Prof. Kunal Ambasta

Prof. Ambasta is an Assistant Professor at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore (NLSIU), and an Advocate at the High Court of Karnataka. He is a NLSIU graduate with a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the Director of The Justice Initiative, which helps people in conflict with the law, particularly life convicts, to recreate their identities and rebuild their lives. His research interests are the criminal justice system, the law of evidence and proof, and the interface between law, sexuality, and gender identity.

1. Could you share your journey and experiences that led you to become a practitioner and an eminent academic?

I was interested in academia even when I was a student at NLS; I liked the entire process of research, writing and even teaching juniors. I was fascinated by the idea that I could pursue it full time, so that is where the seeds of my interest were laid. Of course, as you go through law school you identify your subject area and for me it was Criminal Law, so with that intent in mind I went for my master’s because it is an entry level requirement to teach. I did my LLM immediately after my bachelors degree, and then came back to teach in India. I started in 2013, and as I was teaching a lot of practice-oriented subjects, I started looking at getting a first-hand experience in these areas of law and also to see what can be done for the criminal justice system in courts rather than just in a sanitised environment. Also, you understand the law much better once you see it in practice rather than just understanding from one lens or rely on other people’s accounts of how it works so that was the thinking that led me to start practising as well. So, after I came back and started teaching for a few months, I enrolled and started under a senior lawyer on the criminal side in Karnataka and then on my own. I dealt with cases mostly at the trial court level because that is where most of the procedural aspects and lot of the “law in action” occurs.

2. How did your alma mater (NLSIU) contribute to your interest in academia and criminal litigation? Can you mention some experiences that led you to pursue this field of law in specific?

There are many professors and teachers who have influenced me in many different ways and not all of them were professors who taught criminal law. A lot of teachers helped contextualise the reality of the legal system and understand how people negotiated in these systems; the idea that there is so much of privilege in a university setting where a lot of things that we talk about in terms of bail for instance, we do not imagine ourselves as ever requiring. For labour law, we had Professor G.V. Ajjappa, who had a lot of experience of labour law disputes, and he would tell us how the law that was facially neutral would apply to the disadvantage of workers, and that opened my eyes. Dr Mrinal Satish taught me criminal procedure and his course was extremely fascinating as well.

The onus is really on the person who is studying, one must not think that the reality is going to come to them and make them interested, that is in fact also an example of a privilege in thinking. If you think that there is something to learn, then you should have that curiosity to develop that thought; we foreclose our thinking, we do not even want to think about acts that disturb us or displace our comfortable existence that we think is the normal. This onus is on the student and time when you are in university is the only time in life when you actually get to truly pursue diverse interests. So, students should take the opportunity and make the most of it, not be afraid of exploring things.

3. Could you share some of your experiences and highlights from your work over the years? What are some notable cases you have worked on and the outcomes you achieved?

My lawyer friend once told me that you will never forget the first person that walks out of prison because of you, and I still remember my first bail case like it had happened last week. This was when I had begun practising in Bangalore and I had gone to meet some other client, but I bumped into a young boy, a migrant labourer. He started talking to me and explained as best as he could that he had been arrested by the police and had been brutally tortured and his name was put in two cases which he had nothing to do with. He also came from the most unfortunate circumstances in terms of socio-economic status, was completely illiterate and was very badly scared and traumatised also did not speak the local language. This boy had no paper trail on him either but he was in jail for more than a month and his mother was in the village unable to contact him. This was a very difficult case because every piece of the case had to be built from scratch against a lot of odds and without any money. Further, ensuring that the boy was actually released on bail so that he could continue to live his life was extremely challenging but it had to be done. Once you come face to face with situations like these, you cannot just turn your back and leave it as somebody else’s problem. The system is full of people like this, this instance was just one out of thousands and thousands of people across the country who might be sitting in jail with no hope. If you think about it, it is a very minor thing for me, just a bail, but if you think about it differently, for that person it is their liberty.

4. Publication of research papers is an essential aspect of a law student’s career, although in the early stages, students frequently engage in other co-curricular activities. How important is it for a law student to understand the importance of publications, given that you have written and delivered papers in a number of reputable journals/seminars/conferences/workshops, etc.?

The number of publications should not be your end goal, it is a cliché, but it is the truth. You should not publish only for CV value, which you would surely get but there must be an urge to write something and contribute to what you think is the state of knowledge. If one is interested in academics, they are engaging with the world of knowledge creation, ideas, arguments, and writing to be a part of it, where this animates their effort to write and publish. Therefore, the quality of their research, argumentation, and writing must change.

If you only think “I have to publish so that I can put it in my CV” then all of that goes away and there are plenty of publications, you can do with minimal effort and those really do not teach you anything. It is the ones you think that you cannot do, that are difficult, that challenge you, that will end up teaching something whether you end up publishing it or not. So, a publication is an end that comes, it should not be an end goal right now. I understand it is important in this current culture where everyone has publications on their CV, and even applications to LLMs are based on such publications, so it does have CV value. Even then the question is why; the answer is not that it is desirable because it is against your name but that it shows a seriousness towards academia, research, the world of knowledge and this attitude will also affect the quality of work. Lastly, a publication against your name is forever so do not be in a rush to publish something that is bad because there will come a time when you will be embarrassed, that should not happen and that will not happen if you follow the process, the way it is meant to be followed. You should look at a particular area in the field of law, that which is most interesting to you, see if you can research about it, formulate and understand the argument. You do not even have to immediately start writing on something that is your core interest, you can use this process as one for filtering your interest areas.

5. You have pursued an LLM in Criminal Justice and Corrections and Evidence from the University of California, Berkeley. How was that experience in terms of perspective and how does higher education in this field impact one’s career?

I have always wanted to teach and, because gaining an LLM is an entry level requirement to teach, for me it made logical sense. However, you come to this understanding towards the end of your law school; you should not be in a rush to pick one line over the other; you have five years of thinking about what it is that you want to do, which area of law, whether law or not and one should enjoy that process. There are some people who have that clarity much earlier and that is also good, but for me it was not so.I debated and thought about a lot of options and then squared down on this. My experience at Berkeley was wonderful; the kind of pedagogy they follow is very different from what we might have seen in India. You learn the subject, ways of thinking, you learn about different cultures from across the world which is very eye opening and interestingly, you also learn how to teach. The kind of dedication that American students display was something I had not seen in India, the seriousness and sincerity that they were there to learn. You also make friends from across the globe which is very nice and I had a lovely time, I learnt a lot, and by the end of it I felt that I could teach.

6. You don multiple hats, you have been a practitioner, professor and a vocal activist. What is your singular motivation and how has the experience been so far?

An activist is a loose term; if you act on your beliefs, I suppose you are an activist of some kind. The idea is you do things to the best of your ability in ways that will make you capable of looking yourself in the mirror and knowing that you did your best and you did what was true to your heart. Different people have different compulsions too, for example I could go into litigation without thinking of money so much because I had an academic salary coming in but a person who might be a first-generation practitioner with no support system has to run their chambers, has to earn a livelihood, so they will have to charge. In that sense, what I chose to do was a product of my comfort, that I was able to do it. Some people may want to do it, but everybody in this field is contributing to its development in so many different ways.

7. I believe your involvement in litigation and academia greatly contribute to your pedagogy too. Could you talk about that experience and the benefits of practitioners making a shift into academia and teaching or vice versa?

I noticed, interestingly, that litigation feeds into the teaching and my teaching feeds into litigation. It is a two-way process, as practitioners also sometimes we do not think about the basic concepts of law, we are so obsessed with the practical working that we do not pause to think or make those connections. As an example, in a criminal case I was working on, my client was in custody with no possibility of bail, and the prosecution was dragging its feet in getting witnesses to the court and would not show up on the fixed dates and the case would get adjourned. My client was suffering from the delay and the prosecution was benefitting from it. Under the CrPC there are various provisions of summons, warrants, issuance of a proclamation and dropping of witnesses. To make the matter go forward I filed an application for a proclamation as the Judge was not dropping the witnesses. Technically however, it is not for the defence but the prosecutor to file but this was causing a practical problem. I filed for proclamation and to counter the prosecution’s argument I had to explain the concept behind such a provision and why one cannot deny it to the defence. I suppose it required a way of thinking that is in academia so both feed into each other. Of course, the classroom becomes much richer because you can tell students how the provision would actually apply which we might otherwise not be able to do. Every student may not become a litigating lawyer, but they must know because it is a part of their education.

8. What is the relevance of conducting proper legal research, and how should law students prepare for it? When do you believe legal research is exhausted? Would you mind sharing your research methods with our readers?

If I could, I would have, however, there is no exact method that I follow, it works intuitively for me so I do not know what to term it. I would like to suggest a resource; there is a very nice paper by Professor Pamela Samuelson called “Good Legal Writing: Of Orwell and Window Panes” which I think every law student should read. Firstly, one should not be shy of doing research which covers the entire area, a lot of times people take shortcuts. Students google their topics, and the first thing they see becomes their preliminary topic, the idea is that the effort should first be put into gaining some exhaustive knowledge then picking out an issue. Taking Section 498 IPC as an example, when you google it, you get a lot of results and then you pick a topic, but that is not how it works. I believe research is a very methodical process that first engages with the primary area, then it requires active thinking about what you are reading and then only do you start formulating what you might want to write and then move to write and check what or whether others have written on it. Students are very tempted to do it in the reverse manner; finding a niche area and then work backwards to write a paper. That I think is a disaster method that can only produce bad papers.

9. The focus of your initiative has been to understand lived realities that the legal system does not take into account and subsequently give ex-convicts an opportunity to live normal lives. Can such initiatives ever be institutionalised? And what can law students do to effectively contribute to humanise the criminal law system?

I hope that such initiatives get institutionalised, and the Government is committed to that at least in theory. So, they also run programs in some States, but the idea is not something that is contrary to government policy. A lot of the work of The Justice Initiative revolves around and is only possible with the support of prison authorities and the State Departments, because if they do not give us permission to go into prisons to work with the inmates, the story ends right there. The idea the system need not only be punitive but as a site that prepares people to come back into mainstream society is a very important one and it is the only way forward for the carceral system. Law students do have a vital role as they are the ones who will be lawyers tomorrow. However, while you are studying do not focus really on making a big change right now. Right now, it will be more than enough if students who are genuinely interested get into the field, go to these places (prisons, etc.) and get all the information they can and they will come up with solutions that we have not foreseen. Law school time is a period when students must first understand the basics because a lot of harm is done to the criminal justice system when people who do not understand it go in with their own agenda, calling it reform. For instance, the only thing you have heard is delay in the criminal justice system, and you go in with a hair brained idea to solve it and you can indeed have a two-day trial which reduces delay in trial but does not solve the actual problem. My advice is, do not be in a rush to solve it, these are very complex problems, first spend time understanding it, and then we can talk about what can be done. Understanding reveals the ease with which some problems may be solved and in the law school period do not focus on being the person who will change everything and know that just being there is very important.

10. Given your vast experience how would you advise law students interested in criminal litigation or academia to specialise their skill set and equip themselves?

My advice for law students interested in the field or litigation lawyers who are just starting out is to start in the trial court. Do not start in the High Court and not at all in the Supreme Court. You must start in the trial court, that is where criminal procedure, evidence law and all of criminal law “happens”. That is where you will see the face of your clients because clients are not brought into the High Court or Supreme Court directly for ordinary cases. This experience is very important, and while it may be unfathomable because trial courts are not nice, they are dusty, full of people and you have to run around, you are not in your AC in the court hall, wearing your fancy robes, you have to argue in your local language, etc. But it is important because you cannot get a grip on criminal law without practising in the trial court, that’s where every good lawyer has started out and secondly, if you are pursuing criminal defence, make it a point to start visiting prisons, you have to go to prison and get cases from there. And the kind of cases you start getting other lawyers will not have. We think that there is no money at all in criminal law, of course while it is not comparable to corporate law salaries that start in the lakhs, there will be a period of struggle, but you can earn well. The moment you do good work from the cases you get your name will spread and there is nothing that one cannot aim to achieve in this field.

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