Rhodes Scholar

Ayan is a final-year student at NLU, Delhi and has been awarded the Rhodes Trust Scholarship 2024. Ayan is a former fellow of Project 39A. He is interested in studying sentencing and long-term incarceration. He wishes to pursue an MSc in Criminology at Oxford University.

1. Hello Ayan, congratulations on winning the Rhodes Scholarship. I would like to begin from the start and ask you why did you choose to study law, among all the avenues that must have been available to you as a commerce student?

Thank you, Abhineet. I was always interested in social sciences, even in school. I liked history and political science a lot. However, for a whole host of reasons, I did not choose to study humanities. The way that law came into the picture was that some of my friends who were a year or two senior to me also ended up going to law school. Since our friendship was based much on shared intellectual interests, I thought, well okay, if they are going there and they are happy then I might as well give it a shot. Yeah, that is just how I ended up at law school. That’s pretty much it, there was no deeper reason for why law. My friends were going to law school, so I decided too as well.

2. How were the initial years of your law school journey like? Especially during online law school. If I am correct, you spent one semester on campus before the lockdown happened. What were you doing at that time? What were your interests back then? How did you engage with law as a subject and also what hobbies did you pursue?

In the first semester, I do not think there was much engagement. I think the first semester was largely spent just getting used to the place and just trying to understand where I am, what life in this place is going to look like. And then, before I knew it, the lockdown happened. But nonetheless, college continued and for the next year and a half. Till the end of my second year, much of it was spent on trying to evaluate subjects that I was being taught and trying to think about whether I am interested in them. More often than not, the answer was no, but then there were moments where I felt that something was rather interesting. For instance, criminal law was rather interesting to me, so was family law. So yes, my time was spent on sort of trying to understand the subject right and, often in terms of what is being taught in class, but more than that, in terms of what people are writing about what kind of issues that come up in the field. When I say it like this, it seems like it is some systemic thing to do. But it really was not, it is just that you would be scrolling on social media and you would come across something that you are studying or something in the news was related to something you are studying. This sort of starts a cycle which continues.

My time was also spent mooting, and then realising that I do not enjoy moots a lot. I spent a year of my life doing it and yeah there are obviously positive outcomes in terms of how well you perform, but just in terms of whether that investment was worth it, I reached the realisation that the first time around, this investment is worth it. But perhaps second time, unless you are really interested in what the activity has to offer as an exercise in lawyering, it is not worth the time and the effort.

3. So do you also have an interest in international law, or was it limited to your engagement with the moot?

My interest in international law has, I think it would be appropriate to say, evolved. It started off with my moot which revolved around international environment law. What that led me to was to think more critically about where the law is failing. I found out that international law in some senses, has a very prominent and active body of scholars. And frankly, while as a second-year student, I did not understand much of what critical international lawyers had to say, I found that interesting. Over the years, this has now evolved into an Interest in comparative law. And that lends me to thin’ about how other countries or other people deal with the same problems that, say, we are facing. How do their responses differ? Why do they differ? Are there things that we can learn from them? Are there ideas that we can transport? And if we can, why? And if we cannot, why not? And what are the limitations of that kind of thinking? So I guess in that sense, from international law, it is gone into more transnational or comparative law.

4. In your third year, you worked for Project 39A of National Law University, Delhi as a Death Penalty Research Fellow. What was your experience like working for Project 39A? How did that one year of working with Project 39A shape your interest in criminal law, criminology, sentencing, etc.?

Yeah, I mean, in a lot of ways, that was a very transformative experience. In hindsight, now I realise that that year sort of has come to define the kind of lawyer that I want to be. I now think about the law by using ideas and observations that are beyond the law. While one might think of Project 39A as working on death penalty law, my experience there was to realise that doing good lawyering often requires a lot of back end grunt work. Whether it be collecting data about who the people on the death penalty are, or collecting data about how their cases are proceeding. It is often this kind of grunt work that then leads to bigger outcomes and bigger conclusions that then influence the law, or in some cases, are used for arguments in courts, and of course, like I got introduced to the fact that criminal justice goes much, much beyond criminal law. Many of the problems that plague the criminal justice system are systemically ingrained. Often, the law is adding to the problems. We need to think much harder about what it is that we punish, how we punish, and who are the people we punish. I hope to explore these questions over the next few years.

5. You have also worked as a research assistant to a lot of academics, working closely with them. How was your experience there, and how do you think that working for an organisation is different from working with a person?

I had the opportunity to work with Dr Anup Surendranath here at NLU Delhi, Dr Aparna Chandra at NLS, and Dr Mayur Suresh at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. Working with them was an extremely rewarding and fun experience. But it also had its own challenges. When you are working with an individual as compared to an organisation, you are engaging directly with the person who is ultimately going to use your research output. It was fun in the sense that it is very fascinating to think about how people who write, especially academics, process their thoughts and ideas. And I found that it was different for all different people, all three of them. I found that to be rather interesting. For instance, I prepare a research note for someone, or I prepare some sort of data collection table for someone. How is that research then getting used? One way is my imagination of what I think they want to do with the research, which is rather first level. If you are asking me to collect a bunch of cases on the constitutionality of the death penalty, I think, okay, you want to critique the cases, but how do you critique the cases? How is it that what I find relevant in that case differs from what you find relevant or maybe our reasons for something being relevant differ. How do they differ? And those conversations really helped me think about these things. You get introduced to different ways of thinking.

Similarly, I had the opportunity to work with Dr Aparna who was at that time looking at India’s response to COVID-19. My job was to collate that data. How does that collation of what seemed to be just random government orders then transform into a very systematic look at what India’s legal response was. That is step one: looking at what our legal response is. Then step two is getting to the critique, but I think as someone who wants to be an academic, I tend to skip to part two quite quickly, but to just look at part one and how that is done brilliantly, and then we moving on to the next step is important. So that was a big learning experience.

Similarly, with Dr Suresh, I was collecting data on terror prosecutions that resulted in the death penalty. It is one thing for me to collect that data and for me to point out those cases, but just to look at how he used it to describe the death penalty and terror prosecutions interact with each other, and what are some of the systemic problems that are inherent to terror prosecutions, and how they sort of play out in death sentence cases. That was a fascinating experience.

6. Let us come to the meat of the matter: the Rhodes Scholarship. Starting from the beginning, when did you first think that this is something that you wanted to do? Was it a natural consequence of wanting to get into academia/research? Or did something prompt you?

I think it was a mix of both. I first came to know of the scholarship when an alumni of our college, Anupriya Dhonchak, got the scholarship. That always stuck, like okay, this is something that allows you to study at Oxford. Then eventually, when I had some certainty that I wanted to apply to the University of Oxford, then I started to seriously think about the scholarship. Even then there was a lot of self-doubt, and I was lucky to be around my referees, supervisors and seniors who were encouraging me to give it a try.

7. What was your application process like? How and when did you start working on an application? Especially, what was the process like in the beginning when you have to compile your Statement of Purpose (SOPs), make a CV, and write a statement. What was that process like?

The application was in four stages. It starts with a written round and then there are three rounds of interviews. The written round happened in June 2023. We had to submit three things: CV, personal statement, and academic statement. The Rhodes Scholarship has certain specific prompts that they want you to discuss, largely asking you as to why you meet the criteria to be a Rhodes scholar. You need to give a sense of what your story is, and why it is leading you to Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship. The academic statement is a much shorter statement of about 350 words. It is aimed at addressing what courses you want to study at Oxford and why. After the written round, there was about a two-month long wait before we were invited to the first interview, and from there on, it was three interviews back-to-back. The first two tend to happen online.

The first interview is more technical, not in the sense that they are testing you on your knowledge of the law, but in the sense that they are trying to look at what opinions you hold in your interest areas. For instance, what issues do you think are important in criminal justice, and what do you think about those issues? In my case obviously it was what I think about the death penalty. They are trying to look at whether you have thought about these issues, what is it exactly that you care about, and what are the ways in which you have thought about these things.

The second interview can really differ for people. For me, it was sort of a continuation of the first interview in the sense that the questions were centred around my work and my areas of interest, with some prodding on why the Rhodes Scholarship. But I have heard from other scholars that for some of them, the second interview was more personality based, with questions about why they think they meet the criteria, and what they interpret the criteria to be. I would like to mention here that there is no one reading of the criteria. It is rather broad, and everyone has their own takes on how they interpret the criteria and how they meet it.

Then the final interview happened in-person in Bangalore. This was the most interesting stage because it happens in two stages. A day before the interview, there was a dinner that was hosted by the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes India National Secretary for all the finalists. So there were 13 of us in total, including me. The dinner also has the jury members, which is a ten-member interview panel. The idea behind the dinner is that we interact with other finalists, but also with the interview panel, so you get to know them a little bit and you are a little less intimidated the next day when you go to the interview. You also end up making friends with the other finalists. So that was a fascinating thing to have been a part of. As much as your instinct tells you, the dinner is really just meant to get you a little bit relaxed and have you talk to the other finalists. It is not some opportunity to impress the interview panels, and I do not think that it will go well if one treats it that way. So the idea is that you will be yourself and they try to see who you are as a person. Yes, it can be a bit intimidating because it is a ten-member interview panel and you are going before them to talk about your work and about the scholarship, but it was not intimidating in the sense that the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes India Secretary put a lot of effort to make sure that you are all comfortable and that we are all in positions and situations that allow us to perform our best during the interview. So that was quite something.

The final interview was a mix of questions about why I think I meet the scholarship criteria, and what my future plans are. And obviously, most of them were questions around my work. The idea behind the interview was to understand what you stand for and why that was the focus of their interview, but yeah, that is pretty much it. After a six to seven hour wait, they call all the finalists back to the room and then they announce the results.

8. How has it been since the results came out? How has the response been?

The response has obviously been fantastic. There has been so much support from everyone around me. Much of the feelings that I have are of gratitude, particularly to my parents, and my mentors and referees: Dr Anup Surendranath, Dr Aparna Chandra, Dr Daniel Matthews, Dr Mukul Raizada, and Dr Aniruddha Jairam. I am so, so grateful to them. These people have taught me so much, it is difficult to put in words. Other than that, I obviously feel excited for what is to come. The Rhodes Trust has been really supportive for our Oxford applications. I should clarify here, and it is a common misconception, but the Rhodes trust just provides you a scholarship to go to Oxford. One still has to apply to Oxford separately. They, however, are extremely helpful in our application processes, helping us with all our doubts, giving us strategic advice on what works better for the application and what does not.

That’s pretty much what it is been like. Immediately after the interview, I had my exams, and now I am focusing on my application.

9. What plans do you have at Oxford? Is there anything specific that you want to achieve in the two years that you will be spending at Oxford? Or are you just looking forward to getting the academic training that might prepare you for a PhD or an academic job? What is your focus?

At Oxford, I am hoping to read for the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice to continue my engagement with issues of criminal law and criminal justice.

In terms of specific plans, I guess one plan is to explore the UK. I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to be able to do it. Otherwise I would not be able to afford an education at Oxford and in the UK. So yeah this one plan is definitely sort of to travel across the length and breadth of the UK as and when time allows.

About Oxford specifically, I don’t know yet. I think those are things that will only get clearer once I get there. That said, as for my broader future plans, I think I have an interest in getting further academic training, perhaps all the way to my DPhil. But ultimately, the idea is to teach. The academic training at Oxford is a means to an end. The end being an opportunity to teach, and to teach in a way that gets students to think about what is wrong with our criminal justice system, and why things are the way they are. They have to understand that as lawyers, we cannot think of everything from a legal lens, and that there is a world beyond that. As lawyers, we need to be aware of that, and learnings from the world beyond the law then need to be brought back to the law to fix the ways in which the law, especially criminal law and criminal justice, are contributing to oppression. But these are rather vague ideas. I think that as I get to Oxford, I think those plans will get much more clarity.

10. My last question is rather broad. Perhaps parts of its answers are already there in your previous answers. But just for the sake of hashing it out clearly, I want to ask you: what do you want your legacy to be? Of your career, of your work, everything.

It is a difficult question to answer when you are 22 or 23. But from where I stand right now, I think I want my legacy to be somewhere in teaching, perhaps being remembered as a teacher who opened doors of curiosity for his students. I think I have been lucky to have people at NLU, Delhi, especially Dr Anup, who made me curious, and made me think about the law. I think that is a very important thing. His classes made me think about the things that I am reading, and my role as a lawyer, and what I want to make of my legal education. I hope that I get the chance to continue doing that.

I want my teaching, my personal relationship with my family and friends to be centred around empathy, I think, especially in the criminal justice sphere, our justice systems are not empathetic enough to the people who are participating in it. So hopefully, I get to contribute to reforms that lead towards a more empathetic criminal justice system.

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