 30 per cent for the students who have domicile in the state, if they find place on the National merit list”. However, if the state government did not wish to circumvent the CLAT in 2015; now; or closer to 2021 why does this Amendment propose four different admission mechanisms for entry to NUJS?

The erosion in the diversity and the quality of student body is not the only drawback of this proposed Amendment. It also poses the risk of over-inclusiveness which might result in unconstitutionality of the Amendment. As a study on the demographics of the similarly placed NLSIU suggest, blanket domiciliary reservation without any additional economic, regional, and/ or socio-linguistic qualifiers is likely to have a very strong urban bias. It will likely result in unfairly benefitting candidates from Kolkata at the cost of their counterparts from nonurban locations in WB. The state government has also not provided any concrete evidence justifying such a reservation, as also for the precise extent of it.

WB would be better served if the state government allowed NUJS to remain autonomous, thus potentially saving crores of rupees which could instead be used to prepare WB candidates for CLAT and institute wholesome scholarships so that they not only gain entry but also successfully graduate from the best NLUs and not just NUJS.

I write this as student demands for the grant of Institute of National Importance (INI) status for NLUs progressively gets louder across the country, and the Supreme Court deliberates over the issue. In these times, while other state governments have successfully supported their respective NLUs’ bid for autonomy from the UGC, NUJS lacks even NAAC accreditation, and the state government is busy legislating ‘National’ out of NUJS!

The writer was elected President of NUJS’ Student Juridical Association for 2016-18, and presently works as an Associate at Trilegal, Delhi. The views expressed in this article are purely his own.