Rising above a sea of mediocrity: Rhodes Scholarship recipient Rahul Bajaj recounts his journey

Aditya AK October 31 2017

Rahul Bajaj is one of two Indians from the legal field who have been awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship this time around. Along with Sameer Rashid Bhat, Rahul will attend the BCL programme at Oxford University next year.

An Associate at Trilegal, Rahul graduated from Nagpur University earlier this year. An avid IP law buff, Rahul also used to write extensively for SpicyIP.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, he talks about his journey thus far.

You seemed to have bucked the trend of Rhodes Scholars being mostly from NLUs.

I have been blind since birth, so back in 2012, I did not feel that the NLUs were in a position to accommodate a student with a disability. They did not have the kind of infrastructure and support system that I needed. Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea for me to study at Nagpur University, in my home town.

I graduated this summer in 2017, and applied for the Rhodes Scholarship. The final round happened the day before yesterday.

What inspired you to apply?

Most people apply in their final year. I didn’t apply last year because I didn’t think they would be open to selecting someone from a non-NLU background. It is a widely held belief that until recently, the Rhodes was the exclusive preserve of NLSIU and NALSAR. But this year, a friend of mine who got the Scholarship last year encouraged me to apply.

What was the selection process like?

There were three parts to it – first was the written application that we had to submit in June/July. This included the 1000-word statement of purpose, six recommendation letters, a CV and academic transcripts. Then there was a technical interview conducted in September. The final round was conducted a couple of days back.

What was the most challenging part of the process?

I think the most challenging part is applying. There are four criteria the Rhodes Trust looks for – ability to use your energy to the fullest; truth, courage, devotion to duty; moral force of character; and instincts to lead. A lot of people lack at least one or more of these criteria, and that is the reason they choose not to apply.

It is a widely held belief that if you want to be a Rhodes Scholar, you need to play sports or be part of dance, theatre etc. Though I had none of these going for me, I was confident that in the unique work that I have done, I met all the four criteria. So, the ability to get past that initial hurdle of convincing myself that it was a worthwhile endeavour to apply was the biggest challenge for me.

Did your law school experience help in any way?

I would say that I got the Rhodes Scholarship despite going to my law college, and not because of it. For me, it was a singularly dispiriting experience to study in a traditional law college in my hometown. For someone who wanted to study the law in a deep and meaningful way and then use it to solve problems, it was disappointing.

Our classes would never take place, we barely had two or three good teachers barring which the faculty was extremely uninterested in conducting classes. They describe NLUs as ‘islands of excellence’ in a sea of mediocrity, and I realised that on a visceral level in my law college.

What field of law do you intend to pursue at Oxford?

Specific areas I am interested in are Intellectual Property Law and Constitutional Law. The courses that I intend on pursuing at the BCL level would be oriented towards helping me understand these two subjects in a deeper way.

Also, from a research perspective, I want to study on how these two areas can be married in a way that promote outcomes in the interest of the public.

Any advice for future applicants?

Going back to what I said earlier, you shouldn’t focus too much on any weaknesses that you may have, because we all have them.

In my case, there were two major weaknesses: one was the college I went to, and the second was my disability, which has been a significant factor. It permeates every aspect of my life. I was of the view that they may be hesitant to select someone with a disability, for the simple reason that they haven’t selected someone like me before.

Others have other weaknesses; someone might have studied undergrad abroad, have weaker grades in some subjects, might not have mooted or debated (which I did not).

But you may have done other things. In my case, I was part of this thing called the Harvard US-India initiative, and I used to write for SpicyIP. On the whole if you think you have a strong application, you shouldn’t refrain from applying.

Any people you would like to thank in particular?

I would like to mention the people who wrote my references. We are required to submit six references – three academic references and three character references. In particular, I would like to thank Prof Shamnad Basheer and Swaraj Barooah from IDIA and also Justice UU Lalit of the Supreme Court, for whom I interned in January; he was kind enough to write a reference for me.

Any closing comments?

In the reportage that I have come across so far, they have sort of made my blindness the defining characteristic of the headline, which I think is entirely unfair. I think it is important to bring out the fact that someone has done something despite being blind, but I have done other things as well.


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