We sit in anticipation outside the Registrar’s office, waiting for Prof. (Dr.) Srikrishna Deva Rao, Registrar and Professor of Law at National Law University, Delhi. The wait is not too long, and we are soon invited into his spacious office. We ignore the sturdy oak desk which occupies one end of the office, and sit rather comfortably in the lounge chairs on the other side. As we sit to interview him about his appointment as the new Vice-Chancellor of National Law University, Odisha, the ice is broken as Prof. Rao offers tea and biscuits, which we kindly decline.
Sir, we have learned that you have been selected for appointment as the Vice-Chancellor of National Law University, Odisha. Congratulations! What were the factors which inclined you toward accepting the position?
Firstly, National Law University, Delhi has created a name for itself in the last six years. There is a need now to establish some more National Law Schools in other regions, and I see National Law University, Odisha as a step in that direction. Secondly, I cannot decline the position because [certain] people have reposed their faith in me, and I have been asked to take this responsibility. Thirdly, NLUO requires some comprehensive overhaul in its basic structure, and generally other people would not like to leave a place like Delhi. But the position of a Vice-Chancellor is important, not just as a designation, but for positive leadership in establishing an institution, and creating a vibrant atmosphere.
What motivated you toward academics as a career choice?
[Prof Rao smiles and muses.] I completed my Bachelors in Law in 1985, and then practiced for three years. In 1988, Kakatiya University, Warangal started an LL.M. program and I stopped practice and joined the first batch.
A few of our own graduates have taken up academics after LL.M.
Yes. In 1988, National Law School of India University was set up, and started developing a uniform curriculum for LL.M., under the guidance of Prof. Menon and support of University Grants Commission. In March or April 1990, when I was a final year student, my final research paper was selected as the best research paper by the Indian Society of Criminology, and I was asked to present it at a conference held by them at the Central College campus in Bangalore, which is next to NLSIU. Prof. Madhava Menon was the chairperson of my session, and after my presentation, he asked me to meet him. I met the professor, and he asked me to join the M.Phil. course at NLSIU after taking my LL.M. final exams in November 1990. These were the formative years of NLSIU, and it was a real learning experience. That was a turning point, and this ultimately created a passion and interest for teaching in me.
You have worked at National Law School of India University, National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, and Gujarat National Law University previously. You were also the founding Director of the law department at Indira Gandhi National Open University. How would you compare this past experience with your experience at National Law University, Delhi?
When I joined NLSIU, it was in its initial formative years, and that was the first experiment in a one-of-a-kind legal education. It was my introduction to professional legal education, and that really helped me. NALSAR was the ground to implement what I had learned at NLSIU, and that experience gave me confidence. Gujarat was a completely different experience over the course of three years. There, we were able to see how interdisciplinary teaching can help law students. We concentrated on teaching methods, and started hybrid courses with B.A., B.Com., and B.Sc. IGNOU was where I learned how open and distance education works. I learned how e-learning developed at the international level, and in India. I couldn’t have learned about this in a law school. The concept of curriculum development for open and distance education was a different experience for me. NLUD was another interesting experience, and I was able to help in contributing and developing the culture.
What was your most challenging moment at NLUD?
This is a difficult question. Can you elaborate?
Sir, trying to meet the interests of the students, and balancing that with the interest of the University?
[Prof Rao pauses to recall.] I have had no issues. My job was to facilitate research, training and promote co-curricular activities. I have had no occasions where problems arose, either with the students or with the Delhi government. With the government, we had some issues regarding land, but finally we were able to acquire an additional seven acres, and everything went on very well. I am happy to say that we are the only University receiving annual grants from the government. If you’re asking about a challenge, the teaching here is good, but we still need to improve on research. We have to establish centres, and we have started this with the Centre for Communication Governance and the Centre for Transparency and Accountability in Governance. We also have taken up good projects like the Death Penalty Research. But I think we can still improve by working in a direction aimed at creating a specific area of research.
There have been criticisms that the National Law School model of legal education has lost its relevance because the NLUs are centers of elitism. As a proponent of second generational reforms in legal education, would you agree?
It is only now that these criticisms are being leveled. The elitism may be true in the context of where students who graduate from law schools are going, but as far as admission is concerned empirical research has to be done to show that only upper-class students are being admitted. We cannot say only students from upper-classes make it to any NLS. I remember my initial days at Bangalore when there were students from the middle- and lower-classes. Even in NLUD, over the last four years, we have students from the middle- and lower-class backgrounds. For example, there are several such students from Rajasthan here, who are not well versed with English. I was surprised that the reason for this [admission of Rajasthani students of middle- and lower-class backgrounds] is that Kota also has good law coaching centres, apart from IIT coaching centres. So, I don’t think this [criticism] is true. In Delhi I have seen there are a lot of students from simple backgrounds. In this context, I think, the Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access project started by the efforts of Shamnad [Basheer] and others of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences is slowly catching up, but I don’t know their exact figures. That’s a good move towards providing access to legal education. All law schools have to help and support this for the sake of the student community dynamics. We have to take special efforts. In NLUD, we give a fee-waiver to students who are granted admission through IDIA. The problem, I perceive, is mainly in the fees, but when we look at private universities, they charge much more than law schools.
What do you look forward to at NLUO?
My role here [at NLUD] was as a Registrar. I will be playing a different role in a different University, and that is a challenge which I thought I ought to take up. I have to first understand the strengths of NLUO, which was established in 2009. I have a full Professorship here, so I will be going on deputation for five years; so whenever I want, I can come back [to NLUD]. Over there, I will work on consolidating the efforts of the earlier Vice-Chancellors, and look forward to creating a team spirit for working and learning together. I think the time has come for each National Law School to develop its own identity in research. NLUO is located in the primary tribal belt of the eastern regions, and this will provide an opportunity to start community work, and looking at issues of socioeconomic and legal development research work in the eastern tribal belt. NLUO has the potential of developing this is as a distinct area of research.
Do you perceive the early resignations of the three previous Vice-Chancellors as a challenge that you might face?
I think the resignations of the previous Vice-Chancellors has been misconceived. Prof. Faizan Mustafa had an opportunity to move to Hyderabad, and he considered NALSAR as a greener pasture. I think it was a similar case with Dr. Chandra Krishamurthy after she was appointed as the VC of Pondicherry University. You cannot consider this as leaving. They moved when they felt they had better opportunities. It was only in the case of Dr. Nagaraj where people have said he had a difficult time. Otherwise, NLUO has really come up in the last five years, and there exists a good support from the Odisha government.
The post of a Vice-Chancellor is primarily administrative. Will you miss teaching?
No, I don’t agree. The job of a Vice-Chancellor is both administrative and academic. Even in NLUO I will strive for academics, and interaction with students. Teaching is a must, along with providing positive leadership, strengthening faculty, and promoting research and advocacy as a VC. This [position] will help me interact both with teachers and students.
We would like to give our students a glimpse of the man behind the Registrar of NLUD. Please tell us how you spend your free time.
I am fond of Telugu literature, particularly poetry. Even legal fiction interests me. Music is another interest. But I don’t get time for these [pursuits]. This is the problem of being trained by Prof. Madhava Menon as workaholics. He used to equate resting to rusting. I have not focused much on writing, but if any opportunity arises, I would like to concentrate on writing. I have not been able to spend too much quality time with my daughter. Maybe this will change.
What words of advice do you have for the next Registrar?
I think it will take some time for the new Registrar to understand, so I am considering leaving a few days after the convocation so that there will be a few days to explain. What is required is a cool and calm mind; particularly with students, a lot of patience is required. That’s the first thing. A good Registrar is accessible to both the teachers and students, and listening to them. Dealing with faculty, students and attending to one’s own work, and not compromising on the quality is necessary. I think any person teaching here will have these qualities. We have set an example such that a Registrar of NLUD has become eligible for selection as a Vice-Chancellor. But if I look back, I don’t think I have decentralised. I was a single point of contact for several things. That is a major challenge. Even if I delegate, the work finally comes back to me. See, a Registrar is not just an administrator, but also a teacher, so it’s a challenging job.
Lastly sir, do you have a message for the students of NLUD?
First get back to practise. Law firms are not challenging, challenges are in the profession. In law firms, and corporations you are working for someone else, not for yourself. You may get a better salary, privileges and other perks, but after five-ten years, there is nothing to show for individual attainment. In profession you are not engaging another senior lawyer, you are arguing before the judge, you are not sitting behind a desk. But wherever they are, students must remember that they have a duty to society. They also have to give back to legal education.
What about the current graduating batch?
Students have to strengthen the alumni base in the law school. Whenever there is an opportunity, keep in touch with the law school and help them, and act as responsible citizens.
[Special thanks to Puneet Dinesh and Ritaj Vikram Singh of the 2019 batch for their help in transcription and photography]