The first time I met Shamnad Basheer was at a patent conference in Mumbai in 2007. He was wearing a light-blue linen suit (always ahead of the curve, be it law or fashion), looking more a GQ model than a professor who had helped organise a first-of-its-kind patent conference in India. There was also an exhibition moot court to demonstrate patent arguments. After realising we were up against an IP genius, we did not feel bad about the complete defeat at his hands, despite the facts of the moot favouring our team. I was two years qualified and did not expect to be a blip on his radar much less expect an email from him, explaining the ideal arguments for both sides. When asked why he had taken the trouble, his reply was — “because everyone has potential”.
It was this passion that ignited what I think of as the “Law Spring” in the form of Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA): A platform for making law an inclusive field and a tool for empowerment by training and funding students from underprivileged backgrounds for a career in law.
I remember a discussion with him on whether IDIA scholars should be mandated to work with the communities they came from. His view was an emphatic no. True empowerment, he said, comes from the freedom to make one’s own choices and not just funding someone’s education. IDIA scholar Karthika Annamalai is a fine example of this belief. On completing law school, she got recruited by a top law firm. In her words, she has lived two lives: “One, of village girl who grew up in a world of sadness and desperation, devoid of hope, and the other, of an educated and confident woman, who was given an amazing opportunity to aspire.”
Basheer remained committed to this belief, whether it was by intervening as an amicus in the Novartis case in the Supreme Court for access to medicines, or as a crusader protesting the compromise to privacy that Aadhaar posed in his view. Post the Novartis case, Basheer said he was happy with the operative part of the order (declining the patent) but sad that the order did not get the theory of patent law quite right. Ever the professor!
Basheer had so many ideas on funding and raising awareness that it was difficult to keep pace at times: He would often quip that it was his feminine multi-tasker side. One remarkable funding idea that he came up with was to request counsels to donate one appearance fee, to start with. This became an effective way for the Bar to open up to the idea of supporting IDIA. This is a good example of small beginnings going a long way as we rarely had a refusal for this request thereafter.
An important aspect of IDIA is working with law student volunteers to support scholars in navigating the competitive law school environment. When asked how IDIA runs without engaging workers, Basheer said, once people feel invested (meeting, befriending and working alongside scholars would usually help in this), the rest will follow. During my teaching stint, I saw this work first-hand with volunteers and IDIA scholars: Everyone believed in the larger cause, and that motivated them.
Last week, when Basheer did not respond to an email I sent, I assumed he was unwell again. I was also worrying about how IDIA would function without him. The worry now seems prophetic. On hearing of his passing, I spoke to Justice Ruma Pal, who said, “Don’t despair, the legacy will carry on.” The fact that his friends (there are plenty of them) are reaching out to reaffirm their commitment while tipping a glass or two (as he would have) in his honour, is testament to how many lives he touched.
If the purpose of life is to do good, he did great.
This article first appeared in the August 13 print edition under the title ‘Lessons by Shamnad Basheer’. The writer is a partner with Khaitan & Co LLP, Kolkata.