Tender Loving Counsel

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A young team of four law students across three continents is helping shape important legislation as they make their way through Indian Parliament.

The only exercise I believe in is the exercise of the brain,” he says with a mischievous glint in his eyes. A self-appointed defender of everything Bengali—yeah, Sourav Ganguly too—Arghya Sengupta is nothing like your average 25-year-old. A Rhodes Scholar and an MPhil Candidate in Law at Oxford University, he has a keen interest in the nuances of Indian policymaking. When he is not busy writing dissertations or exercising his robust sense of humour, he joins friends Shivprasad Swaminathan, Sanhita Ambast and Prashant Reddy to counsel Indian Parliamentarians on matters of policy and legislation.

Lately, the group has been in the news for the recommendations it made to the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Science and Technology to legally sharpen the high-profile and contentious Nuclear Liability Bill. Watching the four of them interact, it is hard to imagine them in a room full of sombre politicians, simplifying a piece of legislation. However, they take their role very seriously and have styled themselves as the Pre-Legislative Briefing Service (PLBS). “We believe that the law-making process in India requires non-partisan academic intervention,” says Sanhita, 24, who is a Candidate for Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy and LLM joint degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts and Harvard universities. The quartet refuses to charge a paisa for their counsel; for them, this is about engaged citizenship. 

But how did a bunch of law students find themselves splitting hairs over such big-ticket legislation? It was on a warm June afternoon earlier this year that the four heard of a public invitation by the Standing Committee for suggestions on the Nuclear Liability Bill. In response, they submitted two reports—a main report on key legal provisions and a supplementary one primarily on a disaster victim’s right of recourse to the law (a controversial aspect of the Bill). “The committee liked our suggestions, and we were called to New Delhi for an oral deposition,” recounts Shiv, 28, a DPhil Candidate in Law at Oxford. “We were told by a senior member, Mr SS Ahluwalia [of the BJP], that our research had been comprehensive,” adds Shiv.  

The group addressed two broad legal concerns—the independence of the special adjudicatory mechanism that was being instituted, and the availability, amount and extent of compensation to victims of nuclear accidents (and who would be liable to pay it). “We made a concerted effort to delink the adjudicatory mechanism from control of the government of the day, which would have led to doubts about its independence.” On the compensation issue, “We recommended a victim-centric approach, which was cognizant of the realities of the nuclear energy industry and the need to keep nuclear energy inexpensive and affordable,” explains Prashant, 25, who is a research associate with the Ministry of HRD Chair on Intellectual Property Rights, West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences. 

Their visit to New Delhi was full of surprises. They arrived unsure of what to expect of politicians, but the dedication and knowledge of most parliamentarians left them impressed. “In India, there is a tendency to paint politicians as incapable, unqualified and uninterested in their jobs. If we harboured any such ideas before the meeting, they were firmly put to rest afterwards,” smiles Arghya. 

It was heartening to see politicians across parties setting differences aside to focus on sound policymaking. Says Prashant: “The RJD MP Jabir Hussain really impressed us with his preparation. He had read our report in and out. The Forward Bloc’s Barun Mukherji and BJP’s Rajiv Pratap Rudy were also very keen on the report.”

So successful has been their intervention, that the four now face an avalanche of emails from other students keen to intern with the PLBS and sign up for future projects. Next on their agenda are the National Identification Authority of India Bill and Prevention of Torture Bill, both with their own unique challenges. 

It helps that in the past, each of them has been consulted on various other bills. While Arghya was part of a team consulted by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Office of Profit, Prashant has worked on the Copyright Amendment Bill 2010 with his Ministry of HRD Chair professor in Intellectual Property law, Shamnad Basheer.

What doesn’t always help is that the four friends are located far away from each other—in three different continents. However, since they share an easy camaraderie as much as a passion for law, it doesn’t really matter much. “Working in different parts of the world has many advantages as well. We have access to the best academic resources the world has to offer. The biggest problem is coordinating time zones. It’s very difficult to find time when we are all free—and awake,” grins Arghya. 

They’ve known each other awhile. “Arghya and Prashant were batchmates at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore,” says Sanhita, “while I was a year junior to them. We knew Shiv through Arghya, whom he had met during his stay at Oxford.” They’re in touch via email or group chat sessions. Usually, it begins with one of them group-mailing the text of a bill marked out as interesting. The others then send in comments. By rotation and interest, one of them typically anchors a legislative project. 

Curiously, one reason why they work so well together is that they often have varied views on the same issues. Their opinions differ, as do their interests. Arghya is interested in public law, Shiv looks at jurisprudence, Sanhita takes care of international and human rights, and Prashant focuses on intellectual property. “This diversity is valuable to the team,” says Shiv, “both in terms of knowledge as well as perspectives.” 

But if you picture them at libraries with their noses buried in burly books, think again. They are united in their spare time by another passion: cinema. “I love Bollywood in all its avatars, from Lafangey Parindey to Saaransh, though you can exclude I Hate Luv Storys,” says Arghya, who also finds time to daydream about Kolkata’s famous egg rolls and Tagore’s poetry. Shiv, a cricket buff, prefers to read philosophy. Prashant, the musical talent in the group, was an amateur classical pianist until law school took over; what he hasn’t given up is cooking—and his dream of making the perfect dosa. “That is my ultimate aim in life. I want to come up with a beautiful dosa and all the accompanying chutneys,” he laughs. Sanhita, an avid traveller, has some culinary accomplishments of her own.

Careers in law are all very good, but the point they want to emphasise is the social relevance of their learning. After politics, in their view, it is the field of academia that influences public policy. And that’s because scholars are largely seen as unbiased. “Most people in India are under the wrong assumption that a career in academia requires you to lecture students,” quips Arghya, “You could always lecture politicians instead.”