— by Ruma Pal†
I have just returned from attending a memorial service to pay tribute to the memory of Dr Shamnad Basheer held in the offices of IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Awareness). The meeting was small but meaningful and attended not only by members of Shamnad’s family, but also IDIA scholars and others who were associated with Shamnad and IDIA including Shishira Rudrappa. Memories were exchanged and what I will write today is a brief personal account of my association with Shamnad.
When I was associated with NUJS in Kolkata, both as a member of the Executive Council as well as a Professor, Shamnad came from George Washington University in the US to teach Intellectual Property at NUJS. He looked like a student and spoke so well at a lecture that he delivered, that both Dr M.P. Singh, the then Vice-Chancellor and I were persuaded to offer him the post of Chair Professor of the Intellectual Property Department. A few months later he approached both Professor Singh and me with the idea of setting up IDIA as a registered trust. We both agreed. And so began the genesis of what has turned out to be a huge enterprise. That IDIA has grown exponentially is beyond dispute. Shamnad left NUJS and ultimately the office of IDIA was set up at Bangalore. Although he was visiting Professor in Nirma University in Ahmedabad and subsequently of the University of Pennsylvania in the US (UPenn), he chose Bangalore because he was an ex-student of the National Law School there and also because he joined the chambers of an advocate who in fact had an abiding influence on him. It was factors such as these that ultimately led him to form IDIA and also that he had himself struggled to make it through law school.
Because of his extraordinary commitment to his subject—something which led him to even appear as an Amicus Curiae in Novartis case —coupled with his commitment to IDIA, I recommended his name for the Infosys prize—the considerable prize money of which was no doubt used to meet the various commitments he already had including IDIA. By all accounts his generosity was unmatched.
We met earlier this year at UPenn where an international conference on the judiciary was being held. I was no doubt invited by UPenn at the instance of Shamnad. The conference ended somewhat disastrously because of a misunderstanding between the organisers and the invitees. I have written about this in detail in an article in The Hindu. Shamnad as usual played the role of resolving the differences between the organisers and myself. Later that night he had dinner with me in an Italian restaurant and ate well and promptly fell ill. This brings me to two other aspects of his character. He loved eating despite his ill health, something which troubled him greatly. From a strapping young ponytailed man he became almost emaciated.
I remember him being invited to deliver the convocation address in Sikkim University. His talk was so mesmerising that not only the students but the staff and even the guest of honour Mr Pawan Chamling were spellbound. He came despite his ill health and spoke as far as I remember mainly on how one can convert this ill health into strength.
But the most profound aspect of Shamnad’s personality was his deep spirituality—a spirituality which rose above divisions of religion and in pursuit of which in the end he died on the way to Chikmagalur in Karnataka. While at UPenn I had been to the Ramakrishna Mission at New York and had spoken to the Swamiji there, Swami Sarvapriyananda, of him. I had described him as a highly spiritually evolved person to the Swamiji. Subsequently he had been to see the Swamiji and attended his lecture.
I will conclude with an entirely personal note written to me on a book he presented to me last December on the Ashtavakra Gita translated by Thomas Byrom:
“My dearest Ma’am, I cannot even begin to tell you how much you have come to mean to me. I feel a very special bond with you. Almost akin to a part life connect. Given our common search for meaning and appreciation for the metaphysical, I thought you might like this. Much love, Shamnad Basheer.”
He was a multifaceted personality. I am sure the other speakers have their own accounts of their interactions with him. Thank you for this opportunity to speak about someone who I was very close to from our days in NUJS to the last day of his death. Thank you.
— by Mahendra Pal Singh††
Meeting, knowing, working with and sharing many ideas in one to one talks and discussions, private meetings at home or in office or in the assembly of friends, colleagues, students or in academic or semi-academic gatherings in general with Shamnad used to be not only interesting, pleasant and informative but also focussed on human concerns foremost of the students and among them too of those who suffered from natural or social disabilities.
We would have never come in touch with each other but for the fact that I was unexpectedly invited to take over as Vice-Chancellor of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (NUJS) towards the end of 2006 after well over one year of my superannuation from the University of Delhi in 2005. After my joining NUJS towards the end of 2007, the Ministry of Human Resource Development instituted a Chair in Intellectual Property Law at the University. In view of my little acquaintance with IP law and its academic scholars, I sought the advice of Professor N.S. Gopalakrishnan, who happened to be a member of the Academic Council at NUJS and was initially IPR professor at National Law School, Bengaluru from where Shamnad earned his BA, LLB (Hons) degree and thus happened to be a student of Professor Gopalakrishnan. The professor readily suggested two names—Shamnad and James—along with their contact on email and location in Delhi. I contacted both for the Chair. While James expressed his inability to move from his existing position, Shamnad agreed to consider it after seeking some additional information from me. Accordingly, we agreed to meet in Delhi during my next official visit within the next few days. Even though we had never met before, Shamnad could recognise me without much difficulty in the crowded hall where we were expected to meet. His physical appearance and manners gave me the feeling of having known him since long. In a frank and intimate manner he asked me, if I did not have anything else to do in the hall, we could go to a nearby restaurant where we could talk over a cup of tea. We did so and started discussing the purpose of our meeting.
Even though it was our first meeting, without my having any idea of Shamnad’s international eminence as a scholar of IP law, we talked frankly as if we knew each other very well and for long. On my proposal for being considered for the MHRD Chair in IP law, he was quite modest in expressing his doubts whether he fulfilled the criteria for appointment to the Chair. On my assurance on leaving these technical aspects to the University subject to a presentation to the satisfaction of the faculty members, he agreed to make the presentation on a mutually convenient day on any topic of IP law of his choice. The meeting ended at that point. Shamnad arrived for the presentation on the date and time fixed for it. Incidentally, former Judge of the Supreme Court, Ms Justice Ruma Pal, who happened to be the Chair of Human Rights Centre at NUJS also decided to participate in Shamnad’s presentation. Demonstrating his special skills with PPTs and the span of his knowledge of the subject and mesmerising style of its presentation satisfied everyone present of his suitability for the Chair. Ms Justice Ruma Pal was so impressed that she expressed her doubt to me whether Shamnad would accept University’s offer of the Chair. Her statement strengthened my position to convince the Executive Council of the University in getting Shamnad appointed to the Chair without any questions or doubts raised by any member of the Council. It happened exactly that way and Shamnad became a faculty member as IPR Chair Professor at NUJS in November 2008.
As he was a well-known name in IP law through his popular blog “Spicy IP”, expert opinions, reports and other writings, the faculty colleagues as well as the students received him as the beginning of a new era in the life of the university. His overall charming personality, manners and behaviour, work culture and dealings with his colleagues, students, administration and anyone else connected with the University, instantly impressed everyone so much that within a few days of his arrival, he became the most likable and talked about person in the University. Along with his busy academic engagements, he became a centre of attraction for everyone for entertaining their concerns, especially of the weakest and the most disadvantaged ones, in or with the University or even otherwise. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to solve most of the problems of all types initially at his own level and, if required, in consultation with everyone concerned including above all the university administration.
While Shamnad’s popularity was constantly at an upward curve and everything was going on very well with him academically and otherwise, he decided to move out of the University campus accommodation, perhaps to avoid frequent and too much disturbance to his work schedule by his easy accessibility to everyone in the University. The change, however, did not suit him because quite soon he started showing the signs and telling about his ill health. The health issue continued to bother him even after shifting from one place to another until I left NUJS towards the end of 2011. But even during this adversity he did not change his work schedule and besides looking after all routine engagements and earning name as internationally recognised IP scholar for different achievements and award winning positions he also completed his PhD from Oxford University which was hanging in his mind for the last several years.
Besides his remarkable intellectual and human qualities and achievements, Shamnad’s concern for the weak and downtrodden among the University workers and students was most intense and supreme, which I equally, if not more, shared with him and we often discussed it in our free moments to make it part of the University programmes and culture. Quite often we lamented students’ lack of interest in the problems of the common person as well as of those among them who suffered from natural disabilities or because of defective socio-economic set-up and arrangements. We used to think individually and discuss together the ways of focussing students’ attention on some such issues along with their career preferences. It is out of such thinking and discussions that Shamnad came up with the idea of starting a programme different from but side by side the existing programmes in which only students from the most advantageous socio-economic or educational background could participate. Sensitising and engaging socially oriented students to introduce people in disadvantaged sections of the society as well as in the remote areas where people were unaware of the new openings in carrier oriented education such as at the new law universities.
His popularity among the law students not only at NUJS but also in the two other prominent law universities i.e. NLS and Nalsar, attracted the imagination of many students who were looking for new options of meaningful engagement in the law universities. Starting with his own example of visiting remote areas in the north such as Sikkim and nearby backward areas in Sunderbans, giving the direction to students to undertake similar trips and engage themselves in similar awareness programmes initially at NUJS, which in the age of internet attracted the attention of other law universities too, including NLS and Nalsar. Even though NUJS students under Shamnad’s leadership had started this programme without any formal organisational structure, in view of its reception in other law universities, its structuring became imminent and appropriate. In the light of initial objectives and ultimate goals of the programme, Shamnad imaginatively coined its name: Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access: IDIA which expressed true essence and purpose of a well-recognised academic programme in US law schools too for their advancement, socially and academically.
The name with its acronym became a buzzword instantaneously almost in all National Law Universities (NLUs), which were not too many at that time. For the 2011 Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) designed for all the National Law Universities, candidates were given formal instructions and guidance only at NUJS. Out of these candidates, several cracked the admission test and all of them who came within the merit list of any of the NLUs could get admission with financial support and concessions by the admitting university or with the support of IDIA. While all of them came either from the backward areas or poor families, some of them also suffered from physical disabilities. It was of course a major step towards ensuring diversity in NLUs.
With this encouraging first step arose the need of giving IDIA a legal identity and sound structure to ensure its progressive continuity and nationwide expansion. After initial discussion between two of us, either to establish a society or a trust, we decided to establish a trust registered at Kolkata. As I was fast reaching the end of my tenure at NUJS, Shamnad in consultation with Ms Justice Pal and me prepared a trust deed with four trustees—Shamnad as executive trustee, Ms Justice Ruma Pal, me and Shishira as trustees and got it registered at Kolkata.
As on my return to Delhi beginning December 2011, I was appointed Chairperson, Delhi Judicial Academy, I could perform IDIA related functions only to the extent Shamnad assigned any to me while almost singlehandedly he carried all other responsibilities regarding the countrywide organisation and funding of the trust and selection and training of prospective IDIA candidates, admission of the selected IDIA candidates to different law universities, attending their problems during the course of their studies, organising annual gathering of all IDIA candidates in different law universities, and guiding and helping them in getting settled in legal profession or otherwise and much more along with his multiple academic engagements including the university job and “Spicy IP”. Thus, he carried enormous responsibility of running, spreading and strengthening IDIA programme in spite of his constantly decreasing health. But it is the result of such organisational ability and capacity to work hard that he could ensure countrywide success of IDIA programme within a very short span of time. These demands on his time and energy along with his health situation also compelled him not being able to meet all the demands of NUJS administration as IP Chair which forced him to give up that position also in 2014.
After leaving NUJS, Shamnad settled in Bangalore to carry on and expand IDIA related activities along with his numerous IP related activities including his famous blog, IP related major court matters such as his personal appearance in Novartis case in the Supreme Court, Delhi University Copyright case in the Delhi High Court, numerous reports and publications in journals and books, getting invalidated the constitution of Copyright Board, direct and indirect participation in a number of other court matters. For all these and many more activities and achievements he was also awarded prestigious Infosys Prize in 2015. Few months before his demise he also added to his numerous causes and activities the issue of letting the full-time University law professors practise in law courts and started the campaign for obtaining signatures of existing law professors including the retired ones like me. In view of my sad experience of having seen the decline of effective teaching, research and scholarship in Delhi University, Faculty of Law because without such permission many of its full-time professors started court practice even against the displeasure of the
University. Finding the University and myself helpless and target of displeasure of my colleagues, two of my former students, one of whom had just started practice while the other had simply got enrolled without having participated in any litigation, offered to take the matter to the court and filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, which was ultimately decided in their favour. In view of this institutional and personal experience, my conscience could not permit to agree with Shamnad’s suggestion, though I did not ask him to pursue his campaign. That may have disappointed him immensely adding to his health issues. But he never gave me that impression because even two-three days before the news of his sad demise came he wrote to me, perhaps along with other close colleagues, that I should take care of IDIA related activities if anything happens to him anytime because that day he again vomited blood.
The sad news of Shamnad’s demise came at about 8 p.m. on 8-8-2019 when my colleague Niraj sitting in front of me checked his WhatsApp and told me that Shamnad was no more. Without losing my composure, I told Niraj that he had already given a hint to me two, three days ago. Immediately innumerable memories of him, including his last visit to our place few months before, in which having got no relief even during his US visit and having lost further weight, he gave no impression whatsoever of any suffering or fear of losing his life. He prepared some coffee that he was carrying with him also for my wife and me to be gulped in one sip and left with his heavy bags promising to return soon and stay with us to enjoy the food my wife cooked. So sad for both of us that Shamnad could not keep his promise. Knowing well that Shamnad will never come to see us, sound of the words from a movie keep echoing in my head that read somewhat like this:
† Former Judge, Supreme Court of India. Republished with the kind permission of Supreme Court Cases (SCC). First published in the (2020) 1 SCC J-1.