Associates, In-House Counsels & Advocates

Rahul Bajaj, Associate, Trilegal, on being awarded prestigious Rhodes Scholar, and making the Legal Ecosystem Disabled-Friendly

Rahul Bajaj graduated in law from the  University of Nagpur in 2017. He has also secured the first position in the B.A. LL.B. course. He is the 2017 recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. This scholarship is awarded only to five Indians each year to pursue their postgraduate education at the University of Oxford. He is currently working with Trilegal as an Associate.

In this interview, Rahul talks about: –

  • His journey towards becoming a Rhodes’ Scholar;
  • Encouraging more persons with disabilities to join the legal profession and;
  • His recruitment at Trilegal

 

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO OUR READERS?

First of all, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts on your wonderful platform. I have never been one for crisp and pithy writing, but I’d say that I’m a 24-year-old lawyer from Nagpur. I enjoy reading, travelling, acting a little silly from time to time, learning about new cultures and swimming (although I barely know how to swim).

 

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REACTION ON LEARNING THAT YOU ARE BEING AWARDED THE PRESTIGIOUS RHODES SCHOLARSHIP? DO YOU RECALL THE FIRST FEW DAYS AND THE INTERVIEW? WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO APPLY?

You’ve packed a lot of things into that question. Let me answer your question in a chronological order, based on the order in which each of these events took place.

I had no plans of applying for the Rhodes when the application window opened last year. In fact I didn’t even know when the application window opened until I decided to apply. While I have always viewed myself as someone who is sure-footed and confident about their abilities, I didn’t think I had any chance of getting the Rhodes. This was principally because of two reasons. First, I didn’t go to an NLU, and almost all Rhodes Scholars from the field of law, in the last two decades have been NLS or NALSAR graduates, with some notable exceptions. Second, I wasn’t sure if the selection committees were prepared to select a student with a disability, not just because of stereotypes, but also because of the very concrete limitations my disability poses and tackling them, even in Oxford, would entail time and effort. I think my inhibitions are best captured by what James J. Barnes, the first blind person to get the Rhodes says in his memoirs:

“… I know that I can take no credit for blazing the trail, but I have always given my selection committee members, both at the regional and state levels, much appreciation for not eliminating me out of hand. Clearly they looked behind the superficial but very real limitations I possessed and judged the whole personality.”

My friend, Dhruva Bhat, who got the Rhodes in 2016 was the first person who encouraged me to apply. I then consulted another close friend who told me that there was no one more deserving to get the Scholarship. So I figured that there was no harm in applying and, given that the Scholarship had been awarded to a student from a relatively low-ranked NLU the previous year, my chances were not unquestionably foreclosed.

The interview panel for the final round was headed by Gopal Krishna Gandhi who went out of his way to make all interviewees feel comfortable and at ease. I had prepared very rigorously for the interviews, with many rounds of mock interviews, so I found the actual interview to be quite manageable from that standpoint.

My first reaction was one of complete disbelief, followed by unrestrained elation, followed by the recognition that this is just one milestone on a long road.

 

HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT WRITING YOUR RÉSUMÉ AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, YOUR STATEMENT OF PURPOSE FOR RHODES SCHOLARSHIP? WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE YOUR SOP WITH US?

Insofar as the resume is concerned, I just modified the resume that I already had to fit their requirements; I structured it in such a way as to make good the point that I meet the four criteria that they look for. Insofar as the SoP is concerned, I thought long and hard about how I wanted it to be. Instead of sharing the text itself, I think it would be more helpful if I share the process of crafting it.

I wanted to not only highlight my accomplishments and successes, but also make the point that they were all achieved despite being blind since birth. Some might read this and think that I was playing the ‘blindness card’, but my thinking is that someone who has achieved the things that bring you within the zone of consideration for the Rhodes despite being blind has definitely had to work a lot harder to mitigate the impact of a significant objective impairment. So I began my SoP by talking about the challenges that I faced as the first blind legal intern at the Supreme Court working for a judge, through an anecdote. Against that backdrop, I outlined my relevant accomplishments in the areas of IP and constitutional law, in which I am most deeply interested, and closed by trying to drive home the point that my accomplishments, coupled with the odds that I have had to face in achieving them, make me a great fit for the Scholarship.

 

DO YOU NEED TO HAVE RECOMMENDATIONS AS WELL? WHAT KIND OF PROFILE IS NEEDED WHILE APPLYING FOR THE SCHOLARSHIP?

Yes, you need six letters of recommendation – preferably three academic and three extracurricular. I chose my referees in such a way as to be able to make a cogent and compelling case for the proposition that I met all the four criteria that they look for – intellectual ability, ability to use your energy to the full, ability to empathise with and protect the weak and moral force of character and instincts to lead. My referees were Professor Shamnad Basheer, Swaraj Barooah, Justice UU Lalit, Professor Shirish Deshpande, one of my law professors who is himself blind, my constitutional law professor who I’ve described in response to a subsequent question, Professor Varsha Deshpande and my school principal.

I think anybody who feels that they meet these four criteria should give it a shot, despite whatever grave flaws they might feel their profile suffers from.

 

WAS THERE ANY INTERVIEW ROUND? IF YES, HOW WERE YOU PREPARED TO FACE THE PANELISTS? WHAT KIND OF QUESTIONS WERE YOU ASKED?

Yes, there were two interviews – one technical and one final. The technical interview focuses on questions about: (a) your areas of interest in the field of law; (b) your general legal ability; and (c) your awareness of topical legal and sociological issues. As I mentioned earlier, I had done a lot of mock interviews – in fact with three of the five scholars from the previous year that were very invaluable.

In the technical interview, I was asked such questions as a question about a piece of research that I did in my internship with Justice Shakdher of the Delhi HC; why I got involved in IDIA’s programme for students with disabilities and what structural barriers they faced; how I thought IP and human rights could be balanced, based on a paper that I had written; if I thought that studying in my home town was a compromise that I had to make; and if my disability should form part of the calculus when assessing my candidature.

In the final round, I was asked such questions as my views on the right to be forgotten which I had written about and unenumerated rights in general; my internship for Justice UU Lalit of the Supreme Court; the one fundamental transformation in society that I’d like to see; what my future plans were; and my interest in learning languages.

 

WHAT WAS THE SELECTION PROCESS LIKE? WHAT WAS THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF THE PROCESS? HOW DID YOUR LAW SCHOOL EXPERIENCE HELP YOU IN THE PROCESS?

The process is divided into three parts – written submissions, followed by two rounds of interview, the details of which I have sketched above. The most challenging part, for me, was making the decision that I wanted to apply.

As for my law school experience, I got a lot of flak when I said in my interview to Bar and Bench after getting the Rhodes that my college, Dr. Ambedkar College of Law, has a lot of scope for improvement and the manner of functioning leaves a lot to be desired. While I continue to maintain that belief, I think I would be doing a huge disservice and injustice to some teachers in law school if I don’t make a mention of their contribution in shaping my thinking as a lawyer. We had an excellent constitutional law professor, who, despite the dispiriting college environment, taught constitutional law with a tremendous amount of energy and passion and unparalleled power of articulation and helped cultivate my love for the subject. We had another great professor who taught us legal language and writing and labour law and devoted significant effort into helping us appreciate the nuances of the subject matter that we were taught. We had a couple of other good professors, too.

Notwithstanding the above, I think traditional law colleges, such as mine, are characterised by institutionalised mediocrity, as Dr. Manmohan Singh once said. For a student of law who is interested in honing their legal skills and acquiring a deeper appreciation of the law, nothing can be more demotivating and frustrating than having to return home day after day after day because the college doesn’t want to conduct classes for some or the other specious reason or the students and teachers who help perpetuate this culture aren’t taken to task. I don’t say this to demean anyone or because I have an axe to grind, but because I think that there’s no point in the platform that I have been privileged to have been given by virtue of getting this Scholarship if I can’t use it to make a contribution, howsoever insignificant, in helping foster conversation on the issues that I care deeply about and sow the seeds of change.

 

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS AFTER YOUR POST-GRADUATION? WHAT KIND OF CAREER DO YOU ENVISAGE AFTER GRADUATING FROM OXFORD?

I’d like to litigate in the areas of constitutional law and IP law. I’d also like to pursue a career in policy formulation alongside litigation.

 

WHAT FIELD OF LAW DO YOU INTEND TO PURSUE AT OXFORD AND WHY?

Constitutional law, human rights and intellectual property. These are the areas that I have developed maximum interest in, by dint of the opportunities that I have had in my career thus far.

 

DOES THE UNIVERSITY OF NAGPUR PROVIDE EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES TO PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES?

You see, back in 2012, my family and me didn’t think that an NLU would have the wherewithal to accommodate a student with a disability. The only example of this happening was Moiz Tundawala, who had gone to NUJS and is in fact a resident of Calcutta, so he was a day scholar there. I have always attached great importance to maintaining high standards of excellence in academics. I was not sure an NLU would have an enabling environment to facilitate this. As we saw it, the choice was between being relegated to the fringes at a leading law school and thriving at a lesser known law college where I would have easier access to resources and more time to build my career in the manner in which I wanted to. Further, while it may have been possible for me to adjust, as I eventually did in the Supreme Court, the Delhi High Court, and several other places where I have interned, I was not the person then that I am now, so I didn’t really push the envelope on going to an NLU as assertively as I perhaps should have, in hindsight.

Our concerns back then weren’t unfounded. Even today, the students with disabilities who are at the NLUS aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. From faculty members who grudgingly accommodate disabled students at best and make them objects of pity or refuse to accommodate them at worst to registrars and staff members who adopt an adversarial approach when dealing with their needs; from peers who quietly distance themselves from you and are unable to embrace someone who is difference due to ignorance or prejudice to inaccessible infrastructure, the challenges faced by the disabled are large in number.

That said, change is afoot in many places and we will hopefully see things improve. NLSIU recently admitted the first totally blind student in its 32-year-history and their Law and Society Committee has taken the lead on sensitising all stakeholders about the needs of the disabled.

Insofar as my own college experience is concerned, as I studied in my hometown, I had access to all the resources I needed to study independently, which is what my legal education mostly boiled down to. My professors were also as helpful as they could be.

 

WHAT IMPROVEMENTS DO YOU SUGGEST THAT THE COURTS NEED TO MAKE FOR ENCOURAGING MORE PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES TO JOIN THE LEGAL PROFESSION?

That’s a very loaded question and probably warrants a separate interview. The challenges are many, and most notably include: (a) inaccessibility of documents, even digital documents; (b) inaccessibility of legal databases; (c) accessibility barriers on court websites; (d) absence of an institutionalised frame work to accommodate disabled lawyers; and (e) inaccessible physical infrastructure, lack of human assistance in courts and overcrowded courts in which even a sighted lawyer would struggle to find their way, let alone someone who is blind. People tell me: now you have digital access, doesn’t that solve your problems? The answer is that digitisation, if not configured with accessibility in mind, can help create and perpetuate barriers rather than breaking them down.

I have filed an application in the Supreme Court to help effectuate some of these changes. You will hopefully hear about it soon.

 

HOW DID YOUR RECRUITMENT TAKE PLACE AT TRILEGAL? IS TRILEGAL A DISABLED FRIENDLY PLACE?

My recruitment happened by virtue of a PPO that I got after my internship at Trilegal. The answer to your second question would unequivocally be in the affirmative. I can cite several examples of the initiatives that they have taken for me: buying for me a more efficient OCR software; a computer that works better with my screen reader; and encouraging me to figure out ways of doing all the things that my able-bodied counterparts are expected to do.

As a disabled legal professional, one obviously faces a variety of challenges, given that the working of the profession and the courts is not structured with you in mind. Despite this, Trilegal has done everything possible to accommodate me as fully as they can.

 

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE TO OUR YOUNG READERS WHO WOULD LIKE TO APPLY FOR RHODES SCHOLARSHIP IN FUTURE?

I am not old or wise enough to give career advice to anyone. What I would like to close with is this beautiful quote from Marianne Williamson, which more eloquently and forcefully conveys my thinking:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

You may dismiss that as a lofty and cheesy expression of sentiment, divorced from the way the world actually works. But I think it conveys a profound message which is this: unless we are able to come to terms with the proposition that we have within us the capacity to achieve our goals and break down the barriers holding us back, how can we ever hope to convince others or translate it into reality?

So my short message would be that, instead of focusing too much on the cards that you are dealt, try focusing on how best to play them; instead of focusing on what you cannot do, try focusing on what you can. This can hold one in good stead for pursuing any meaningful endeavour, and the Rhodes is no exception.

 

 

 

 

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top