NR Madhava Menon (1935-2019)
NR Madhava Menon will always be remembered as the father of modern legal education in India
I had many things in common with Neelakanta Ramakrishna Madhava Menon. We shared a birthday — May 4th. He was born in 1935, I in 1953. The digits are the same in our years of birth, though they are not placed in the same manner.
I was more fortunate than him, as I had both my parents to bring me up. In his case, he lost his father when he was just 2. It was his mother who got a job on compassionate grounds who brought him up. He did not disappoint his mother, as he studied well and obtained good marks.
Menon wanted to become a civil service officer like VP Menon, KPS Menon and many other Menons at a time when every other nameplate at the Central Secretariat had a Menon in it. Today one can find more Meenas than Menons occupying such cabins at the Secretariat.
Menons from Malabar had an advantage. The British liked them, as they were directly administered by them. In fact, the Menons from Malabar were the first to acquire what was called English education in Kerala. Naturally enough, they did well in the Civil Service examination.
For starters, Kerala was formed by integrating the native states of Travancore and Kochi with Malabar which was part, first, of the Bombay Presidency and, later, of the Madras Presidency.
NR Menon did not have that advantage as he was born in Travancore, ruled by a succession of Maharajas, beginning with Marthanda Varma, who tasted defeat only at the hands of the Raja of Kayamkulam, my native state. That is, perhaps, why he could not make it to the steel frame. He had to remain content with a job in the Central Secretariat.
Like me, he wanted to be a lawyer. My father’s financial condition had become so precarious that I could not even think of joining the law college at Ernakulam or Thiruvananthapuram. Menon was luckier as he could join the law college at Thiruvananthapuram in the year it was started there, which also happens to be my year of birth.
A pragmatist, Menon took up his job in Delhi, while pursuing higher studies as a private student in the Capital. Unlike him, I did not have the perseverance to pursue higher studies.
One reason was that I began loving my accidental profession — journalism — more than the law.
Menon persisted with his studies. A turning point in his life was when he joined the Aligarh Muslim University where he was the first non-Muslim to become a Hostel Warden. He did his Masters in Law from the AMU. He also created history when he obtained a Ph.D. He was the first to get a doctorate in law from AMU. His thesis was on white collar crime. He became a professor there. That was the time when the AMU had the best Malayalam Department outside of Kerala.
Menon will go down in history as the one who brought respectability to the study of law. During the pre-Independence period, only the bright and the rich like Gandhi and Nehru studied law. It was the most lucrative profession at that time.
I grew up hearing stories that Motilal Nehru sent his clothes to Paris for dry-cleaning. The story was, perhaps, apocryphal but it found credence among the people.
After Independence, the profession lost much of its lustre. In fact, only the worst student took law as a subject. Most students saw it as a profession which will help them to remain in politics. Few chose to study the law because they liked to study how different the study of tort is from the study of Constitutional provisions.
Menon changed all that when he helped start the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru. I always wanted to ask him why he allowed both School and University in the name of the institution he founded but I did not have the courage to do so.
It was a measure of the awe in which he was held that the school was given the status of University. I was one of those invited to Bengaluru to draft an alternative Bill on Disability to be presented to the government. Menon’s University was one of the initiators of the move.
It became fashionable to send children to Bengaluru to study law. I remember my friend TN Sushma sending her daughter to do the five-year integrated law course. I wondered aloud whether it was worth spending five years to do the course but I had no clue at that time about Menon and his vision.
Once again, meritorious students saw for themselves a career in law. Menon was the first to introduce the Harvard style of legal studies to India.
Years later, I heard an IAS officer and friend from my Bihar days telling me proudly that his son was doing law from an institution in Kolkata founded, again, by Menon. For want of space, I do not want to dwell at length on Menon’s achievements as a pioneering educationist.
In his death, the entire legal fraternity has lost a father figure who raised the standards of legal education in India. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
(The writer is former editor based in Delhi)