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In Conversation with Raag Yadava (Batch of 2013)

Raag Yadava graduated from Law School in 2013. When he is not busy winning Jessup or the Rhodes Scholarship, he can be found at Strawberry Fields, teaching in Jamaica, or deep in Vipassana meditation. Isha Jain (Batch of 2018) interviewed him for Quirk to find out about his life in Law School and beyond.

Today we all know you as someone who won Jessup. But in your five years in Law School, what did you really prioritize?

I didn’t have any set priorities through the five years. Things sort of happened each year. I came as a blank slate, and things developed naturally. Which was good at times and very bad at times. I was introduced to mooting in my second year and I managed to moot with three very, very, very good people and that got me interested in it. The energy of the process was beautiful, and my legal education happened in the moot rooms. But that was a small part of college. Spending time with my friends with whom I became very close was a huge part. And then SF. I had chosen NLS because I knew of Strawberry Fields, and to be able to play whatever part in helping organise it was insane. Then there’s Surya and Chetta and Kaveri terrace. I’ve a feeling people think I was very methodological and planned and focused in law school- I don’t think I was.

That’s funny, SF is happening this weekend

I know man, I wanted to come. The Down Troddence is a band that we’ve been trying to get since my third year (and got once too). They have this one song called ‘Shiva’, which I’m sure they’ll play, which I’ve been blasting on my speakers for the last week. Dammit, I wish I’d come.

So were you also on a lot of committees?

Quantity over quality. I was on L-Tech in my first year, which was basically code word for going to the computer office and fixing stuff. There was no law and technology in it. After that I was on EMC, MCS and SIPLA. EMC was great for SF, MCS I joined because I thought I could try and help moot teams given how much help I’d gotten from my seniors and how helpful that was. SIPLA was a bit of a random one – I’m not sure exactly what I accomplished there.

How did you manage to balance your extra curricular with your academics? Were the two years of doing Jessup difficult?

Not difficult as such. It was all very exciting and fun, so the thought of it being difficult didn’t come across. I lucked out because the three people I did it with with the first time were fantastic (to say the least) and I was really enjoying it. They were tutoring and mentoring me in the most minute way possible, and now I realise that those few months were the core of my legal education. They also make me realise how much an effect careful, experiential learning has compared to years of taking exams and sitting in lectures and so on. The second year was similar, though the challenge was different. This time, the four of us were working more as a team, and learning the ropes as we went along. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

Point being that because I was enjoying things as much, the need for balance etc. didn’t realise arise in my mind. I had my friends around all the time, and so everything was hunky dory. As for other things, the classroom didn’t really interest me as such – there were subjects and teachers I was interested in but I never really read too much for class. So that was sorted. Maybe that’s one thing I didn’t do and so I had time for other things. Aside from that, extra curricular involved Surya, football, lots of music, terrace nights and my friends, whatever time was not spent in the moot or at Chetta, went there.

What motivated you to do it a second time?

I really enjoyed the process of mooting. It was essentially reading about an area of law and discussing it with friends (teammates) and trying to come up with good arguments, what was there not to enjoy. In my fourth year, I thought I would do it again, I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was lazy to try new things. A special challenger for Jessup was held, and four of us got together to form a team. There was no opponent. But we still didn’t make it. The judges said we were too shit. And then in fifth year I thought, bugger all, let’s just do it. Like most things, I didn’t really think it through or have any objective. I had to choose between joining EMC that year and doing the moot, and I sometimes regret that choice. SF that year was run by my friend Govind and it was phenomenal. But staying for free in Washington and arguing under glitzy chandeliers and free drinks came a close second.

I’m sure you’ve gotten this question a lot, but what do you think you did differently the second time? What’s the secret to winning?

You know, no one asks me about this stuff, so I don’t get this question a lot. This is the first time.

At the time I’m sure people were curious.

No, not really. When we came back everyone got drunk and then forgot about it. But, we didn’t do anything differently. We just enjoyed it and got lucky and that was all.

When you were in Law School, did you have any idea of where you wanted to end up, professionally?

No, I had absolutely no idea. I was playing around with the stuff we were doing in college, (moots and SF and friends) too much to think about what I would do afterwards. So I didn’t really pay that much attention or thought to it. Most of my friends were going to work in law firms, a few of them went into litigation, but for whatever reason, I didn’t consider them. It’s not that I wasn’t drawn to them, I just didn’t consider them too seriously. Like I said, it was very odd but I left college with a fairly blank mind. The thought of my mind was, “well, that was fun! now what?”

At what point did you decide that you wanted to pursue higher studies?

After college I had joined a judge at the Delhi High Court, Justice Ravindra Bhat, whom I had interned with while in college. Working with him was the most fantastic experience. I worked with him for a little more than one year. I applied for the Rhodes Scholarship then, not because of any quest to pursue higher studies but because I thought two years of a funded stay in a completely new place can only be helpful. Learning goes much beyond higher studies and I didn’t have this articulated as precisely then, but the basic idea was that.

When I joined Justice Bhat, I didn’t really have any ambitions of pursuing “higher studies” or anything of that sort. I was quite clueless. I joined him because I interned with him in my fourth year and as a person, he was amazing and his chamber seemed like an open place. When I was leaving college, he was the only light of hope I could see!

But I thought the idea of getting money to go stay outside India for two years, in a completely different environment, could only help. I didn’t have any academic inclinations. I enjoyed travelling. If it was possible to get a stipend and go to a completely new place then that was the best way to travel. That was basically why I did it. There was also a darker side to it, which was that I felt like Delhi (aside from Justice Bhat and some other work I was doing) was too claustrophobic, college had been too amazing an experience, and I really wanted to see what else existed to match it or exceed it. It was classic post college blues, but luckily, I had the chance to explore further.

So tell me a little bit about what you did at Oxford – what did you study there?

You can pick four subjects but you can attend the classes for any number. I picked human rights, equality law, private law and fundamental rights, and philosophical foundations of the common law, and attended seminars for a few others. Again, I didn’t have any specialisation or know what my “thing” was, like many others. I had many questions about politics, economy and governance, so I picked four subjects that I thought looked interesting in that direction.

The four courses were about 10% of what I learnt at Oxford, the environment, my friends, my college (Balliol), the clubs, associations, open lectures, travels in and around Europe were the other 90% of my learning. 99% (I like percentages it seems) of everything I saw or did in Oxford felt new, and somehow limiting myself to the four subjects seemed incongruous.

With so much input and so many new things, I was often very lost. It was scary sometimes because it seemed like everyone knew what they were doing while I was bumbling around. Luckily, I had enough people around me who were also exploring, and more importantly, I kept running into amazing experiences and people, so the learning continued. But, to be honest, I also had some very dark and doubtful moments – those nihilist phases where nothing makes sense and all you want is comfort, not exploration. I learnt a lot from those moments.

What were you hoping to get out of these courses? Did you see it more as an opportunity to learn for learning’s sake or did you ever consider it as a stepping-stone for your professional life?

You need to have an objective for something to be a stepping-stone. I didn’t really have anything further in mind to step towards.

After I graduated from college, the one year that I was with Justice Bhat, the learning was massive. Most of my legal education, the applied part of it, where I could channel my knowledge and skills into some real practical application came by talking to him or by working with him. His knowledge of the law, his understanding of the practical parts, of the political parts, of every other factor that goes into the process was amazing. In that one year, I had some inkling that the legal process is one way of doing things but obviously there are a thousand other ways of influencing the outcome that you want. It’s not just litigation. Just because you are a lawyer doesn’t mean you have to do litigation. Justice Bhat was very supportive in whatever exploration I wanted to do in that one year. He allowed me to roam around Delhi and do a little bit of my own work as well while I was with him.

At the same time, when I went to Oxford, I went purely with the intention of first, travelling, and second, to see what else exists. Luckily I didn’t have objectives, because my learning would have been more limited. I realized in that one year with Justice Bhat that I know very little and there was much more to know. Oxford was a complete shot in the dark. I was looking for a way to engage with the world that satisfied both my want to explore and also to do something positive. The courses that I chose seemed interesting. I didn’t have any idea whether I would use these for a job or for further studies or anything of that sort.

The same story applies for the second year in Oxford, only with a little more intensity. The second year I chose a thesis on something I was well-versed in (by way of theory, which I try to stay as far from as possible now), and enjoyed, and thought was relevant – the issue of how to play your part in large structural wrongs. Broad wrongs like climate change or something like that. At the time, a lot of my friends and I were talking about these really big things that are happening in the world but I felt helpless because I didn’t really have any control over anything. I found myself talking in a lot of big principles but not really doing anything. It was alright to talk, but if it wasn’t followed up with action, I felt it was inauthentic. That was my thesis topic for the second year, which was easy enough because you have to write 30,000 words over the course of one year, and you have a stipend. So that allows you 90% of the time to explore other areas, to do whatever else you like as well. So I was able to use that time to travel more, and, more locally. The more I was learning at Oxford, the more I felt like I wanted to lose myself, because I found my head filling up with ideas and information and thoughts and it was all very distracting from the simple, clear existence I had till then. Ignorance was bliss, but at the same time, I didn’t want knowledge to be confusing and distracting. Travelling locally to new places allowed me to do that – it was a beautiful way of travelling I discovered then (through Workaway), because you discover a whole new part of yourself when you’re in an alien environment with no trappings of your past self. The opposite of a Cox and Kings planned holiday basically.

So Oxford wasn’t a stepping stone in my professional life. It was a phase in my learning journey. That sounds like a good one liner I can use somewhere. Thank you Quirk.

If there’s one aspect of the Oxford teaching experience that NLS should emulate, what would it be?

I don’t think there is any point in comparing Oxford to NLS. Obviously there are some good practices that any university should adopt and Oxford has many of them. Basic institutional things like setting up associations and clubs and providing more administrative support and having a more rigorous academic discipline. Even tutoring, for example, where in addition to lectures you have either one-on-one or three-on-one sessions in addition to the lectures, which allow for a strong engagement. In my experience, they were two different worlds. And that makes sense, because Nagarbhavi is not England! To teach the same things would be redundant.

On a tangential note, one of the things that struck me was that Oxford still has the exam system at the post grad level. You did your four subjects the entire year and at the end of it, it would all boil down to one three hour exam and your grade would be dependent on that. These things are taken very seriously. For a fair number of people, the entire process became about the exams. Learning was still exam-structured. That was something that got to me slightly. In terms of the institutional set-up, there is a lot that NLS can learn from Oxford. But in terms of the content, or the style of teaching, that is something that has to be extremely unique. When I look back, I’m actually very curious about how or why so much of the content in Oxford law has made its way into the NLS curriculum, the social circumstances, the history, the environment are so different, that it seems that this blind pickup and drop of content is quite harmful in terms of our learning. The content must allow us to make sense of our surroundings and not provide a static set of information or ideology, that at least would’ve been very helpful for me in law school.

This is a huge question though about what are the best learning practices. I’m more actively involved in this area now in my work, so perhaps I’ll have a chance to say more in the future with more certainty.

Did you ever or do you envision a career in international law?

I wanted to at one point, but that vanished quite quickly. I did some international law work while at Oxford. I was representing the government in an investment treaty arbitration. It was practical, applied international law work. It was very interesting to see how that world works, to see how the law comes into operation in that area and to what extent international law is or is not useful and how it plays out domestically in terms of how the media sees it and how it’s all structured.

Justice Bhat is actually responsible for me dropping international law. He got me too interested in many other things and the idea of international law was a little rarefied at that point so I decided to drop it. Now, because I was working with a law firm for this government case I see that there are so many opportunities opening up for someone who is interested in practical international law work from India. So that field is open. I didn’t have that perspective or that vantage point earlier, but that’s not why I decided to move away. My top priority at that point, actually, and it was up until two weeks ago, was only to travel. That was really all I wanted to do, everything was somehow or the other structured around that. Along the way I found some very interesting debates, people, ideas, and projects, and I’m not trying to fuse all these things together in my work.


(Customary Cute Celebrity Photo.)

Where did you end up after Oxford?

In the dump. I did a mish mash of things. Right after Oxford I returned from London to Delhi by road with Geetha, my Jessup partner amongst other things. I couldn’t finish that fully, though Geetha went further than me and did a solo trip through Iran, which I think deserves a Quirk headline. Then I came back to India. I took about four months off to reflect on whatever travelling I had done and the learnings I had (which was again not an easy process, I had a classic “foreign return” phase, where I found myself commenting on India’s and Delhi’s cleanliness and what not …) Two major experiences here that I wanted to make sense of were a teaching job in Jamaica, which was one of the most sublime experiences, and some farm work in Morocco, those few months were so beautiful that I wanted to recreate something similar back in India.

After I took some time off to reflect on that, I had a little travel time again in south India. At this time, I met some amazing people (Norma and Calude Alvarez of Goa Foundation fame, Darshan Bhat who runs Creatnet Education in Delhi), who were inspiring bolts from the blue. In was also Auroville briefly visiting an experimental farm called ‘Solitude’, which is a permaculture farm. That again was a treat. Then I spent some time with Geetha, my above mentioned friend, near Kochi in a small beautiful temple town. You were asking earlier, what was different between the two Jessups, it helps when you like and ultimately end up going out with your moot partner. That makes work much simpler. I also had this very basic, but long time, interest in meditation so that’s why I went to Tiruvannamalai, which is where the Ramana Maharshi ashram is and the Vipassana centre. That’s also what drew me to Auroville.

By the end of all this, I was thoroughly confused but convinced that there is phenomenal beauty in this world. So I sat down and racked my brain about all the things that I’d done in the last three years, what excited me, what didn’t excite me. Based on that, I’ve picked up a few projects right now till April.

What are those projects? What are you working on?

When I came back to Delhi, I met this phenomenal man, Darshan Bhat, who runs an organisation called Createnet Education. He helps different kinds of people – businesses, school principals, any other group of people – to structure their thoughts clearly to achieve the outcomes that they want to achieve. I’m currently working with him, on work surrounding the idea of ‘learning how to learn’. How do you process all the massive amounts of information that you receive, to be internally clear and to achieve the goals that you want to achieve. This made all the sense in the world to me, because my learning in NLS, the High Court, Oxford and travelling (and everything else in the middle really) was that essentially experiences are created internally, by a translation of external output. So, if you are, as I was, trying to create a certain experience, or make sense of certain input, you have to work on the internal world.

In the context of college for example – you get a lot of information from your teachers, discussion groups, and committees. You have to process all that input and see what makes sense for you, which will be very different from what makes sense for the next person. Based on your background, experiences, so on and so forth. So that process of learning, which can happen in many different ways (and is, in my experience, happening all the time, everywhere), is what I work on right now.

Practically, I’m designing four courses. The first two are for law students and law professors respectively to help each group fine-tune the learning process in their own contexts. For students, it’s to help them answer (in experiential ways) what they are learning, how they are learning and if this learning is useful or not. Self-directed learning, simply. For the second group, it’s to ask, “you may be teaching, but are the students learning?” The second two courses are focussed on self-enquiry, to help participants understand themselves better. This is self-directed learning about oneself! Where you are the subject, object, teacher and student.

What ties all these courses together is the idea of self-inquiry and deconditioning ourselves, which is least in my experience critical to learning. This is my current work, its something that I’m just starting out and learning the ropes but it’s all super exciting!

Do you have any advice for present students at NLS?

No. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the four years since graduation, its that the learning process is a 100% unique to each person. That is essentially what I am trying to do now with the courses I spoke about, and with my own learning in my daily life. If I give any advice, it’s essentially just a reflection of my own experience at law school – yours would probably be very different.

This is going to be a really shitty interview, right? There’s going to be a lot of pauses and dot dot dots everywhere.

No don’t worry; I’ll edit it to make it sound as coherent as possible.

You can put a footnote: “He was very incoherent but Quirk has editorial guidelines to make everyone look presentable”

Published in Alumni Speak Conversations


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