In June 2020, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, held a virtual symposium on the future of NLSIU where it focussed on how “to enhance its role in the society”. The three panels focussed on infrastructure and investment, diversity and inclusion, and the role of technology in the future of legal education. Two months down the line, the country’s top law school has found itself in a maelstrom spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic  — it will not accept the scores of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) for the 2020-21 academic year and will instead conduct its own National Law Aptitude Test (NLAT). This has resulted in furious backlash from the its alumni and a Supreme Court lawsuit by its former vice chancellor.

The problem wasn’t with the test itself. After all, the NLAT, in its structure and difficulty level, will mirror CLAT. It was with how the test was to be conducted. On September 3, NLSIU announced the date of the exam — September 12 —, and on September 6, the technical requirements for it. The deadline to submit applications is September 10. Only Windows desktops and laptops were allowed, and the minimum internet bandwidth requirement was 1 Mbps. In addition, an integrated webcam with a minimum resolution of 640 X 480 was required along with an integrated microphone. Antivirus was to be disabled and the test could be taken only on Google Chrome.

This led to a spate of criticism that accused the institute of engaging in digital exclusion and has culminated (for the moment) in the institution issuing revised guidelines.

Trimester system at heart for the need for NLAT

The institute has valid reasons for going down that route. CLAT, through which students are admitted to 22 National Law Universities in the country, has been repeatedly delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, like a number of national exams including the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for IITs and National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical schools. 68,000 students registered for CLAT this year to get a spot at one of the 2,300 seats at NLUs, including 120 seats at NLSIU. CLAT is used by both NLUs and other law colleges in the country that offer 5-year integrated law courses to admit students.

In its announcement, NLSIU mentioned that unlike the other 21 National Law Universities that comprise the Permanent CLAT Secretariat, NLSIU is the only one that follows a trimester system. As a result, if NLSIU does not complete admissions before the end of this month, it will result in a “Zero Year”, that is, a year with no admissions. Thus, the Executive Council of the University, in its two meetings in August, decided that if CLAT was not conducted on September 7, NLSIU would develop an alternative administrative process.

On August 28, the Executive Committee of the Consortium of National Law Universities postponed CLAT to September 28. And thus, NLAT was born.

NLSIU updates tech requirements after backlash

Earlier today, the University issued updated technical requirements through which Windows, Mac and Linux desktops and laptops can be used along with Android mobile devices. The updated requirements, authored by Aureus Law Partners as per the document’s metadata, reduced the minimum internet speed requirement to 512 kbps. Abhishek Dutta, the founding and managing partner of Aureus Law partners, however, clarified to us after publication that the firm did not author the document and has not been engaged by the University.

For invigilation, the University will rely on a combination of AI-based and human proctoring, according to the FAQs it published today. The FAQs now state that an external camera can be used if the device doesn’t have an inbuilt camera.

The University has also partnered with Testpan India Pvt Ltd to provide technical equipment and space for students to take the test in 14 cities across 14 states. This, however, will cost the students an additional ₹350. The University has said that it is “not responsible for technical problems, internet outages or any other issues that may arise at Testpan centres” and this arrangement is a “private arrangement between Testpan and the candidate” where NLSIU does not have any liability.

Rajesh Setia, the founder and director of Testpan, told MediaNama that they “have been given the job of booking test centres for candidates who do not have a desktop or a laptop at home and would like to go to a test centre to take the test”. Setia refused to answer our questions about the number of candidates for whom NLSIU has sought the testing centres citing confidentiality reasons.

Critics welcome updated requirements

Smriti Parsheera, researcher at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), and a 2006 alumna of NLSIU, was critical of the earlier requirements but welcomed the changes. “The previous proposal was very problematic because of device-based exclusion. With this new move, we are moving towards a system where [we recognise] that people are predominantly using Android devices and mobile devices to access the internet so if we have a way to ensure that the exam can be conducted at home, that is preferrable to having to go somewhere, but for people who don’t have that kind of access, it is nice that this kind of facility is being thought of which takes care of another layer of issues,” Parsheera said.

Divij Joshi, another NLSIU alum and a fellow at Mozilla Foundation, who had similarly pointed out the exclusionary nature of the move, said, “They have tried their best to address those concerns.”

Short application window, access in remote areas are still concerning

But Parsheera and Joshi raised concerns about the short application window. Applicants now have only two days to apply for NLAT and four days to prepare for it, including making arrangements to go to a test centre if the need arises. “Just because of the short notice that people were given, a lot of people may just miss it because the window for application is very narrow,” Parsheera said.

If more changes are made to the requirements or logistics, candidates may not have enough time to prepare and make arrangements. Joshi called this timeline “quite arbitrary”.

Parsheera also pointed out that there will still be extremely remote areas where candidates cannot reach a testing centre or won’t have access to a device. “They will have to think of ways, maybe do an outreach to contact the students based on the information they have provided while filling the forms, get a sense of who and where are the people who can’t avail any of the options available. And [these have to be considered] not just by the university, but also by the people coming together,” she said. She called for a “a collaboration at scale”.

Community comes together

And IDIA Law (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education), a pan-India student-run movement, is doing precisely that.

Swati Agrawal, the director of operations at IDIA and another NLSIU alumna, told us that they are “trying to open up physical centres where candidates can go and take the exam” and “are looking for volunteers who can help us with laptops, internet connection.” Candidates who need resources can fill out a Google form while those who want to volunteer their devices and office spaces can fill out another. Agrawal was a panelist at NLSIU’s June symposium.

Before the technical requirements had been updated, IDIA had received 70 responses, with most coming from Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Agrawal said. They expect it to reach at least 100 and are hoping to set up at least 200 seats at centres across the country. At the time of publication, IDIA trustee Shishira had tweeted a map on which the organisation is plotting all the people who are volunteering their resources.

‘Attempt to turn NLSIU into island of exclusion’: Former VC in SC petition against NLAT

The former vice chancellor of NLSIU, Prof. Dr Venkat Rao, has filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the NLAT, alleging that the step to conduct NLAT “was taken without any application of mind” and has put the career of students in jeopardy for “purely whimsical reasons”. It accuses the current vice chancellor, Prof. Dr Sudhir Krishnaswamy, of turning the University “from an island of excellence to an island of exclusion”.

The petition, filed by Rao and Rakesh Kumar Agrawalla, a parent of a CLAT 2020 candidate, asks the apex court to let NLSIU admit students only via CLAT.

The petition has called the move a violation of the candidates’ fundamental rights — right against arbitrary actions of the state (Article 14) and right to education (Article 21).

According to the petition, the technical requirements, of having a laptop and at least 1 Mbps internet speed, are onerous, arbitrary, discriminatory and illegal. It argues that the technical requirements will have “adverse impact” on students with “lesser means and from marginalized areas”. This is “in complete variance with the mode of the CLAT 2020 examination”. Citing reports of cheating during a home-proctored entrance test conducted by Symbiosis University earlier this year, the petition states that a home-proctored admission test is “arbitrary” since such tests “are a vehicle for students to cheat”.

Furthermore, the petition alleges that Krishnaswamy did not have the required consent from the Academic Council to conduct a separate entrance examination. It also states that NLSIU cannot remain a part of the NLU Consortium and still conduct a separate entrance exam.

We have reached out to Krishnaswamy for comment on a different issue highlighted throughout the article, including whether it was possible to move to an academic year with semesters or shorter trimesters to evade the “Zero Year”.

***Update (September 9, 2020 11:31 am): Updated with clarification from Aureus Law Partners. Originally published on September 8 at 7:28 pm.