[Interview] Malavika Prasad on legal education, “social capital” and more

Bar & Bench August 11 2019
Malavika Prasad

Malavika Prasad is a PhD scholar at NALSAR University, the same university she graduated with a law degree from in the year 2013. In 2016, she enrolled for an LL.M. at Michigan Law School where she was, amongst other things, a Research Assistant to Professor Vikramaditya Khanna.

This is the edited version of an interview published on the Amicus Partners blog. The entire interview can be read here.

You are currently a doctoral candidate at NALSAR University, your alma mater. Did you ever consider pursuing a thesis outside India, and if not, why?

I did not consider doing a thesis outside India. One thing I learned in my LL.M., was that we Indians look to some countries way more than we do to others, for inspiration on constitutional law issues, and that can have costs. Truly speaking, I think an academic exchange term at South Africa would make more sense for me professionally because they are committed to a constitutional vision much more like ours.

Besides, I wanted to work where peoples and actors are making claims to the Constitution, and to work with them. I guess I fear that researching and writing a thesis on realizing our constitutional vision from a foreign, and particularly western location, with all the attending conveniences, can alienate us from the audience we hope to write for. I worry that the Indian republic is already very alienated from our constitutional vision.

I have to say, I have been quite fortunate to be able to make this choice - not many of us can make it with such ease. Some kinds of work and research might be safest done from elsewhere, especially if one is at risk of losing funding and the ability to keep body and soul together by being in the country.

What got you to take up an LL.M. and did it provide what you hoped for? What were some of the things you wish you had known before enrolling?

Part of my motivation to do an LL.M. abroad stemmed from my having internalized the mantra that getting a foreign degree is the pinnacle of academic success, in my college days.

The legal fraternity and law-school community I was a part of, is an echo chamber of this rhetoric that assumes that one’s ability is only as good as the degree that certifies it. It took me a while to understand the complex and somewhat elitist premises of such rhetoric, and unlearn this mantra. But the other part of my motivation was to study constitutional law in the US - one of the jurisdictions that courts and lawyers often look to in interpreting the Indian Constitution.

All the constitutional law I studied in my LL.M. was a giant perspective-building exercise. I now have a better sense of how Americans think of their own constitutional law, which has helped me restructure my own thinking about the underlying constitutional framework we chose for India.

So, the short answer is yes! The LL.M. gave me what I was looking for.

What do I wish I knew before enrolling? That there is no hurry at all to do a master’s degree. I think we can take away much more, as well as bring much more to the table after we find our feet as lawyers, professionals or scholars. To my mind, the right time to apply for a master’s is when one gains a sense of one’s place and role in the world.

This might happen after more years of working in fields we choose, not fields that are already charted by the legal fraternity and presented as options to us. I think I put the cart before the horse – we are socialized to feel we need to have a foreign education to find our feet or know our role in the world. Plus I was also unwittingly giving in to the pressure of a societally-written calendar scheduling my masters, marriage and kids for me... But as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

So, one of the things we spoke about was how, to be polite, overlooked the question of privilege is to most discussions on access to international legal education. Do you think this is changing? And do you think foreign law schools are seeking out a more diverse set of applicants?

I don’t know what foreign law schools are seeking out in terms of diversity; I suppose the only way to know is if we speak with their admissions offices! But one knows from public writing that western universities aim to have “diverse” student bodies. To my mind, the recipe for a “diverse” student body in a largely white world can often just be: add <student from minority racial group> and stir.

From the context of those of us who apply from India, the question is do all of us have an equal shot at entering foreign law-schools? They might take me as a brown woman from the global south – but what does that mean within India, where I have all this unearned advantage as an upper caste woman?

On the same note, how do you think individuals like you and me can change things? 

Hmmm. Perhaps we can reconsider the premium we attach to getting and having a foreign degree. It obscures from view the far weightier issue of what we do with our training in the law.

I worry that we are still in the mode of treating the global or local brand of the credential as some kind of proxy for a student’s ability, when these end up being a proxy for the kind of social capital one has. 

If I’m being honest, I think social capital opens doors anyway for some of us, with or without any brand name. Besides, social capital is that gift that keeps on giving – one ends up accumulating more social capital and thus more brand names with it. So within this class of people, should brand names be such a selling point, or even such a talking point?

One of the interesting aspects of your work is that you get to teach "living under the Constitution" to children and young adults - could you tell me a bit more about the kind of work this involves? 

I am trying to explore the ways in which we can make the Constitution a thing to reckon with, in our daily public lives. The times are changing, and our already complex social issues are getting even more complex with the fast-changing nature of work in a time of acute climate and water crisis. 

Being mindful of the uniqueness of issues in our times, the idea is to have children reckon with what it means to live collaboratively rather than competitively, by reckoning with one’s associative obligations to others in the community.

And lastly, what is it about academia and research that you find the most appealing? What is it that keeps you motivated along the long, possibly lonely path of the academy?

I think the freedom is most appealing. I appreciate being in a space that is not answerable to any perverting incentives. (laughs)

What keeps me motivated? Many little things. So many young folks in all corners of India are doing wonderful things for our law, politics, governance and community. They are easy to find and connect with, so generous with their time and thoughts, and I feel somewhat inspired by the idea that we are all in this together.

Can I digress to say that academia is only as lonely as one makes it? (smiles) Some of us in my PhD cohort are attempting to be intentional about the time we spend with each other – and these are the peers I’ve laughed hardest with but endured some very difficult times with in the last couple of years.