The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession at the global level. One of the goals of this series of interviews is to get the views of Indian academics on legal education, both in India and abroad.
Malavika Prasad is a PhD scholar at NALSAR University, the same university she graduated with a law degree from in the year 2013. In 2016, she enrolled for an LL.M. at Michigan Law School where she was, amongst other things, a Research Assistant to Professor Vikramaditya Khanna.
You are currently a doctoral candidate at NALSAR University, your alma mater. Did you ever consider pursuing a thesis outside India, and if not, why?
I did not consider doing a thesis outside India. One thing I learned in my LL.M., was that we Indians look to some countries way more than we do to others, for inspiration on constitutional law issues, and that can have costs. Truly speaking, I think an academic exchange term at South Africa would make more sense for me professionally because they are committed to a constitutional vision much more like ours.
Besides, I wanted to work where peoples and actors are making claims to the Constitution, and to work with them. I guess I fear that researching and writing a thesis on realizing our constitutional vision from a foreign, and particularly western location, with all the attending conveniences, can alienate us from the audience we hope to write for. I worry that the Indian republic is already very alienated from our constitutional vision.
“I guess I fear that researching and writing a thesis on realizing our constitutional vision from a foreign, and particularly western location, with all the attending conveniences, can alienate us from the audience we hope to write for. “
I have to say, I have been quite fortunate to be able to make this choice – not many of us can make it with such ease. Some kinds of work and research might be safest done from elsewhere, especially if one is at risk of losing funding and the ability to keep body and soul together by being in the country.
Plus, I think a lot of us have very good personal reasons to pursue a thesis abroad – a foreign degree may open doors and opportunities that may otherwise be closed to some of us, or maybe just living abroad is much needed breathing space from the constraints we face here.
What got you to take up an LL.M. and did it provide what you hoped for? What were some of the highlights along the way, and also some of the things you wish you had known before enrolling?
Part of my motivation to do an LL.M. abroad stemmed from my having internalized the mantra that getting a foreign degree is the pinnacle of academic success, in my college days.
The legal fraternity and law-school community I was a part of, is an echo chamber of this rhetoric that assumes that one’s ability is only as good as the degree that certifies it. It took me a while to understand the complex and somewhat elitist premises of such rhetoric, and unlearn this mantra. But the other part of my motivation was to study constitutional law in the US – one of the jurisdictions that courts and lawyers often look to in interpreting the Indian Constitution.
“The legal fraternity and law-school community I was a part of, is an echo chamber of this rhetoric that assumes that one’s ability is only as good as the degree that certifies it.”
All the constitutional law I studied in my LL.M. was a giant perspective-building exercise. I now have a better sense of how Americans think of their own constitutional law, which has helped me restructure my own thinking about the underlying constitutional framework we chose for India.
So, the short answer is yes!
The LL.M. gave me what I was looking for. As for highlights: the teaching style (“Socratic”, requiring us to reason our impulses hard and critically), the constitutional law faculty (each of whom brought a different yet rigorous approach to the table), the political moment at which I happened to be there, the student groups and activities we hosted, the University of Michigan’s immense work to build a sort of ‘intentional’ student community – all of it stood out for me. It was the perfect place for a consummate nerd to meet and study with others who are similarly minded.
What do I wish I knew before enrolling? That there is no hurry at all to do a master’s degree. I think we can take away much more, as well as bring much more to the table after we find our feet as lawyers, professionals or scholars. To my mind, the right time to apply for a master’s is when one gains a sense of one’s place and role in the world.
“To my mind, the right time to apply for a master’s is when one gains a sense of one’s place and role in the world.”
This might happen after more years of working in fields we choose, not fields that are already charted by the legal fraternity and presented as options to us. I think I put the cart before the horse – we are socialized to feel we need to have a foreign education to find our feet or know our role in the world. Plus I was also unwittingly giving in to the pressure of a societally-written calendar scheduling my masters, marriage and kids for me… But as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
So, one of the things we spoke about was how, to be polite, overlooked the question of privilege is to most discussions on access to international legal education. Do you think this is changing? And do you think foreign law schools are seeking out a more diverse set of applicants?
I don’t know what foreign law schools are seeking out in terms of diversity; I suppose the only way to know is if we speak with their admissions offices! But one knows from public writing that western universities aim to have “diverse” student bodies. To my mind, the recipe for a “diverse” student body in a largely white world can often just be: add <student from minority racial group> and stir.
“To my mind, the recipe for a “diverse” student body in a largely white world can often just be: add <student from minority racial group> and stir.”
From the context of those of us who apply from India, the question is do all of us have an equal shot at entering foreign law-schools? They might take me as a brown woman from the global south – but what does that mean within India, where I have all this unearned advantage as an upper caste woman?
Consider the whole law-education process that I came out of: entry into the national law-schools is decided supposedly on “merit”. We know that in the name of filtering for students of a certain ability, merit filters out those who could not access the education and social capital that nurtures such ability.
There is also the deeper question of why such ability that only some of us are able to nurture has become universalized into some “merit” standard. Once in law-school, some of us are compelled into a Sisyphean obstacle race because these schools are structurally built for a student-type: well to do, upper caste, able bodied, fluent in English and from an urban setting.
For instance, if exam hall tickets are only handed out if we owe no dues to the university, what does one do if one’s central government scholarship is held up or comes through at a later date? Curricular and co-curricular activities – which become the bedrock of “academic success” – reward fluency in English, reasoning sharply under pressure, sometimes through public speaking, and the ability to bear the expenses of one’s chosen activity. These things combine to define our odds of getting recommendations from our professors (pauses) to say nothing of the inordinate expense of the fees for a foreign legal education!
“For instance, if exam hall tickets are only handed out if we owe no dues to the university, what does one do if one’s central government scholarship is held up or comes through at a later date?”
This is not to take away from anyone’s hard work in law-school at all, but rather, to reckon with the reality that some of us have it so much easier than others. So even if foreign law schools are seeking out a diverse set of applicants, the pool of applicants is limited to those equipped to apply to them as a function of one’s social capital.
On the same note, how do you think individuals like you and me can change things?
Hmmm. Perhaps we can reconsider the premium we attach to getting and having a foreign degree. It obscures from view the far weightier issue of what we do with our training in the law.
“Perhaps we can reconsider the premium we attach to getting and having a foreign degree. It obscures from view the far weightier issue of what we do with our training in the law.”
I worry that we are still in the mode of treating the global or local brand of the credential as some kind of proxy for a student’s ability, when these end up being a proxy for the kind of social capital one has. If I’m being honest, I think social capital opens doors anyway for some of us, with or without any brand name. Besides, social capital is that gift that keeps on giving – one ends up accumulating more social capital and thus more brand names with it. So within this class of people, should brand names be such a selling point, or even such a talking point?
The thing is that brand names may be the only thing that opens doors for some of us. So maybe the conversation needs to turn urgently to how to enable those of us who need the degree. In those cases in which it is necessary to have the foreign education conversation, maybe we can refashion how we talk of our experiences.
It is one thing for me to share what happened to work for me in my application to the foreign law school/s I applied to. It is quite another to suggest, even if subtly, that I have been chosen because of the strength of my application and resume. We can hardly claim a causal relationship between our accomplishments and securing an admission, without reckoning with the many moving parts – the ‘confounding variables’ if you will – that enable our admission.
“We can hardly claim a causal relationship between our accomplishments and securing an admission, without reckoning with the many moving parts – the ‘confounding variables’ if you will – that enable our admission.”
In what circumstances would you recommend an LL.M. abroad, and when would it perhaps not be the most pragmatic course of action?
I think the decision to do an LL.M. abroad needs some reflection on why one wants to an LL.M. at all. What path would I like to be on in my career? What do I think the LL.M. will add to that path?
For a student without financial aid or a scholarship, a foreign degree closes out careers that are not financially rewarding, because one needs to earn enough post LL.M. to pay back the loans. This means no litigation with some kinds of counsels (thanks to the way in which the litigation system is set up), no public-sector or NGO work, no teaching, and certainly no exploring unfamiliar, uncharted career paths.
So, a basic factor ought to be whether one is comfortable committing long years to working in a law firm or some other such lucrative private sector job. If that is anyway one’s chosen path, then a foreign education might even be rewarding for one’s standing in the law firm-community. If not, some home-grown options for master’s programs are now on the horizon. Some of the national law universities and Azim Premji University offer LL.M programs that are worth exploring.
One might find that deeper reflection points us towards exploring a master’s in other allied fields – many lawyers opt for public policy, and some of my peers have entered education. The Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy in NLSIU has an interesting public policy program on offer.
“One might find that deeper reflection points us towards exploring a master’s in other allied fields – many lawyers opt for public policy, and some of my peers have entered education. “
A rather under-explored alternative is to take up a writing or research fellowship in India, as an opportunity to learn with our academic fraternity and in our local communities. These opportunities allow us to meld together not only top-down expertise of the academics we work with, but also bottom-up practice and community-experience in our scholarship.
Some national law universities have research centres run by their own faculty, and tech and science universities like the IITs, and IISC are now starting to study law, policy and society. There are also unaffiliated research organizations which are doing interesting work like CLPR, CPR, NIPFP, etc. and some of these organizations do hire fellows without post-graduate degrees.
One of the interesting aspects of your work is that you get to teach “living under the Constitution” to children and young adults – could you tell me a bit more about the kind of work this involves?
I am trying to explore the ways in which we can make the Constitution a thing to reckon with, in our daily public lives. The times are changing, and our already complex social issues are getting even more complex with the fast-changing nature of work in a time of acute climate and water crisis. Being mindful of the uniqueness of issues in our times, the idea is to have children reckon with what it means to live collaboratively rather than competitively, by reckoning with one’s associative obligations to others in the community.
It’s an education project that draws its founding ideas from the rule of law and constitutionalism on the one hand, and the need to think innovatively but democratically about the unique issues of our times, on the other. ‘How can we hold our elected representatives to account’ is one part of that exercise.
At the same time ‘what can we do for democratic politics, without passing the buck to the government, elected reps or the bureaucracy’ is another part. I haven’t figured it out all out yet, but between scale and impact worries, I am consoled by the idea that everything has butterfly effects.
And lastly, what is it about academia and research that you find the most appealing? What is it that keeps you motivated along the long, possibly lonely path of the academy?
I think the freedom is most appealing. I appreciate being in a space that is not answerable to any perverting incentives. (laughs)
What keeps me motivated? Many little things. So many young folks in all corners of India are doing wonderful things for our law, politics, governance and community. They are easy to find and connect with, so generous with their time and thoughts, and I feel somewhat inspired by the idea that we are all in this together.
“So many young folks in all corners of India are doing wonderful things for our law, politics, governance and community. They are easy to find and connect with, so generous with their time and thoughts, and I feel somewhat inspired by the idea that we are all in this together.”
Can I digress to say that academia is only as lonely as one makes it? (smiles) Some of us in my PhD cohort are attempting to be intentional about the time we spend with each other – and these are the peers I’ve laughed hardest with but endured some very difficult times with in the last couple of years.