Shamnad Basheer (43), a globally renowned prize-winning scholar and activist, breathed his last in Karnataka’s Western Ghats on August 8.
While the circumstances of his death were unusual— police suggesting he died of suffocation in his car, Basheer leaves behind a legacy of searing intellect and tremendous sensitivity in India’s public life.
Basheer got a PhD from Oxford, worked at India’s leading Intellectual Property law firm, taught at three universities (while lecturing at several globally), appeared as an expert before the Supreme Court of India in a landmark case, filed and won a handful of key public interest litigation (PIL) and successfully incorporated progressive changes to IPR law and policy over time.
Shamnad was born as the eldest of four children in Thiruvananthapuram. He attended the Laidlaw Memorial School in the Nilgiris and completed his ICSE exams. M M Basheer (67), Shamnad's father, wanted his eldest son to study medicine. But without letting his parents know, Shamnad had managed to apply to India’s top law college, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore.
"Appa, I want to do law," Basheer senior recalled a young Shamnad saying.
At NLSIU Shamnad met Prof N S Gopalakrishnan, one of India’s leading IP academics at the time.
“Initially he was a bit casual, but slowly he became serious. He had great calibre to think, articulate, and things like that,” said Gopalakrishnan.
While Shamnad was his student, he said there wasn’t anything remarkable in their relationship. But this changed after graduation. “Our association became close after law school,” he recalled. “[Shamnad] came to Cochin and he spoke seriously about the work that he wanted to do in biotechnology.”
After briefly flirting with the idea of becoming an IAS officer, mostly due to his father’s insistence, Shamnad convinced India’s leading IP lawyer, Praveen Anand to hire him. He grew rapidly and went on to lead the firm’s technology and media law practice.
The world of IP academia then beckoned and Shamnad went to Oxford University, qualifying with a BCL, MPhil and doctorate in law. Swaraj Barooah, former policy director at The Centre for Internet & Society, explained the significance of Shamnad’s doctoral thesis at Oxford: “he proposed a comprehensive investment protection regime for pharmaceutical drugs, as an alternative to using patents, which don’t have any regard to the actual investment per drug, or its social value.”
Starting off with the boom in blogging around 2005, Basheer wrote prolifically and accessibly, building SpicyIP into an edifice without which India’s IP landscape might have looked very different.
“The blog was notable for how it broke down complicated and layered IP issues into accessible language, yet without losing its nuance,” wrote Barooah via an email, who worked with Basheer on SpicyIP and the IDIA project.
“The hard hitting and change-effecting writing from him and his colleagues on the blog helped effect change and transparency in various areas of India’s IP policy arena, including the Indian Patent Office. Writing from the blog has also been cited in top law journal articles, quoted in newspapers around the world, as well as used as assigned reading material in some of the world’s top law schools.”
"How do we build a more inclusive society using the tool of the law? How do we build a more plural society?" - Basheer asked after receiving the Infosys Prize in 2014, which was awarded to him for his contribution to a broad range of legal issues and legal education.
During his time as a legal scholar, Basheer occupied some of the top IP academic positions and was globally recognised as an expert. However, the work that he became most passionate about, came about later in his life— the IDIA project (Increasing Diversity Through Increasing Access).
Basheer realised that India’s publicly funded leading law schools, including his alma mater, were islands of English-speaking urban elites in terms of their student populations. He demonstrated this with data about students’ backgrounds, including family income, caste, place of origin and language of instruction in school.
Together with Professor Mahendra Pal Singh, who was the Vice Chancellor at NUJS, Kolkata, and former Supreme Court justice Ruma Pal, and lawyer Shishira Rudrappa, Basheer launched the IDIA project to bring students from rural, lower caste and non-English medium backgrounds into India’s elite publicly-funded law schools.
Singh recalled the genesis of the IDIA project around Diwali in 2009. “Many scholars were concerned about the high-flying issues of our society, but Shamnad was different,” he said.
Rudrappa, who is also a trustee of IDIA, said, “We have managed to touch the lives of some thirty thousand children. Not all of them go on to do law, but even learning English helps them.”
Rudrappa emphasised that the students that IDIA reaches out to are not from lower class backgrounds, but they are people facing abject poverty in remote villages. “They are usually children of ragpickers and so on. They literally have almost nothing.” He said so far IDIA has managed to put 132 candidates through India’s national law schools, including the first fully blind student. Basheer perpetuated the thought that donors, volunteers and project teams were doing IDIA scholars no favours by enabling them, but instead it was a privilege to be able to bring students from poor backgrounds into empowerment, explained Rudrappa.
He says that while there have been challenges, many national law schools have been supportive of IDIA.
Glowing tributes from friends, colleagues, students and teachers have been bubbling up on social media since the news of his passing first broke on last week, speaking of Basheer's enigmatic personality and visionary ideas.
"Shamnad was warm and affectionate but no one who interacted with him ever knew all of him. He was always a delight to meet and interact with, and everyone who met him was dazzled by his brilliance and warmth," wrote lawyer Murali Neelakantan.
For the last few years of his life, Basheer suffered from an undiagnosed illness. He was laid to rest in a simple ceremony close to his hometown in Kerala yesterday.
Basheer's younger brother Nihas, who is a banking partner with Wadia Ghandy & Co, a top law firm, described him as a "father figure" and said, "He taught me that if you are riding a bike and you're not singing a song, then it's not worth riding."