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Memories of Shamnad Basheer well up about a life well lived

Shamnad Basheer when receiving the Infosys prize
Shamnad Basheer when receiving the Infosys prize

Professor Shamnad Basheer’s death last week had not just shocked the legal profession and academia, but has also brought to the surface memories of the many lives that had been touched by him in his short time on earth.

Out of the many already shared by his friends and colleagues, we have included a few recollections that have been shared with us for publication below (if there are any other tributes you would like us to include, please do send these over).

First off, the Deccan Herald’s Nikhil Kanekal has written the definitive obituary of Basheer:

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. Read more...

Rahul Bajaj: The Light Has Gone Out of Our Lives

On Thursday afternoon, as I reached London after a 12 hour long flight from India and opened my phone, the first message that I read shook me to the core. It was from a friend with whom I have done some work for IDIA, informing me of the passing of Professor Basheer. I knew how unwell he has been in recent times but had not heard any news of any deterioration in his health recently. Just three days ago, when I met Prashant Reddy for breakfast, he told me that Professor Basheer was planning to go to Harvard in September.

For quite some time to come, I was hoping to find out that the news that I had read was not true. I imagined Professor Basheer writing to all of us, regaling us with a story of his close shave with death in his inimitable style. He would end with a flourish, potentially with Mark Twain’s quote: “Rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

And yet no such email ever came. I had no choice but to come to terms with the fact that this man, who was at once to me a mentor and a guide, a friend and a philosopher, now belongs to the ages.

Soon after I became a law student, I found out about IDIA. As someone born blind since birth, I was particularly excited to hear about the efforts that the organisation, under Shamnad Sir’s leadership, was taking to equip visually challenged students to crack CLAT. I was particularly thrilled to find out that the organisation was not just paying lip service to the ideals it espoused, as far too many NGOs do, but was actually taking measures, for instance, to ensure that such students were able to thrive in what Shamnad Sir called the ‘hallowed halls of legal learning.’

In 2015, I first spoke on the phone with Shamnad Sir when we were trying to get Justice Zak Yacoob as a keynote speaker for IDIA’s 5th annual conference. That conversation formed the foundation for one of the most transformative relationships in my life. Later that year, principally along with Amar Jain and Anusha Reddy, I helped restart IDIA’s disability vertical with the hope of fostering dialogue on how legal professionals with disabilities could be more fully accommodated in the profession and to break down the barriers preventing this from happening.

Over the next two years, I was able to use the platform that Shamnad Sir provided me, by way of IDIA’s Disability Vertical, to engage in some truly impactful work towards this end. Anusha and I, with some support from other IDIA volunteers, interviewed roughly 20 legal professionals with disabilities from 6 countries. Shamnad Sir cheered us all the way through. ”

We also worked together on Shamnad Sir’s fight for the invalidation of a rule as per which no seats were reserved for the blind in the Andhra Pradesh Judiciary, thereby largely foreclosing the possibility of blind lawyers like IDIA Scholar Arrepalli Naga Babu becoming a judge. In all the other work we did – making representations to government bodies, writing articles on developments in the field of disability law and taking steps to equip IDIA scholars with disabilities with the knowhow to succeed in the profession - Shamnad Sir was always our biggest cheerleader and supporter. When I informed him that my disability prevented me from getting meaningful work at one of India’s leading law firms during an internship, he went out of his way to speak with the firm’s founder and saw to it that the situation was set right.

In March 2016, I also became a SpicyIP fellow. Over the next year, he would often encourage us to put our best foot forward when we wrote for the blog, with such words of encouragement as “Greatly look forward to seeing what direction you take this in!”, challenge our views when the occasion demanded it and never fail to praise us when our articles received some form of external validation.

Writing for the blog afforded me an unparalleled opportunity to write a paper with Shamnad Sir on the need for the Indian Patent Office to be vested with greater independence and competence. Shamnad Sir held himself to very high standards and naturally expected all of us who worked with him to follow suit. That paper underwent more revisions than I can remember. He saw to it that I ensured that every footnote was accurate and that every authority that we referred to was up-to-date.

All the things that I have enumerated above are the indicia of a brilliant legal mind and a great mentor. Wonderful though these qualities are, there are many people out there who possess them. No, they were not what made Shamnad Sir special.

What made him special was the booming voice with which he would greet me with “Rahul!” whenever we spoke. That greeting, which exuded so much warmth and affection, was enough to put even someone like me who is often guarded when interacting with people at ease. He took enormous personal interest in the lives of all those he knew well. When I told him my sister was going to get married in 2 months, “We mean so little to you that you did not even call us for the wedding?” he asked me indignantly [I assured him that the invitations had not been issued yet].

Once, soon after inadvertently sharing a lead for a potential SpicyIP article in the form of a picture which did not contain an image description and hence was inaccessible to me, he realised his error. “Very insensitive of me! and terribly hypocritical when we can’t walk the walk ourselves,” he immediately wrote.

When I met him for Anusha’s wedding during which he and I spent a great deal of time together, I discussed with him how he was coping with his debilitating illness. “As you can uniquely appreciate,” he said, “it has made manifest to me, in a visceral way, the challenges that are faced by many disabled students whose interests IDIA seeks to advance.” When I asked him what kept him moving forward despite his illness, he told me, “You cannot allow it to prevent you from living your life fully, you know,” while helping himself to more of the delicious food on offer and noting how the menu gave rise to the phenomenon of overchoice.

In 2017, after I got the Rhodes Scholarship, for which he had kindly written a reference for me, his was one of the first wishes I received – “So so happy and so so proud,” he exclaimed. When he found out about the case that I have filed in the Indian Supreme Court to make the country’s judicial infrastructure accessible to the disabled, he took great personal interest in the progress of the case, remarking “Well done already, Rahul!” on learning that the Supreme Court had agreed to issue notice to all the country’s High Courts and to its own registry.

After a lifetime of struggling to reform systems and processes that do not serve the objectives for which they were set up, it would be natural to expect a person to become disillusioned and embittered. So many such people that one meets experience a certain hardening of the heart, their emotional energy and vitality getting demented by the years of struggle and effort. Not Shamnad Basheer. He always imbued everything that he touched with so much warmth and compassion, energy and interest. Last year, even as he was not keeping well, he made it a point to have a detailed conversation with me before I left for Oxford. In that conversation, he told me, “Rahul, I often tell people that you will be India’s first visually challenged Supreme Court judge.”

Like the rest of us, Shamnad Sir was not free from imperfections. Those of us who have worked closely with him on any project vividly recall being on the receiving end of his inexplicable flashes of anger, his mood-swings and rigidity in adhering to certain views, once he had made his mind up about them. If you learnt how to negotiate these patterns of behavior which he sometimes exhibited, however, you would not get bogged down by them and be able to fully appreciate all his wonderful qualities which I have described above. In that sense, he was not a saint, in Nelson Mandela’s famous words, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who never stops trying.

They don’t make ‘em like Shamnad Basheer anymore. I will close this post with a few lines of tribute that I have written for Shamnad Sir, which I am confident he would have appreciated, given his love of poetry.

You left us too soon,

Courageous and bold and gifted with a heart of pure gold,

You got taken from us,

Only 43 years old –

You were our lodestar, the person we aspired to become,

Through your effort and vision, courage and determination,

You helped achieve goals,

Which for most of us were only an aspiration –

We will miss your warmth and kindness,

Your fearlessness and the fire in your belly,

But we can pay no greater tribute to you,

Than to try and embody those values, no matter where we find ourselves, in whichever life alley –

The light has gone out of our lives,

But we will continue to endure,

For only then can we help take forward All that you stood for.

Deepak Raju (first published on Facebook):

To Sir, with love

In the life of institutions, there sometimes comes a brief period of idealistic optimism; a window when despite the limitations and bureaucratic hurdles of the real world, people dream of accomplishing great things. Such a period began for NUJS when I was a third year law student there. Professor MP Singh had taken over as the new Vice Chancellor, and had brought a handful of young and idealistic academics with him. For a moment, it appeared (at least to us students) that they would emerge victorious against the Old Guard who wanted to preserve status quo. From a typical Indian educational institution which spent all its energy on petty bureaucratic fights and on making lives as difficult as can be for the students (and faculty), NUJS suddenly turned around. There was talk of academic reform, there were classes worth attending even without perks of additional marks for attendance, people and the institution set their eyes on excellence, and suddenly, ensuring that the students were locked up in the hostels at 9 pm was no longer the university’s highest priority.

It was into that climate that Professor Shamnad Basheer walked in. The Intellectual Property nerds like my friend Mathews immediately took to him. A lot of women on campus immediately took note of his physique. Being neither an IP-nerd nor a woman, I withheld my judgment till much later.

One day, I needed an NUJS letterhead to publish some notice for the Moot Court Society. The nearest source for that stuff, since it was late and the administrative offices were closed, was Professor Basheer’s office. So, I walked in and asked to borrow one. The response was, “naattil evideyaa?” (from which part of Kerala do you come?). What was meant to be an in-and-out visit to borrow a letterhead became a much longer chat, where he asked a number of questions about me.

One little detail I vividly remember from that first conversation is that he shared one of the lamest jokes I have ever heard in my life – “agar Rupa ki underwear pahanoge to Rupa kya pahanegi?”. Many years later, I returned the favour, by proposing (against Rukmini’s advice to the contrary), that one of his IP initiatives should adopt the motto, “IP, You P, We all P, for IP”. I know that is lame. But he laughed heartily. This is not to say Professor Basheer’s sense of humor was lame like mine. He had a range. He would chuckle at the lamest pun (like the time he suggested someone in the arbitration world, who was giving me a hard time, was worthy of being called an “arbitrator” because he was “arbit[rary]” and a “traitor”); but he also had the funniest long stories, like the one about a time when he was asked to hold an enquiry into a fight that broke out at a student farewell party, and got all confused by the nicknames by which the students referred to each other in their testimonies. He took a lot of pride in having convinced two nerdy students that the secret to his superior intellect was coconut toddy; when asked if he would share some, he warned them that it came with a cost – one had to trade one’s “potency” for the toddy’s brain-enhancing powers.

During my time at NUJS, Professor Basheer never taught me in a classroom. In fact, whenever I needed it, he even provided me excuses to skip the boring classes. But that did not prevent him from becoming a teacher to me in the true sense.

When he launched IDIA, a number of students including me were immediately drawn to the idea. As simple as the concept sounds, it was not an uncontroversial one. Among the students, there were those who felt (and said) that Professor Basheer’s idea of going to the remote villages and encouraging students from underprivileged backgrounds would fill NUJS with “dehati” kids who would dilute its brand. Being someone whose hometown and accent were far from fashionable in NUJS (dehati, if you prefer that word), I loved the cause and volunteered.

As a volunteer for IDIA, I soon discovered that IDIA was not all about dreams and happy thoughts; there was backbreaking work to be done, and Professor Basheer was a task-master. When the first batch of IDIA scholars appeared for CLAT, and many successfully cleared it, the task of working out who would make it to which law school on what quota fell on me. Of course, Professor Basheer was not the type to patiently wait till the law schools published their own lists; he wanted to know ASAP; he wanted to be ready if the law schools made a mistake. The fact that I was doing this from Nedumkandam with slow and intermittent internet was no excuse he would accept. My phone rang every five minutes or so.

After I left NUJS, Professor Basheer and I remained in regular touch. When I was working in Bombay, he came visiting. I remember him telling my friend and housemate Ramanuj to quit his job; and he did. Soon after I moved to Delhi, he called to say a law school was arbitrarily refusing to admit a scholar who had qualified in the CLAT, and needed help suing the law school. He put together an army of lawyers and law students, working from Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Gandhinagar, and the law school changed its position in less than a week. That student has now graduated. When it was time for my LLM applications, he agreed to be one of my referees and said a bunch of very kind things in his references.

When I got married in December 2016, Professor Basheer made the journey to my hometown, Nedumkandam, despite his failing health. That must have been a truly exhausting journey, given that getting to Nedumkandam requires 3-4 hours of travel by winding hilly roads from the nearest airport. But the exhaustion did not dampen his spirits. My mother-in-law remembers him fondly for referring to my father-in-law as “uncle” but not referring to her as “auntie”. My wife’s cousin, a medical student in the US, remembers Professor Basheer for his advice that he do part of his training in India to acquaint himself with our richer collection of diseases. Another friend remembers his metaphysical rant about how it might be possible to turn people into potato salads. The hotel staff must remember him as the person who, when Rukmini scolded them for not getting things done, came to their defence, telling her that it was Christmas eve and it was ok for the hotel staff to disappear for a drink or two.

The night of my wedding, my father-in-law caught Professor Basheer working very late into the night. He even lectured Rukmini on how we should emulate our Professor’s hardworking nature. The next morning, we found out what he was working, so hard, on. He was writing a piece for the IDIA blog, where he rendered a very kind and somewhat exaggerated telling of Rukmini’s and my association with IDIA, and expressing his joy at being a part of our wedding.

A few months later, he visited us in Geneva, and stayed for a few days. Again, his health condition made his trip difficult, but did not dampen his spirits. His stay here was packed with meetings with his old friends, and who-is-who of the IP world. He also got us hooked on amaranth cookies, his preferred healthy snack. The Tibetan prayer flags he brought us on that visit catch wind and do their thing whenever we leave the windows open in the Geneva summer.

A couple of months ago, as I was waiting for my bus to office, I got a call from Professor Basheer. He started with the usual “da Deepak-e”. Without any exchange of pleasantries, he dived straight into the reason for his call. He was watching the live-streaming of oral arguments in a case before the International Court of Justice. He found one of the lawyers very impressive in his style. Not an expert in international law himself, he wanted me to tell him if the guy was right on the substance. I promised to get back to him. He then went on to talk about the importance of advocacy skills and what we could do to help IDIA scholars on that front. Fast forward a few months and the ICJ judgment in that case was released. I wrote an op-ed piece on the judgment, and made a mental note to send it to Professor Basheer in partial response to his question. But my piece got the final greenlight for publication as I was boarding a flight for a few days of travel, and I never got to send him that email. That is a conversation we will never get to complete.

But, thankfully, that was not our last conversation. Last month, after the oral hearing in one of my WTO cases, I messaged Professor Basheer to say that one of his friends was working with us on the case. He replied, “Terrific! You’re into all the leading stuff. So proud of you”. Since his departure, I have read that text a hundred times. I try to take some solace in the fact that his last words to me were “so proud of you”. After his departure, I have reconnected with many of our common friends to support each other through our grief. Surprisingly, many of them, despite years without contact, were well updated on my work, thanks to the very kind (and perhaps embellished) stories he had told them about me. I have lost someone who cheered every baby-step I took, and feel the immense pressure to suddenly adult.

It is customary to say “rest in peace” when someone passes. But, I don’t think Shamnad Basheer will. If there is a realm beyond ours, I am sure he is already arguing with whoever runs it (he always insisted it was a “She”) as to why its rules need a comprehensive overhaul. He’s probably already published a few blog posts and a book on the subject. He has probably started an initiative to make that realm better and more inclusive, and sent an army of volunteers to the remote corners of that realm with that mission. Whatever he’s doing, he’s not resting; nor is he letting anyone else in his proximity rest.

Looking through his old emails to me, I see one from 2016, in which he sought my help with a moot problem he was setting for his students. Since the problem involved not just his core field of IP, but also international investment law, he shared it with me and a few others to solicit our views. It opens with, “The year: 2030”. His imagination then dreams up a technology for the living to talk to the departed, and a legal dispute regarding its patent protection.

Talk to you in 2030, dear Professor; dearest friend.

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