Husain Aanis Khan on conducting Jamia Diversity Census in the context of elite and inaccessible NLUs

  1. Hi Husain, please tell me a bit about yourself and the Diversity Census you conducted.

Hi! I am Husain Aanis Khan. I just completed my third year of BA.LLB(H) at Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia. I can trace my sensitivity for helping the needy to my childhood. Over the years it has grown into a well-thought idea, deserving my commitment. I do have my role models,both alive and dead, who daringly spearhead projects at grassroot level of Indian and global society– that’s where real social work is needed. That CSR-four-walled-AC-room-social work is not the serious one. You know when I see or read about individuals making a difference to so many needy people, I really get goosebumps. That would be a life well-lived: having made a difference to so many lives.

I want to weave my professional life around this, doing social work and probono litigation, helping the needy secure decent education and also striving to maintain an adequate representation of students from Tier III and smaller places, lower income families, women, LGBTQ, lower caste groups amonge ducational institutions. It ought to begin from a personal level. I try to ensure such students get opportunities to get a glimpse of what they can become. In the census team I strived to absorb such students. I feel women leaders are less, so 22 out of the 32 volunteers were women. Keeping aside the census, my friends and I provide mentorship for cracking law schools. CLAT is a challenge for the economically- and the regionally weak. Honestly, anybody can start making difference to lives of others. As a nondescript 20-year old law student, I usually do not face trouble in helping others. Only sensitivity is needed, I believe.

2. What kind of issues are you working on?

I allocate more mind space to education-related issues. I think the issue of making education inclusive and diverse is not a part of policy debates yet. In pursuit of studying the issue further, I conducted a Diversity Census at Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia along with 32 volunteers to find how inclusive is Jamia, a minority institution with 50% Muslims reservation.I wanted to compare it with the data of top NLUs and find intra-community inclusivity (like what kind of Muslims are populating Jamia).My dream is to see such research being replicated in other educational institutions. It will make the discussion for inclusivity and diversity robust. I will try to deeply substantiate on how I conducted it.

This April I went public about its prelim findings on Livelaw and The Wire. I am glad it has started discussion about the non-NLU law schools. I hope it keeps multiplying further. Currently, the comprehensive report with detailed analysis is under review. It will soon be published.

3. How did the idea of conducting Diversity Census develop in your mind?

The motivation for conducting it is attributable to some old experiences. During school days I sensed a pattern among the best students and other achievers. I’d innocently question why they commonly belonged to wealthy families. As a kid you tend to look at things this way, you know. My friends and siblings studying in the same school cast similar doubts as well. The same ‘kind’ of students would be participating and being visible in most school activities. It didn’t seem acceptable to me. Of course,the active ones were usually meritorious also, but the question was: what about cultivating the average and the poor? Not all students have parent who can provide and guide them to read books at early age or get admission in extra classes for extracurricular activities. Such cultural refinement comes with strong educational background of the family. During my last two years in school, I used the token of my seniority and decided to take the issue forward. On being nominated by the Principal and teachers, and later being elected by students to an important position in school cabinet, I began asserting that students who are weak should be included instead of cultivating the already best. Quite successfully, we saw new faces coming up. This was my first attempt to make education inclusive and accessible.

Another issue I thought about was of commercialization of education.Financial concerns swiftly exclude a massive chunk of lower- and middle-income students– coaching for boards and entrances during school, and college fees later. In Jamia I discovered this aspect further.

I always wanted to study law and began preparing for CLAT in class 11. But circumstances were such that I had to stay in Delhi and did not attempt CLAT or AILET. Jamia made most sense, plus it was cheap and in the vicinity of my house. On procuring admission to Jamia, I befriended students who cleared CLAT but, due to financial constraints,couldn’t not finally procure admission. After a year into the law school, my friends and I would discuss about big achievers among expensive top law schools. Again, I found the school-like pattern of elitism among the achievers. These observations never crossed the realms of informal discussions, until I came across an article in Economic and Political Weekly.

This article was a summary of the research conceptualised by my friend Chirayu Jain. I was moved to see the findings and felt thankful for addressing the issue academically. It established that NLSIU was populated by wealthy, upper caste and big city residents, and that similar trend existed in other NLUs as well. This proved my view of relating merit with socioeconomic background. This compelled me to gauge my current status as a law student in the context of my socioeconomic standing. Everything was part of a bigger force– this was the new logic I reinforced and began spreading among my close ones.

With the initial intention of studying influence of economic background on a student’s merit, I decided to conduct the Diversity Census at Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia. However, the scope of the research was expanded later.

4. What method did you adopt for conducting the census?

I chose mixed methods–both qualitative and quantitative. Survey and interviews were the pillars of the data gathered. There were research questions that required in-depth interviews and focus groups along with the numerical data. Numbers and some kind of questions need backing of real experiences to prove a phenomenon I believe.

The entire activity of conducting the census was mentally draining. Throughout the 2 months of data collection I couldn’t focus on anything else. Even while my professors would be teaching in class, I would be coordinating with the 32 volunteers on WhatsApp (3 years of law school do make you adept at that). After data collection, preparing the report all by myself came across challenging. I’d brood on that four students conducted the Censusat NLSIU and here, it was me alone, that too a bit younger in 3rd year. But I was lucky to have support of Chirayu Jain who I always disturbed for advice. He’s gem of a senior colleague. I pray to meet more Chirayus in my life ahead.

5. What would you consider as the best thing that happened during the research project?

It was the fantastic team I had.It is magical that I could build a team of 32 volunteers.We were functioning as 10 sub teams, each comprising of one Team Leader and 3-4 volunteers.Luckily, my seniors Zoya Junaid and Bhoomika Yadav agreed to work with me despite being final-year students, and Uzair Pandith, a fourth-year student as well. It was certainly an honour. To gauge our progress, we used to hold a weekly Census meeting. The Team Leaders would give report on the progress made in the concerned week and the volunteers would talk about their experience of collecting data.

A couple of times I called up the meeting in despair, expecting it all to crumble down. But on reaching the venue, I would find about 15-20 volunteers already at the spot, primed to give updates about the work done. This would give me a gush of enthusiasm and confidence. I could revive my optimism because of the students who were just doing their task of collecting data with un-paralled commitment. I think they all set a standard for the project when I could not.I learnt when visions synergise, wonderful things happen. Volunteers unravelled new confidence of interacting with strangers, especially with seniors, as they had to explain the research objective and make a humble request to fill the 15-minute form. All of us grew in our own ways.

So yes, the best part is that I made some lasting friendships. I am friends with many juniors now, who will always be special to me. I think, I will also be special to them as we worked on a project which was solely led by students.

6. What were the challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge was that it was a completely student-led research project. Without any support from the administration we all managed to round it off.

Second, I wanted to maintain high quality of data collection as data forms the bedrock of this research.Each volunteer had to meet a respondent at the place of respondent’s choice (usually library and hostels), make them understand the background of the research project and take informed consent for the anonymous data collection. And the volunteers were prohibited from sharing the google form’s link.

Third, as Jamia is a non-residential university, collecting data was challenging. Some students rarely attend classes, some stay far away, some have rigorous schedule due to extra classes/coaching– these were serious impediments. That’s why we could cover 85.17% of the faculty, which is also good.

7. How has been your experience of being a non-NLU and working with NLU students/alumni?

It has been wonderful. I don’t have any bias for or against non-NLU or NLU students. But yes, more than being a non-NLU student, my experience of being a student of a Muslim minority institution has been quite different. It is funny that I have to face questions like “How are Hindus treated in Jamia?”, “Is it a very religious or conservative place?”, etc.Even I had such questions before taking admission here. But it’s quite a liberal space and it is not communal at all. I conducted anonymised in-depth interviews of Hindu students as well, all refused experiencing any kind of religious discrimination. In fact, it is quite a peaceful place. Students union was also banned years ago, so the intimidation that muscle power exudes isinexistent. So even fights rarely take place. But if they do, they are luxuriously covered by media– masaleydarnews, you know.

And regarding my experience with NLU students/alumni, it has been blissful. I am good friends with them and that difference of college rarely creeps in. Nevertheless, it could be different for others and I prefer to look at the issue objectively.The interview data does reflect a different storyline. One Jamia moot court convenor reflected on her experience of competing in SAARC moot court competition. Jamia defeated NLUs, qualifying for the next round. Then the defeated teams rose in protest saying, “How can Jamia qualify, we are from NLUs” and things like that. So, yes, some assumptions about abilities due to the college name are there, both among students and employers.

Being a Jamia student, I think what lets Jamia hold its ground is the cheap legal education that it imparts. A poor or even a middle-class student can’t think of going to an NLU. Second, the diversity it has. I have been able to interact with students from different walks of life– elite to the ones who take loans for paying the ?10,000 fees and also the lower caste, LGBTQ, etc. It has widened my perspectives towards social issues. Remarkably, one junior friend from NLSIU came along to Jamia with me. She said, “Husain, such spaces are so necessary! Here you can be what you are”. She was right. Jamia is not populated by social elites, so that stress of feeling excluded or not belonging to the place never comes in.

8. What message would you like to give to law students?

Haha…! I think my views are still premature, as I have just finished half of my law school and I am still experimenting with things.But having said that, I am thankful for this platform.I think law students, as well as employers need to understand that alone hardwork doesn’t go into the making of merit.Other social factors equally matter. Secondly, I’d request them to mentor students with potential. Trust me, most needy students will express heavenly gratitude.

I have completed 3 years of my law school. What my guruji Mr. Talha Abdul Rahman told me once is now my mantra: “Don’t think Jamia is pulling you down;become an example for some 100 or 150 Jamia students who can become like you”. This simple change in perspective leads to a mind shift– instead of complaining, it sets one looking for opportunities.

Instead of feeling dejected on comparing with elite NLUs and shifting the blame on professors and administration, non-NLU students should take full responsibility and set a standard to strive for– this peer pressure will go farther than complaining. Also, I have an interesting question to think about: is it the students that go to Harvard that makes it the Harvard, or is it something intrinsic in that educational institution?I think the former is right. Thus, the only solution is students must start planting peer pressure and standards for themselves. I think this much of patronising from me is enough.

9. What are your suggestions for dealing with exclusion and the lack of diversity in legal education?

I think need-based initiatives should be encouraged. Quite possibly, within a vulnerable group, the strong may secure all benefits. Interestingly, Jamia is a Muslim minority institution but within the Muslims it is the upper caste Muslims who majorly populate it. Scheduled Tribe Muslims can be said to be absent and OBCs are too less. At a broader level, amongst law schools across the nation, there is a clear need for such group specific initiatives.

For example, IDIA is doing a marvellous jobyet Muslim students are still absent among law schools. As a solution, Prof Shamnad Basher and Prof Tarunabh Khaitan are leading Access to Legal Education for Muslims (ALEM), which is a smaller umbrella under IDIA. It was conceptualised by Mr. Talha Abdul Rahman. Such initiatives are needed for other underrepresented social groups as well. But such group-specific projects are tough to start and sustain. You tend to be perceived as communal orimportant people may become wary of furthering your cause. It sometimes leads to resistance while arranging funds and getting registration done.

Secondly, we need mentorship programs where NLU graduates can help non-NLU students, instead of confining their role as a mere alumnus of some NLU. Then, within each institution, students must cultivate their juniors. Seniors shouldn’t expect the first attempt ought to be by a junior. I think senior can take it as a duty to at least show juniors an image of what they can become if they work hard and persevere. Then let them seek after you. This is how I go about it.I take it as a duty to make, at least my circle of friends, inclusive.

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