There has always been a huge outcry against caste-based reservation policies with fervent arguments of how they reflect the death of meritocracy. At the same time, the fact that most educational institutions, including the national law universities (NLUs), reserve seats for foreign nationals/non-resident Indians (NRIs)/NRI-sponsored applicants is ignored. The only necessary qualification to enter these institutions through the said quotas is the ability to pay the higher fees charged, and the privilege of either possessing a foreign passport, or just knowing someone who lives on foreign shores. Yet, this quota is never publicly decried.
Table 1 gives details of the number and percentage of seats reserved for foreign nationals and NRI/NRI-sponsored applicants in all the NLUs. Only two universities do not provide for such reservations, but the overwhelming majority reserves at least 10% of the seats for these groups. The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS), Kolkata and Maharashtra National Law University (MNLU), Mumbai, in fact, violate the only regulation in the area—laid down by the Supreme Court in P A Inamdar v State of Maharashtra (2005)—that not more than 15% of the seats ought to be reserved for NRIs. In this controversial decision, where the crux of the matter was whether the state could impose a reservation policy on private institutions, the Court also dealt with the question of the NRI quota, and found it justifiable based on the premise that “the emigrated NRIs had a desire to bring their children back to their country, not just for education but also so that their children could get reunited with Indian cultural ethos.”
Who Is an NRI?
There are no uniform definitions or criteria applied by the NLUs when admitting students under these quotas; these vary considerably. For instance, as per the information available regarding admissions under the quota, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru requires only production of a foreign passport, but no proof of residence or any requirement for having completed schooling from outside India. As a consequence, 17 out of 21 foreign national students (from the 2016–20 batches) were found to have completed their schooling within India (Jain et al 2016).
The university has a policy of preferring applicants of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations and other developing nations over others. The single requirement of a foreign passport is the same for many other NLUs, including the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, WBNUJS-Kolkata, etc, yet none define who a “foreign national” is according to them. Others, like the Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University (RMLNLU), Lucknow and MNLU-Mumbai, do not make a distinction between an NRI and a foreign national. So, is a foreign national a foreigner residing/visiting/studying/employed within India? Or, is a ward of a NRI also a foreign national even if they hold an Indian passport, but have a permanent address abroad and have been studying in India?
It is even more ambiguous and uneven in the case of the NRI quota. While certain NLUs adopt the criteria for an NRI as laid out in the Income Tax Act, such as MNLU-Mumbai, others like the National Law Institute University (NLIU), Bhopal consider any Overseas Citizen of India (OCI)/Person of Indian Origin (PIO) cardholder to be eligible for the NRI/NRI-sponsored category as well. The arbitrariness is even more pronounced in deciding on who qualifies for the NRI-sponsored category. For instance, NLIU-Bhopal requires candidates to be sponsored either by first degree or second degree NRIs or OCI/PIO cardholders, while, on the other hand, MNLU-Mumbai does not require the sponsor to be related to the candidate.
For the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law (RGNUL), Patiala, the definition of NRI itself is broader; it includes the spouse/progeny (natural or adopted) of an NRI and considers them eligible for the quota. Uniquely, the Tamil Nadu National Law School (TNNLS), Tiruchirappalli creates a hierarchy within the NRI-sponsored category: those with NRI parents are to be preferred over those with NRI guardians, and both are to be preferred over those with NRI sponsors. Even though the regulations stipulate that only merit is to be given consideration within these categories, it implies that an adopted child with NRI guardians would be overlooked for one with living NRI parents.