A legal educationist par excellence and a man with a great sense of humour, Prof. N.L. Mitra is a contented man. As a teacher of law for more than five decades, he has played many roles – that of an academician, researcher, educational planner, programme designer, institution builder, legal advisor and legal draftsman. Currently based in Bengaluru, he is the Chancellor of KIIT University, Bhubaneswar, Emeritus Partner of the solicitor firm, Fox Mandal & Associates, a position rarely used in the profession, and a member of the Legal Education Committee of the Bar Council of India. He is a Visiting Professor at various National Law Schools and Advisor to IIT Kharagpur. He is also an independent member of some corporate boards. He teaches regularly in the West Bengal Judicial Academy in which he was involved from inception, and designed courses for junior judicial officers at the entry level and also special in-service advanced courses for senior officers.
The educationist has held many prominent positions. To name some: Vice-Chancellor of National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore (1997-2000) and Founder Vice-Chancellor of National Law University (NLU), Jodhpur (2001-2004). From 1999 to 2002, he was a busy Vice Chancellor of a University as well as Advisor to the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India on financial sector law reform. He was advising other financial regulators like SEBI and CCI as well as advising various ministries of the Government of India on law reform. Professor Mitra was educated in Calcutta University, except his masters degree in law, which he got from Utkal University, this being the only University running a regular LL.M. course at that time in eastern India. He also holds a certificate in Human Rights from International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France.
Academic career was not a conscious choice for this man who has spent more than five decades in the field. “I walked into the teaching career by accident. And teaching law was the second accident. I studied law for appearing in the civil services exam. But I did hold a business management position in the private sector, police service in the government and an academic profession for some time after the civil service examination. I found the academic profession to be more enriching and emotionally compatible with my temperament even though the remuneration and perks were significantly poor. But I soon got back to the fold of the University in my home town at Burdwan,” smiles Professor Mitra. “Police service was a more natural route, as my father M.L. Mitra had retired from the police force, but I found that education services was my natural flair. Fortunately, I did not have to do any job searching as in the regular course of ‘application-interview-selection-appointment model’. I did jobs on invitation – first by Dr. U.K. Dutta, the Principal of Raj College, second by Dr. Sashi Bhusan Choudhury, the Vice-Chancellor of Burdwan University succeeded by Dr. Rama Ranjan Mukherjee, and then by Professor N.R. Madhava Menon for National Law School, Bangalore. In fact, Professor Menon requested my father to shift to Bengaluru as I was hesitant to leave my father alone. These invitation letters are my treasure. I consider them my certificates and testimonials. I learned from Prof. Menon that to build an institution you require the best faculty and there could be no compromise. This lesson I followed throughout my life.”
The Professor lost his mother early and credits all the support to his wife, Kabita, whom he met in the university. “She was doing her Masters in Islamic History. We liked each other, fell in love and married soon after completing our studies,” he smiles gently. “She took care of my younger siblings too. After my father retired in 1967, she used to take such good care of my father that he became absolutely dependent on her for the smallest of things.” The man who loves listening to ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ passes his leisure time with his wife, listening to soft soothing ghazals by Jagjit Singh and Mehdi Hassan.
The Mitras have two sons Arindam and Debanjan who lives in the U.S. Arindam, the elder one, is a chartered accountant and working in an international financial management and audit firm and Debanjan is a Professor of Management Science in Florida. His four grandchildren are Ilina (17), Vidush (16), Anika (13) and Tanisha (12). Professor Mitra has visited many leading universities of the world. He believes that if India has to improve its standing in following the rules of law, quality legal education has to be emphasized for all – judges, lawyers, administrative officers, institutional officials, paralegals, political leaders and policy makers.
In the early 1960s, he taught industrial economics, commercial subjects and accounts, as Burdwan University did not have a law school. During the 1970s West Bengal was undergoing a change due to the emergence of the Naxal movement, and the University decided to open a law department, “As I was the only one who had done law at that time in the whole University, I was made the Head of the Department. The LL.B. course started along the lines of the course in Calcutta University – part time, half-hearted and liberal. After two years, I understood that the programme needed a radical change. So the University appointed its first Law Reform Committee in 1973 with Justice P.V. Mukherjee heading it. Other members were Dr. P.K. Tripathi, Dr. G.S. Sharma, and I was the secretary. The Committee recommended a law degree programme of three years’ duration, after degree level education in arts/science/commerce or in any other discipline. The Committee also recommended ‘law’ to be regarded as a social science subject and to be introduced as pass and honours subject at the B.A. level.”
The newly designed course was unique as the students were trained in the district courts, high court and the Supreme Court for three months to acquaint them with court procedures and court environment. Burdwan was the first university in which students ran the Legal Aid Clinic. Bombay University then invited him to join as its Professor of Law in 1984 but he could not join. In this process, Prof. Madhava Menon came to know of him and invited him to be a part of the founding faculty in the National Law School, Bangalore, as its senior-most Professor.
There he realized that for a university’s functional autonomy to be effective it must be backed by financial autonomy. His advice to the university authorities was to rationalize the academic fees by more than 600 per cent – from Rs. 4,000 a year to Rs. 25,000. “Then I began to focus on marketing the initial batches. No one had heard about ‘campus recruitment’ in a law school in those days. Some of us had to park ourselves in Mumbai and Delhi during vacations. J.V. Thakkar, a senior lawyer in Mumbai, introduced me to many professionals, leading law firms and capital market players. Later many professionals such as Cyril Shroff, Anand Bhat, Nishith Desai, Hamid Muchala, Parimal Shroff and others became friends and well wishers of NLS. I learned my lessons about Dalal Street. Mohandas Pai of Infosys and Harhar Ayer, a retired CGM of State Bank of India, introduced me to the leaders of the banking, industrial and financial markets.”
Since NLS did not receive any grants from the government, he introduced a master’s degree in business law through electronic mode, open to all graduates.
Professor Mitra asserts that to improve the justice delivery system in India, legal professionals must have knowledge of specific domains such as science, social science and physical science.
His multi-disciplinary approach for legal education was first introduced in NLU, Jodhpur. His ambition was to establish a National Centre for Forensic Science so that Forensic Science can be developed as an independent branch of knowledge and it does not remain as a police science. Science and technology education was combined with law, and faculty members were inspired to take the challenge of a new curriculum. He also initiated a science club.
Always a humorist, Professor Mitra states that Bengalis have three chronic diseases – indigestion, amoebae and composing poetry. He smiles and says he has the last in abundance but only for his wife.