Of Perspectives and Vacuums

It was a cloudy Sunday in June, just like any other. I sat across the table from Sahay, poking at my ice cream sundae and discussing life, love and everything else with him. He pointed to his shorts and told me that’s how he walked into the startup office he was interning at. I remember frowning in jealousy and telling him about my legal internship and the kind of research work I’d be doing and what exactly it would involve. And that’s when it happened.

“So you’ll be looking up the Constitution, right?”

“Well, yes, to check whether the laws are in line with it-“

“Because you’ll need to find all the laws applicable to Delhi.”

There was half a minute of silence as I put down my spoon and stared at him. He looked back, suddenly conscious that he had made a mistake, judging by my disbelieving look. “What do you think the Constitution is?” I asked, half-afraid to listen to the answer. “A compendium of all the laws in the country?” he half-guessed, fully afraid to give the answer, now sure that he was wandering down the wrong path and had committed the unforgivable error of making a mistake in front of a law student.

“Try again,” I shook my head slowly.

“It has Articles right? I know that!” he threw in, now trying to salvage anything out of this conversation gone wrong.

Usually, I would brush the incident aside without giving it a second thought. I slept through Biology classes in school; I suppose some people did the same with Civics classes. My knowledge of cell structures and mitosis and meiosis is muddled at best, and I suppose it’s the same with some people and political institutions and the structure of the government. But Sahay happens to be one of the smartest people I know, the one who always had the answers to the complex math problems in school and was up-to-date on just about everything that was happening in the world, even in the most obscure country (the capital of which he could tell you from memory, by the way). I had a chilling feeling then, that this was not a notion exclusive to my best friend, that others shared his ignorance on what is arguably the most important document in the country.

I asked a few more friends from non-legal backgrounds what they thought the purpose of the Constitution was, and what exactly it contained. For a couple of days, I felt similar to that unwelcome salesman who turns up uninvited on doorsteps, peddling children’s encyclopedias or Kashmiri carpets or some other item no one wants to buy. “Don’t test me!” some people got defensive, so used to treating everything like an exam. “The last time I thought about this was when I sat next to you in class,” said a school friend. The Constitution finds no place in the day-to-day lives of engineers, it would seem.

Most people fumbled with their words, like a person stumbling in a dark room, groping about the walls for a light switch. I had random words thrown at me in the hope that something would hit the mark – rights, governance, politics. I was left with the task of stringing these terms together in a few cases, while some, now deeply involved in the task at hand which had turned into an ego issue of proving their intelligence, channeled all their efforts into composing one important-sounding sentence. Others weren’t as generous with their words – “has laws, vagera vagera”, said one of the smartest engineers I know.

Perhaps some of my friends just had bad Civics teachers, because while the ones closest to me replied with messy answers, other acquaintances almost put my constitutional knowledge to shame. Whether that is an example of the efficacy of Mother’s International’s teachers, or an IAS Preparatory Guide, I am not in a position to comment. “Protector of rights, law of the land”, was one succinct answer. “Pretty solid.” 10/10 would read? We’ll never know. “A document drafted by some ‘intelligent’ people.” My medschool friend seems to have his doubts about the intellectual capabilities of the constitution-makers, but makes a valid point – “we learnt it at a point when we hated social studies and didn’t realize its importance”.

Eventually, everyone’s answers would wander down a path that led to them saying “legal things” or “other things related to the law” or some variation of those. The impression that the Constitution is an esoteric document, open only to the understanding of the legal fraternity and not an arena where the common man should venture was widespread in my, admittedly small, sample size. One misconception that was reiterated to me during the course of this exercise was that the Constitution contains all the laws in the country, including the “criteria for different crimes and their punishment”. (A blissfully unaware “hope it helps!” accompanied the answer).

I write this article not to mock my non-law friends. I have no doubt that somewhere in a café in Bangalore my engineer-friends are sharing stories and laughing about a stupid comment I made about my understanding of operating systems and Linux, the bastards that they are. No, I don’t write to throw a few sarcastic comments their way, joke about their ignorance and end the matter there, but because it came as something of a revelation to me that what we consider so important as law students, books that become our Bible, have little relevance in others’ lives. Straight off the back of four months of law school, and hurtling towards another legal internship and then another long semester filled with statutes and commentaries, I hadn’t paused to think about a world outside of the law in a while.

While our days revolve around the intricacies of the wording of specific Articles, there are others who grapple with the very question of what exactly the Constitution is. We get so caught up in our world of the law, but forget that it is important to take a step back once in a while, zoom out and look at things from another perspective. While law school has opened up my mind to a range of new perspectives, it has also narrowed it in a sense that I have been conditioned to think in ways that aren’t all that commonplace when I step out of the gates of our university. Sometimes, I feel as isolated, in terms of ideas and thoughts, from people from other professional backgrounds as our college is from the rest of Delhi. It seems as if we can argue and debate for hours on end in our little law school bubble, while just a little farther away, a whole other world rages on.

I suppose that is true of every profession – that after a point, the outside world seems oblivious to the kind of work you are so deeply involved in. But, I also believe the nature of our course at law school has a role to play in making the divergence in perspectives more evident. Our course forces us to engage with the world around us in terms of political issues, human rights issues – issues more wide-ranging, and ones that find more place in normal public discourse, than, say, stem-cell research, as noble a pursuit as it is. While you say “Death to Yakub!”, the words “inhuman and unconscionable” ring in my mind, whether I fully agree with the abolitionist viewpoint or not. You can call me anti-national, and I will not be offended, because had it not been for my time at law school, perhaps I would too.

Although certain arguments I’ve encountered in the past few days on Yakub Memon’s hanging make me want to bang my head against a wall, I cannot discard the value of that outside perspective and opinion, or dismiss them outright. It’s not possible to fully engage in discussions from ivory towers and intellectually superior positions. While I value the legal perspective, I am very conscious of a myriad of differing ones as well – ones that are equally valuable. I like to believe that the law is for the people, and not just the people’s lawyers.

So, to Sahay, and all my other dear non-law graduate friends – thank you for the reminders that there are other worlds to be mindful of while I go about reading my law school modules.

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