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An unpublished 2016 interview with Shamnad Basheer: Our Harts are in our villages

Advocate Chirayu Jain’s interview with the late Shamnad Basheer elucidates his thinking on diversity

What made Shamnad Basheer believe so strongly in the importance of diversity in law schools?
What made Shamnad Basheer believe so strongly in the importance of diversity in law schools?

In 2015-16, I had an undue privilege of interacting closely on several occasions with the man who would leave lasting impression upon me, like he left it on many others. I was a boisterous twenty-one year old snowflake, who felt that he was entitled to an audience from anyone and everyone. He was a renowned intellectual property expert and someone who could go to bed each day, with the satisfaction of having made life-changing dreams for many come true. Yet, it was his magnanimity that he not only took out his precious time from his busy schedule and gave audience to anyone who sought, and was always there-to guide, to advise and to offer that word of appreciation, a young law student is always starved for. Following is an interview script dated 16.02.2016 with Prof. (Dr.) Shamnad Basheer, when he took out time to reply in great detail to some questions that I had about classroom diversity, accessibility to higher education and IDIA.

What prompted you to start IDIA?

There were several triggers, but I highlight two of the most important ones. As I began teaching at NUJS in 2008, I looked around my class and noted that most of my students had accessed some of the best schools in India, spoke good English and lived privileged urban lives.

I asked: does this class really represent the real India? What of the millions of underprivileged kids that were denied access to this powerful legal corridor? As a law school we often pontificated on lofty ideals such as social inclusion, equality and justice. But practiced something altogether different in our own backyards, turning a blind eye to the fact that only the rich and the privileged were making it through our doors!

I shared my concerns with Vice Chancellor of NUJS, Prof (Dr.) MP Singh who encouraged me to do something about this. We formed an initial small group with some academics from abroad as well and began brainstorming the issue.

I proposed that rather than blindly aping the models of the West, where Universities such as Oxford and Harvard run outreach programmes to disadvantaged sections from their own offices, we couldn’t afford to do this in India, given the various financial and other constraints faced by Universities here.

Rather, we must rely on the passionate student force, and leave them to run the show, with minimum University interference or support required. And thus was born the idea behind IDIA. Fortunately, this gamble paid off and this is really the USP of the IDIA model, driven as it is by an army of passionate student volunteers around the country.

IDIA is also different from various other access to education initiatives (such as the famed Super 30’s model), in that we don’t stop with getting these underprivileged students admissions at the premier law school. Rather we work with them continuously and mentor them and provide academic support and the like to convert them to leading lawyers and luminaries. To this effect, we hope to create CHAMPS out of them: namely lawyers who are Creative, Holistic, Altruistic, Maverick Problem Solvers.

The second trigger was a real eye opener for me. I was once part of a team of disability activists campaigning for a change in the law. A number of books remained out of bounds for the visually impaired and any conversion of such books to accessible formats (Braille etc) would invariably constitute a copyright infringement.

We therefore campaigned for an amendment to exempt such conversions from legal liability. During the course of our interaction with a Parliamentary committee, I made what I thought was a persuasive presentation. Immediately after, a lawyer who was visually impaired presented her perspective as someone who had to struggle her entire life to get to where she was: without access to a majority of the books. That really struck a chord with the committee who gave her a thumping ovation! Her perspective made a far greater impact on them than what I or any of the other lawyers (who were not so differently abled) could hope to achieve.

This incident really opened my eyes to the fact that rather than relying on the privileged to take up cudgels for the underprivileged, one must help them help themselves. This was a far more meaningful way of empowering them.

Could you describe how did IDIA came into being?

The IDIA project was launched through a pilot in the North Eastern state of Sikkim. Along with 4 of my students, I walked into a small government school in the quaint town of Pelling, boasting panoramic views of the Himalayas and some of the oldest Buddhist monasteries. We really walked in on a whim, but what an experience it turned out to be! From a mere two students who meekly raised their hands when we asked how many were interested in law, we had more than 100 hands go up after we finished our spiel about the law and evangelized a bit about its transformative potential and the diverse set of career options now available. Not to mention the considerable face lift that legal education and the law now enjoyed thanks to the stellar success of the NLU model, and the imagery of the hot short corporate lawyer, UN lawyer and the like.

We selected around 8 students from this government school, put them through an intensive training programme, involving building capacity from within their own teachers (we picked the ones that were interested in logical reasoning, puzzles, English, maths etc since these formed the core components of CLAT) and also online learning (we tied up with a local cyber face for this). We also brought them to the NUJS campus where our own students trained them.

Till this time, IDIA mainly ran on my personal money and some from Prof MP Singh.

Once IDIA became too big for our small boots, we formally registered as a Trust in 2011, with the following trustees:

  • Justice Ruma Pal (Former judge, Supreme Court of India)
  • Prof (Dr) MP Singh, Former Vice Chancellor, WB NUJS, Kolkata
  • Shishira Rudrappa (Co-founder, Bar and Bench)
  • Prof (Dr) Shamnad Basheer (Visiting Professor of Law, NLS, Bangalore)

Around this time, we managed to attract financial assistance and support from leading lawyers around the country (mainly those in law firms). Unfortunately, a sustainable funding model has been our greatest challenge.

Many of us who’ve been part of the national law schools, have often lamented and wanted to do something about this lack of diversity and access. The core idea behind IDIA is therefore not that unique! What makes it stand out though is the structuring of it as a student run movement with minimal administrative interference; and the fact that we don’t merely stop with getting underprivileged scholars into the law schools. Our major work begins after they make it to law school as we guide them to blossom to their fullest potential as CHAMPS.

The other thing that makes IDIA unique is the notion that there is no strict benefactor: beneficiary relationship here. Rather all of us who are part of the IDIA juggernaut benefit from this engagement, as it helps us reach our highest potential (or self actualization as Maslow puts it) through this work.

Our student volunteers are being socially sensitized and building up their organizational and leadership skills. Old foggies like me are benefiting extensively from the power of student passion, which keeps us young. And the sheer resilience of our scholars (and their anti fragile nature) teaches us how to convert adversities to advantages day in and day out. And yes, we do believe in taking one day at a time. So the Zen component is huge and our greatest challenge is in trying to scale up and structure without losing the Zen-ness or the student passion!

As an educator how do you think increased diversity would affect classroom teaching? There are fears that it would require dumbing down of lectures-what are your views on that?

Absolutely! Diversity is central to a good education and for helping students open up their minds to more alternative ways of thinking. God knows that in this climate of political strife and the attempt to impose a homogenized notion of what it means to be Indian, we need this ideal more than ever!

Not sure what dumbing down means. If it means speaking the law in a language more accessible to those without premier English medium education, I’m not so sure I’d label it as dumbing down. I’d simply call it a more inclusive way of teaching. One that we must all adopt at our universities! Proficiency in English is not a test of intelligence, wit or wisdom. It is a mere matter of privilege and we want to bust this. As CNR Rao once said: our Einsteins’ are in our villages. We adapted this slightly to: Our Harts are in our villages! And if only we made the effort to locate these legal philosophers and jurists in the making, we’d find that once we equip them with enough English training, they will present perspectives on the law and life that will radically alter our limited frames and present us with a vision for society that we never imagined possible. Indeed that is already happening with some of our scholars struggling to make sense of the legal concepts being taught in law schools when juxtaposed against their experiences back home (such as the lack of property rights in a Manipuri village that boasts a rare range of social harmony and sharing). Am sure some very interesting insights will come out of this struggle and this alternative perspective. And that precisely is what will come out of a diverse student mix! Forcing each one of us to pry open our cozy comfort zones and explore dimensions that cause us some unease and unrest. Expanding our minds and equipping us with a broader vision in the process!

Is it sustainable-High fees at NLUs and IDIA trying to plug the gap by providing scholarships?

Of course not! We need to change this structure, and change it quick! In fact, part of our vision at IDIA is to become redundant over the long term. In other words, there should be no place for an external 3rd party organization such as ours to redress the diversity deficit. The Ecosystem must be evolved enough to self-correct from time to time and embrace diversity as its core theme.

Do you think CLAT is biased and makes it easier for those who had access to quality english-medium education at high school levels to get in? How could the pattern be changed, if needed?

Absolutely! Unfortunately, most of the law and legal literature is in English (at least in common law countries). As are the majority of our court proceedings and other legal dealings. So English is an absolute must and there is no way we can do away with this requirement of a fair degree of proficiency in English. However, CLAT can be made more equitable by ensuing that questions that disadvantage sections of a society (such as questions requiring knowledge of golf, a rich mans’ game) are not posed. And that the paper assesses legal aptitude and not prior knowledge of the law. Prior knowledge of the law would invariably constitute another huge access bottleneck, as it then requires students to study tons of legal tomes and go to expensive coaching centres. And unduly advantages those with prior legal backgrounds!

What sort of economic background did most of your batchmates belong to back in during your LLB days?

We had a fairly diverse pool of students in our batch; at least far more diverse than the present set of students entering the hallowed halls of legal education at the top NLU’s.

Were there many who came from relatively disadvantaged socioeconomic background? How was law school experience for them? Did they participate in debates, moots etc. as much as others? Are they now on par with your other batchmates?

We never did any survey, so it’s difficult to estimate the actual numbers. But we had a batch-mate whose mother worked a menial job at a government school. He went on to work for a London law firm. Similarly see this example we cite in this piece for a Harvard project on the legal profession here:

“Illustratively consider the case of someone from an extremely poor Dalit (untouchable) family in rural Gujarat, who was picked up by a Jesuit priest who trained him and facilitated his admission to NLSIU, Bangalore, many years ago. He went on to do his masters in law (LLM) at the prestigious Columbia University and is now a solicitor with a leading London firm. Recently, he began building a crematorium for his lower caste community (Dalits) in his little village, as the upper caste communities (Patels) refused to let them use the main crematorium in the locality.”

The Harvard paper can be found here.

Did you notice any demographical difference in the batches preceding yours and subsequent to yours?

Yes indeed. As the fee structure went up and the entrance exam became tougher, demanding expensive coaching, the premier NLU’s became less accessible to those in the lower income strata of society.

When I graduated from the National Law School at Bangalore (NLS), it was the last batch that had a sliding scale fee structure; one where the student could pay fees depending on parental income. I had to pay approximately Rs. 5,000 a year, while some of my classmates paid the highest slab that year which was Rs. 25,000.

This ensured that we had a reasonably diverse student composition and an interesting array of perspectives displayed during our classroom discussions. However, for the next batch onwards, the highest slab (Rs. 25,000) was applied to all students, irrespective of whether one belonged to a rich or a poor family.

This drastically changed the student composition at NLS Bangalore and went on to skew it more dangerously in the later years in favour of more homogeneity and elitism.

Chirayu Jain is an advocate.

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