What is the controversy regarding NLSIU’s domicile reservation policy?


The National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru has recently come under fire from the Karnataka government, advocate association members and Pro Kannada outfits for its controversial “domicile reservation policy.”

In 2021, NLSIU had voluntarily adopted the “Inclusion and Expansion Plan 2021-2025.” In it,  the institution planned to increase the total student intake for both undergraduate and postgraduate law programmes every year and also reserve 25 per cent seats horizontally (compartmentalized) for Karnataka students. This came after the Karnataka High Court struck down the National Law School Amendment Act that aimed to horizontally reserve 25 per cent seats for students of Karnataka, in 2020.

However, on December 29, 2022, the law minister of Karnataka, JC Madhuswamy wrote a letter to the university’s vice chancellor alleging that the institution clubbed the Karnataka students who otherwise were eligible for admissions through All India Rank based on general merit with the domicile category. According to the minister, this disadvantaged those Karnataka students who did not make it to the General Merit List. 

What is horizontal and vertical reservation and how does NLSIU apply it? 

Reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes is referred to as vertical reservation. Horizontal reservation refers to opportunity provided to other categories of beneficiaries such as women, veterans, the transgender community, domicile and individuals with disabilities, cutting through the vertical categories. 

NLSIU claims that ‘Karnataka Students’ are admitted to 25 per cent of seats in every vertical category, including General/ SC/ ST/ OBC/ EWS and as a result, constitute at least 25 per cent of the overall student body. The institution also claims that the consortium of National Law Universities (NLUs) administers State horizontal reservations in 21 NLUs based on the merit rank list and that NLSIU follows an identical procedure.

Why was domicile reservation introduced? 

In 2020, the Karnataka government notified the National Law School of India Amendment Act. This mandates that NLSIU shall horizontally reserve 25 per cent seats for Karnataka domicile students – any student who has studied in any one of the recognized educational institutions in the state for a period of not less than 10 years preceding the qualifying examination. The amendment was made to encourage more graduates from NLSIU to join the Bar in Karnataka.

However, in 2020, the Karnataka High Court struck down this amendment act stating that the state legislature has no power or authority under the Act to direct the Law School to provide reservations for students. The court also held that the law school is an autonomous entity and any form of reservation for students to be admitted to it shall be provided by the Executive Council of the Law School bearing in mind the fact that it is an institution of national importance. 

However, despite the Act being struck down, NLSIU voluntarily adopted the ‘Inclusion and Expansion Plan 2021-25.’ This aimed to increase annual student intake, include multidisciplinary approaches in curricula, introduce new reservation categories including the 25 per cent domicile reservation for Karnataka student.

Why is the state government and advocates’ association of Bengaluru opposing NLSIU’s domicile reservation implementation?

Karnataka Law Minister JC Madhuswamy and the Advocates’ Association of Bengaluru argue that the “institution has deceptively merged students who qualify under the All India Quota” and those who gain admission under the domicile reservation category, thus restricting the percentage of students from Karnataka who may gain admission into NLSIU to a maximum of 25 per cent.

For instance, the provisional list for CLAT 2023 released last week showed that a total of 60 students from Karnataka gained admission through horizontal (compartmentalized) reservation cutting across vertical categories. However, out of the 60 candidates, 19 candidates were also eligible for admission through the All India Rank category. However, they were given seats reserved for domicile candidates instead.

To this, the Advocates’ Association expressed its opposition, claiming “this means that 19 students from Karnataka who deserved admission lost out due to the candidates who were otherwise eligible on general merit basis.” 

What is the Advocates’ Association demanding?

Advocates’ association and certain pro Kannada outfits are demanding that any student who is otherwise eligible to claim domicile reservation but qualifies for admission through the All India Rank, should be admitted under the latter category. The Karnataka domicile seats should only be for those who do not obtain a seat through their All India Rank. 

They have also appealed to the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud to intervene in his capacity of the ‘Chairman of the Executive Council of NLSIU’ to ensure that the domicile reservation policy followed by NLSIU is in sync with policies in other NLUs and to ensure that the proportion of Karnataka students being admitted to NLSIU is not artificially restricted to 25 per cent. 

What next?

While NLSIU has already initiated the admission process for 2023-24 academic year, the state government has approached the Supreme Court of India and has applied a special leave petition, challenging the High Court’s decision that struck down the Amendment Act. 

Meanwhile NLSIU has projected that the number of Karnataka students admitted to law programmes at NLSIU will increase to 135 in academic year 2024-25 and 500 in 2026-27, with increases to overall student intake.