In conversation with Gunjan Chawla on her journey in Technology and Law and her experience at ICJ

Gunjan Chawla is currently working as a Programme Head, Technology and National Security at the Centre of Communication Governance (CCG) at NLU Delhi. She has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Nitya Bansal who is currently pursuing law from NLUD.

  1. Can you elaborate on your academic background? 

I was part of the first batch of students to graduate from National Law University Delhi (NLU Delhi) in 2013. The wide variety of elective seminar courses offered at NLU Delhi now permits students to find their own niche in the legal fraternity. However, at the time, the law school did not offer many international law-oriented seminar courses, so I chose to go down the path of criminal and constitutional law. I spent my first year out of law school in criminal litigation as a junior in the chambers of Ms Arundhati Katju and the second as a Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament (LAMP) fellow through PRS Legislative.

I was intent on gaining professional experience before starting a master’s degree – in hopes of improving my chances to win a scholarship for funding higher studies abroad. I applied for admission to LLM programs the year I was working as a LAMP fellow, and was awarded the Charpak Scholarship of Excellence in 2015 by the Embassy of France in India to pursue a Master in International Affairs/Master in Law (MIA/LLM) dual degree program – split between Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and Georgetown University Law Center in Washington DC.

At Sciences Po, I pursued a specialisation in international security for the Master in International Affairs with a thematic concentration on Defense and Security Economics. At Georgetown, I chose the LLM program in national security law – which was quite an interesting mix of domestic criminal, constitutional and administrative law on the one hand, and international human rights, international humanitarian law/law of armed conflict and international politics on the other.

  1. What, according to you, is the importance of legal research?

Legal research is everything – for practitioners, policy researchers as well as academics – the profession demands that you spend anywhere between 50-80% of your time reading and researching. The method, breadth and depth may vary depending on your particular role in the organisation or office, but research will be at the very core of your job as a lawyer.

Unfortunately, this is a truth that disappoints many law students. This is especially true for those of us who are first generation lawyers and/or draw idealistic inspiration from movies and TV shows – where the best lawyers only swagger around swilling scotch and captivating courtrooms with eloquent speeches. We often tend to overlook the countless hours you need to spend at the library buried in books or hunched over your laptop screen to build a novel argument or legal strategy.

  1. How did you develop an interest in technology and law? Did your criminal law background have any role to play in this?

Quite frankly, working in technology law and policy was never really part of the original plan. The increasing importance of cyberspace governance as an issue in international relations at large had been quite apparent for some time, but I was always more attracted to the law of armed conflict/international humanitarian law (LOAC/IHL) branch of international law than organisational structures and governance. As a matter of fact, I happened to stumble into technology policy work at the Centre for Communication Governance (CCG) at National Law University Delhi (NLU Delhi) by way of international law rather than criminal law.

After my return to Delhi from The Hague in 2018, CCG invited me to deliver a series of guest lectures on international law and cyber conflict. It was a wonderful experience for me personally to return to the NLU Delhi classrooms, only this time I was on the other side of the benches. They happened to have a vacancy in the technology and national security team at the time, which I applied for, and it turned out to be a good fit.

The learning curve has been very steep over the past 2 years, and I have learnt a lot from my colleagues during this time. Of course, there was also a unique advantage to return to my alma mater in a different capacity – the luxury of having the home ground advantage at the workplace made navigating new and difficult situations a lot less stressful.

  1. You have studied at Sciences Po in France and Georgetown University. How was your experience at these highly reputed foreign universities?  

The first year at Sciences Po was very different to everything I had been prepared for. It was a challenge to depart from my practical legal training and switch to what was a combination of international relations theory, political science, economics and military strategy. But this also presented the opportunity to learn an entirely new method of writing – the French use the Hegelian model of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” for organising the structure. It was fascinating to learn an alternative to IRAC (the issue rule analysis conclusion) structure to organise the same substantive content. I also took a basic course in public international law again – only this time, it was taught entirely in French. But the most “mind-opening” experience was to study sociophysics – a discipline of study I did not know even existed.

The second half at Georgetown too, was amazing in different ways. It was a strange relief to return to familiar tools of statutory interpretation, judicial precedent and common law traditions. Other than brilliant academics like Professor David Luban, many of the professors whom I learnt from had been part of the Obama administration in advisory or bureaucratic roles or were military veterans and former JAG (Judge Advocate General) officers. The professional experiences and insights of the faculty made for an exponentially enriching educational experience.

To be fair, this was the case at Sciences Po too, where former military officers, diplomats and bureaucrats also teach alongside “pure” academics. So I suppose when I say different, I mean my own approach to the subjects of study was a more theoretical in Paris and more practice oriented in DC. In the bigger picture, it was very useful to hear about the same or similar themes in international security from the European and American perspectives to inform and develop my own principled and/or political positions on a variety issues in the longer run.

  1. What do you think Indian universities can do to match their academic standards to these international universities? As in, what do you think is lacking in our universities?

I believe what we need is a lot more training in research and writing skills. While the substantive content of the branch of law you choose to study or practise may differ, research and writing skills will be overarching requirements wherever you work. The challenge in teaching these skills is that it requires individual attention, at least to a certain degree. On the other side, the challenge in learning these skills is want of practice. So we need to strike a better balance between quality and quantity of writing we demand from students for their academic evaluation in a way that maximises the student’s ability for original critical thinking, articulation of arguments and of course, persuasion.

  1. You have worked in the ICJ as a judicial fellow. For those interested in pursuing legal research, can you elaborate on the process for those applying for such a position?

Yes, I was a judicial fellow at the International Court of Justice in 2017-2018. The judicial fellowship programme at the Court is funded by nominating universities – in my case, it was through Georgetown.

Unfortunately, not all universities that teach international law necessarily nominate fellows for appointment to the Court – there is a very clear and visible majority of universities from North America and Europe. The cost of living in the Netherlands alone makes it very difficult for public universities in India specifically and the Global South generally to sponsor one student to spend a year in The Hague. So, for a scholar from a Global South country, the route to the Court necessarily goes through a handful of universities that nominate and sponsor fellows, so pick your school carefully after thorough research if this is a goal you would like to pursue. Each university has a different selection process for shortlisting nominees – some may have only paper application and some may have an interview round as well.

Given that the cost of living in The Hague for one year far exceeds even the total tuition fee paid by students for a five-year education at any national law school or law college in India, it appears unlikely to me that public universities in India would have sufficient funds available to sponsor judicial fellows in The Hague. I am hopeful that the UN General Assembly’s recent resolution requesting the UN Secretary General to set up a trust fund to support the judicial fellowship programme for scholars will enhance the diversity among applicants accepted to the programme, and open up new routes for students everywhere to work at the Court as judicial fellows.

Currently, the sponsoring universities send their list of nominees to the Court, where the judicial fellows are finally selected – no more than one from each nominating university. Other than demonstrating a certain level of competence in public international law, knowledge of French in addition to English is an important factor in selection. French was long regarded as the first language of diplomacy and the Court takes its bilingual functioning very seriously so, even if one ends up working with an anglophone team, being a francophone is far more likely to enhance the probability of selection.

  1. How was your experience in ICJ working as a judicial fellow?

Absolutely fantastic. It felt almost surreal walk to the Peace Palace everyday and live the dream of viewing proceedings in the Great Hall of Justice. Judicial fellows work closely with the teams of their respective supervising Judge, consisting of the Secretary and Associate Legal Officer assigned to the Judge. Each team functions differently, so the experiences of the judicial fellows often differ significantly.

I was assigned to assist H.E. Judge Patrick L. Robinson who gave me the opportunity to work on drafting dissenting and separate opinions in addition to research work. It was very interesting to follow a wide variety of cases through different stages of their lifecycle, including an application of provisional measures – it helped me develop a better informed, more nuanced perspective on the role of international politics in the formation and development of international law in the settlement of inter-State disputes.

  1. What kind of skills do you think students need to have to pursue legal research, especially at a level which is appreciated internationally? How do you think they can equip themselves with such skills?

Research is the easy part – the hard part is communicating the research you have done clearly, in a way that is easy to understand for your target audience. The writing is different if the target audience is your employer, your professor, a judge, a ministerial department or the academic community, law students or the general public at large. Knowing your audience and structuring presentation specific to its requirements is crucial to effectively present your research findings. As for how, there is no substitute to practise in up-skilling yourself. Write, edit, rewrite, repeat. The more you write, the more you will learn how to write better. Do not hesitate to open up your drafts to constructive criticism from teachers or colleagues whose writing skills you admire. Most importantly, do not be afraid of multiple drafts and critical reviews – it is a sign of your capacity for self-improvement, not weakness or evidence of bad writing.

  1. What would be your guidance for law students applying to foreign universities for their masters courses?

Think about why you want to pursue a master’s degree and only apply to universities that have faculty, curriculum or culture that is most conducive to your personal and professional growth. Do you want to pursue a field that is not taught as well in India? Do you want to work abroad or come back home? Do you want to enhance or secure employability in other job markets? Will you be able to progress in your chosen field without the master’s degree? Is it out of academic interest in a particular field?

Studying abroad is a huge investment, and to ensure that you get adequate returns, one needs to plan carefully, and be aware of one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Equipped with this self-awareness you will be able to better assess which universities are suitable for you, rather than the admissions evaluation being only one way.

  1. How did you end up working at CCG? What is the kind of research you are engaged in as part of CCG?

I was very clear about my intention to return to India after obtaining my master’s degree. When I signed up for a specialisation in national security law at Georgetown, I had a very specific goal in mind. In fact, the week before my LLM final exams I briefly came back to India solely for this purpose, to attempt recruitment into Indian Army’s JAG (Judge Advocate General) Department. I know it sounds absurd to do that, but it was the last year I could do so – if I waited another year, I would no longer have been eligible to join the army. Even though this attempt was unsuccessful, thankfully I did not really have the luxury to mourn my failure at the time – exams were just around the corner.

This setback was also softened by the fact that by this time I had already heard back from the ICJ about my selection and had some clarity on what my professional life would look like after graduation. The exposure then opened up other opportunities I would not have anticipated otherwise, like being invited by CCG to deliver guest lectures on international law and cyber conflict at NLU Delhi. A month or two later, I was inducted into CCG to lead the work of the technology and national security vertical. International law applicable to conflict in cyberspace or cyber warfare is a major focus area in our research, in addition to domestic law and policy on cyber security, cyber crime and related issues.

I view my role at CCG as a dual one – part academic and part public policy practitioner. The first is on the academic side, where the work largely involves research and writing on these issues. Additionally, I also teach the elective seminar course on technology and national security law and policy to fourth and fifth year students at NLU Delhi. The second is on the policy side, as we regularly participate in public consultations and provide inputs on issues in technology policy within our research mandate to various ministries at the Central level, as well as the National Security Council Secretariat – where our detailed comments and suggestions on the National Cyber Security Strategy for 2020-2025 were very well received.

  1. What are you currently working on, if you could tell something about your current research?

Currently, I am looking forward to the release of India’s National Cyber Security Strategy 2020-2025. The National Cyber Security Coordinator (NCSC) Lt Gen Rajesh Pant recently announced that the strategy document will espouse the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) for the apportionment of responsibilities among various stakeholders in cybersecurity governance. My colleagues at CCG and I were thrilled to hear this announcement because this principle was one of the suggestions we submitted to his office in our comments. It is encouraging for policy enthusiasts like myself that the NCSC has taken a truly participatory approach to the process of formulating the strategy and including academia. We are looking forward to reading the Government’s interpretation of CBDR and of course, developing new independent scholarship on this and related issues.

The elective course “technology and national security law and policy” will continue to be offered at NLU Delhi as part of our capacity-building mandate in the following semester. If the lockdown-induced format of online teaching continues, we hope to expand our reach to other law schools as well.

 

  1. What are the changes you are aiming to bring about through your research? What kind of a future do you envisage for our national security in these times of increased global cyber surveillance?

The proliferation of global cyber surveillance is symptomatic of unprecedented shifts in power relations between the individual vis-à-vis institutions of the State across jurisdictions (vertical) as well as between States (horizontal) – owing to rapid advancement in information and communication technologies to a large extent. The specific how’s and why’s will vary from one case to another, but the general trend is evident.  As I have written elsewhere, I do not believe that the ideal of “national security” – very much like the ideal of universal human rights protections – whether considered as an aspiration, principle or goal can ever truly be “achieved”. At best, it can only be managed and at its worst, must be salvaged.

More often than not, it is an “ends and means” problem. With the emergence of cutting-edge technologies we are struggling as a society to absorb fully, the means are becoming increasingly expensive while the ends remain similar to what they were say, fifty years ago, if not the same. So the constant, unchanging requirement for Governments who want to “ensure” national security is to consistently strive for a balance between declared intent and actual capabilities in the face of unforeseen disruptions. Through my research and writing, I hope to bring this nuance and balance in academic discourse and public debate on issues at the intersection of technology and national security on the one hand, and domestic policy and international law on the other.

One comment

  • Wonderful experience, my inspiration, turning point of my life

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