The news of the passing away of Padma Shri N R Madhava Menon (1935-2019) has come as a jolt. Till early March, he was in perfect health and was travelling extensively. One is reminded of Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech on the Mahatma’s assassination, when he said that the “light has gone out of our lives”. The legal fraternity feels the same way today.
A paradigm shift was brought in by Menon in the legal education space when he decided to take over as the first director of National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in 1986, after Upendra Baxi reportedly expressed reservations about leading the unique experiment. The rest is history, as Menon proved to be a great leader.
Menon had to start the law school in a car shed, with just Rs 50 lakh from the Karnataka government and Rs 20 lakh from the Bar Council of India. With limited resources, he recruited about a dozen teachers who enthusiastically agreed to work on the paltry salary. Being an old-school pre-liberalisation fellow, he was not a great paymaster.
The NLSIU experiment was such a grand success that today we have as many as 24 national law universities. Subsequently, Menon became the founder vice-chancellor of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. When the National Judicial Academy in Bhopal was established, and the CJI required a person who could train senior judges, there was no better person available than Menon and, therefore, he was asked to lead the experiment of judicial education. The NJA today imparts training to judges of several other countries too.
Menon was admitted to Aligarh Muslim University’s LLM programme, and, subsequently, he was awarded AMU’s first PhD in law for his work in the then upcoming field of white collar crimes. He also taught there for few years before joining Delhi University.
In the last few years, Menon acknowledged that there are problems in the current structure of legal education and the national law universities — which former prime minister Manmohan Singh had termed as “few islands of excellence in the sea of mediocrity” — had basically become elitist institutions. He was worried about the allure of corporate placements and therefore proposed an alternative legal curricula to cater to the litigation needs of rural and small towns. He organised a workshop at Bilaspur in 2013 and proposed that, in addition to mandatory LLB courses, 40 optional subjects may be taught to cater to the rural and tribal needs. He accordingly proposed that the fifth year of the undergraduate law degree should be devoted to experiential learning through social justice and legal aid clinics in tribal and rural areas.
In 1991, Menon, at NLSIU, started a refresher course for the law teachers who had put in five years of service. Most of the current vice-chancellors of national law universities are beneficiaries of these refresher courses. In the last seven years of his life too, as a Ford Foundation professor, Menon had been conducting such courses in different universities. He was worried about the paucity of good law teachers and attached a lot of importance to teachers’ training courses. He was equally passionate about the training of lawyers and that is why he founded the Menon Institute of Legal Advocacy Training (MILAT).
When I was establishing the KIIT Law School in Odisha, he visited the state as a member of the Inter State Commission (Justice M M Punchi Commission). He called me to the Raj Bhavan where he was staying, and I gave him courses developed by me besides question papers of the last semester exam, for his review. The next day, he handed me over six pages of hand-written comments. When, as founder vice-chancellor of National Law University, Odisha, I proposed to introduce Chinese law, he was the only one in the General Council who supported me. He said that despite some $75 billion worth of bilateral trade between the two countries, we hardly know anything about Chinese laws and their legal system. He also supported my unique initiative at NALSAR to admit LLB graduates directly to the fully- funded PhD programme.
Menon has authored/edited more than a dozen books. As director of NLSIU, he produced A Training Manual for Police on Human Rights (1997). As the VC of NUJS, he edited a full series of nine volumes called Criminal Justice India Series (2001-2003), in which he examined the police, prosecution, courts and prison systems of nine states. As the first S Radhakrishnan Chair of Parliament, he edited Education and Public Health (2013), in which he critically scrutinised the legislative initiatives on public health from 1950-2000. Menon was also a member of several commissions and committees. The Malimath Committee (2003), of which he was a member, made several radical reforms in our criminal justice system including the dilution of presumption of innocence, burden of proof and adoption of some features of continental criminal law. He also chaired the expert group in 2008 that proposed the setting up of an Equal Opportunity Commission in India.
Menon has demonstrated that even a single individual matters and can really bring about change. One is reminded of the old Urdu couplet: Hazaron saal nargis apni be-noori pe roti hai/ badi mushkil se hota hai chaman men deedawar paida.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 9, 2019, under the title ‘A teacher, an institution’. The writer is vice chancellor, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. Views are personal.