ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS TO FIND THE LAW SCHOOL RIGHT FOR YOU

Professor (Dr) Shamnad Basheer is the Founder and Managing Trustee of IDIA, a project to train underprivileged students for admissions to the leading law schools. He is the founder of the popular Indian intellectual property blog, SpicyIP, and was rated as one of the top 50 IP personalities internationally for the year 2014-15 by MIP (Managing Intellectual Property). He holds two academic positions currently: as the Honorary Research Chair of IP Law at Nirma University and a visiting professor of law at the National Law School, Bangalore. He’s held several distinguished academic positions in the past including:

  1. The Ministry of Human Resource Development Professor in Intellectual Property Law at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (2008-2014)
  2. Frank H Marks Visiting Associate Professor of Intellectual Property Law at the George Washington University law school
  3. Research associate at the Oxford Intellectual Property Research Center (OIPRC) (2006-2010)

Apart from IDIA and SpicyIP, Prof Basheer is the founder of other initiatives such as P-PIL (a synergistic collaboration between legal academia and the legal profession to promote public interest goals).
After graduating from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, Professor Basheer joined Anand and Anand, one of India’s leading IP firms. He went on to lead the firms’ telecommunication and technology practice and was rated as a leading technology lawyer by the IFLR. He then went on to do his post-graduate studies at the University of Oxford, where he completed the BCL, MPhil, and DPhil as a Wellcome Trust scholar.

In the past, he has been an invited research fellow at the Institute of Intellectual Property (IIP), Tokyo, an International Bar Association (IBA) scholar and an Inter Pacific Bar Association (IPBA) scholar. He has published widely in leading journals and books and his articles on Indian patent law have won awards instituted by ATRIP and by Stanford Technology Law Review. He is consulted widely by the government, industry, international organisations and civil society on a variety of IP policy issues. He also serves on several government committees including the Expert and Benefit Sharing Committee of the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).

He served for two years as an expert on the IP global advisory council (GAC) of the World Economic Forum (WEF). He also engages with the courts routinely on public interest issues and presented arguments before the Supreme Court of India in the Novartis patent dispute in his capacity as academic intervenor-amicus. For his various contributions to intellectual property law and to legal education, he was awarded the 2014-15 Infosys Prize (in the Humanities category) by a jury headed by Nobel Laureate, Prof Amartya Sen.

Pure passion! A zest for life and all that it has to offer!

What inspired you to study law and take up teaching as a profession? And how has your experience in Indian legal academia been?

I argued constantly as a child. Driving my parents and those around me up the wall! I also reacted very quickly to issues of manifest injustice. So I guess law was a natural fit for me. Though I must say that, being from a traditional Kerala muslim family, the pressure to become a doctor or engineer with a potential seven figure dowry was immense! So you can imagine my poor parents’ plight when I dropped biology in class 11 and ruled out ever becoming a doctor. Though, through a strange quirk of fate, I now end up reading tons of biology, thanks to the various biotech patent cases that I have to keep up with! And in what will certainly be the best solace for the spirit of my mom, I finally managed to become a doctor as well. Though of the academic variety (PhD) and not a medical doctor!

As for taking up the torch of teaching, it was through a series of serendipitous scores. I had all plans of returning to India and rejoining Anand and Anand (the IP law firm I used to work with) after my BCL (LLM) at Oxford. But the year went by so fast that I hardly got to experience Oxford and its wonderful cross cultural spirit and natural beauty. My then supervisor, Professor David Vaver, egged me on to stay back for the MPhil and DPhil (PhD). As luck would have it, I landed a well-endowed scholarship that would cover me for the next 3 years!

Just after I’d finished my MPhil, a chance email correspondence with a faculty member at the George Washington University Law School in Washington DC saw me interviewing for a position there. Soon enough, I landed my first teaching job in the US. In 2008, while on a long break to India (in the scenic hills of Darjeeling), I bumped into the wonderful Prof MP Singh (the then VC of WB NUJS) who convinced me to come and join a stellar group of faculty at NUJS. And be part of an ambitious plan to revolutionise legal education in India. I was struck! Just a month away from taking up a coveted research position at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. And I threw it all up to be a part of that vision.

I had a terrific time at NUJS till around 2012 when Prof Singh retired. Post Prof Singhs’ tenure, the experience wasn't that great, and the rigorous academic fervor dipped and the vision for legal education began to get hazy. Added to this was the resurgence of petty politics and an era of vengeful vendetta! If we are serious about reforming legal education in India, we have to first resuscitate NLU’s from the fanciful whims of VC’s who enjoy a near diabolical discretion and place these institutions on firmer moorings. Anyway, I ended up resigning my chaired professorship at NUJS in 2014, and have been teaching part time since then. The rest of my time goes to IDIA, SpicyIP and the several other social entrepreneurship ventures that I am part of. Unfortunately, owing to a rather mysterious illness that struck me some years ago, I have not been able to travel much and do as much work as I would have liked to! But on the positive side, the illness has taught me infinite patience, fortitude and the ability to convert adversity to advantage (being confined largely indoors means that I get to cut out a lot of crap that come with physical meetings, conferences and the like!)

What is your take on the present state of legal education in the country?

Gosh! Where do I start? While we’ve achieved some success with our innovative reforms (such as the evolution of the NLU model by the pioneering Professor Madhav Menon), we still have a long way to go if we are create a world class ecosystem for legal education in India! For one, we need a clear vision for legal education. What sort of a lawyer do we wish to create out of our law schools? Legal technocrats that will play the role of well oiled transaction cost engineers? Or revolutionaries who will be the change makers of tomorrow, busting societal barriers and puncturing prevalent paradigms? If the latter, we need to do much more more! For one, we need to find a way to incentivize more out of the box thinkers to come into the law schools and inspire the current set of students. Most of whom exhibit a herd mentality and pick professions based on glamour and glory (and money of course), rather than passion! We need faculty members who will inspire them to break out of their cosy cocoons and chart into uncharted waters. We need more diversity in the law schools to shake them up a little bit! And this is where IDIA comes in. For it is a project meant to bring in a distinct set of students from underprivileged India who will walk and talk a different language than the privileged elite and hopefully cause them to revisit many of their assumptions and break out of their comfort zones! We need to unleash a lot more creativity at these law schools. Create more lateral and less literal lawyers! The law schools should not just be about learning the legal code, but the Da Vinci Code as well, where we bust the sharp silos of education by fostering an engagement with multiple knowledge domains…a cross pollination of sorts, in the style and manner of Da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man and possibly the worlds’ greatest innovator!

What are the most satisfying/gratifying moments of being a teacher? According to you, what are the most important traits/qualities to become a teacher?
The sheer process of engaging with students, revisiting my own assumptions and getting wiser from their responses is exhilarating! Keeps me young at heart! And constantly on my toes.
An open mind is one of the most important faculties required for a good teacher. As also the ability to view “teaching” not so much as a top down imposition, but a joint journey of adventure and excitement, with the ship sailing forth often into secret uncharted seas. Put another way, the main job of a teacher is not to unilaterally transmit a set of norms or values or knowledge nuggets to students, but to facilitate their inner journey, enabling them to find the answers for themselves….. or, in the wise words of Abraham Maslow, to help them “self actualize” and rise to their highest potential!

Many are fan of your writing, even your FB posts. Who are your favorite authors and books? And your tips on improving writing skills? I’m a huge follower of the “flow” theory by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (his surname is actually pronounced as “Chicks-sent-me-high”: and I figured this was the one reason I connected so well with him, for chicks have sent me high as well !). Flow is nothing more than a distillation of a core concept from ancient Indian that went by the name of “Dhyan”. This then transmuted to “Chan” in China and later “Zen” in Japan. I find that I flow best when I write. So I guess I’ve been fortunate in that it comes naturally to me. As for tips: always write from the heart! And write primarily to express yourself…..for yourself. Let it flow forth naturally. Don't force it and don’t ever pander to an audience.... it’s the worst sin you can commit whilst writing and it will clearly show! As for my favourite books, let me be a bit lazy and just reproduce what I’d stated in one of my earlier interviews.
  1. “My experiments with truth” (by MG Gandhi): Unfortunately, the Mahatma is a much maligned figure today, thanks to his less than clean track record on “caste” (see debates with Ambedkar and his sophisticated sophistry in attempting to distinguish Varna from caste) and “chaste” (coaxing his grand-niece, Manuben to lie down nude with him to prove his abstinence, tellingly captured in a piece titled “The Thrill of the Chaste”). Still, I find this book of his one of the most honest accounts ever…of a national leader with the balls to bare all and expose his failings. Pardon my French! The book’s central theme is one that will resonate with any seeker of truth: that if we are to transcend the material and reach for the metaphysical, we have to constantly experiment with ourselves and live out the truths that we purportedly stand for!
  2. “Lord of the Flies” (William Golding): Thanks to the enthralling classes of my then English teacher, Mr WR Gardner, this book continues to haunt me to this day! With keen insights into human nature and our animal instincts, it offers so many lessons for our current debates on the individual versus the collective and the role of rules/laws/norms.
  3. “Conference of the Birds” (a 12th century Persian book by Farid Ud-Din Attar): Given my spiritual leanings, this book of verses is one of my favourites. An extremely creative narrative where a bunch of birds fly forth in search of the legendary Simgarh, an allegory for our relentless pursuit of a higher truth/ideal.
  4. And lastly, in the realm of pure fiction (or perhaps there was truth to this as well), I was immensely gripped by Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” —it messed with my head, and brought home the truth that perhaps all of life is nothing more than a mere illusion! And that the truth comprises competing alternatives, served up to suit our peculiar predicaments!

One personality in the legal fraternity whom you admire the most and why?

The legendary Nani Palkhivala certainly! By far! We’ve never had any like them. A sagacious soul blessed with the best of legal brilliance, wit, charm, courage and most important of all, a wonderful heart that beat for all of India, particularly the marginalised.

His powers of persuasion (he swung most of the judges in the famed Kesavananda Bharati case in favour of the basic structure doctrine), impeccable integrity (he returned Mrs Gandhi’s brief after she declared the Emergency), insightful articulation on a range of issues (law, education, politics, philosophy etc), diplomacy (he was India’s ambassador to the US) and financial wizardry (he could deconstruct any budget with blazing precision and was jokingly known as the best Finance Minister that India never had) are legendary!

In many ways he is the near perfect embodiment of the various attributes inherent to our CHAMPS project at IDIA, where we seek to create lawyers that are Creative, Holistic, Altruistic and Maverick Problem Solvers.

The most important legal lesson you learnt at law school.

I suspect that, as with many from my age group, most of our important legal lessons came in spite of our classes, not because of it! Or to borrow from the memorable Mark Twain: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. And this was the beauty of the National Law School model: that it offered us considerable scope to learn outside the classroom, through constant engagement with peers and seniors, moot courts, debates, internships etc.

This is not to take away from the terrific professors we had and the stellar inspiration they provided. But sadly, they were few and far between. I remember this one legal subject that I was utterly besotted by: perhaps the first subject that really caught my fancy at law school. (I’m not naming the subject, only because it would invariably identify the faculty member in question). Anyway, I frequented the library and read up most of the literature I could find on this subject. Come exam time, and I wrote what I thought were fairly nuanced answers reflecting a rather deep engagement with the subject. Imagine my utter shock when I got one of the lowest grades in class, I rushed to the faculty member and cried out, stating that I deserved more. And reeled off of the thick stack of legal tomes that I had religiously read in a bid to enlighten myself on the deep philosophical underpinnings of the subject. Pat came the reply: Why did you have to waste your time! Couldn't you have simply read my notes? And that pretty much summed up the vast majority of our classes then. You simply photocopied the copious notes truthfully transcribed by top ranking students of your class and parroted as much as you could during the exam.

Sorry to sound negative, but I had to get that out! Anyway, in terms of lessons learnt at law school, I remember this one time when there was a message on our college notice board (at NLS, Bangalore) stating that Muslims who wished to celebrate Eid could take the day off and go to the mosque etc if they wished. But classes would go on as normal. As you can imagine, this really ticked me off! While friends cautioned me against taking on the administration particularly since I wasn’t too particular about celebrating Eid, I immediately wrote up a nice polite note to the Vice Chancellor stating that if this be the case (that classes would continue), the same norm ought to be followed for all other religions holidays as well, including Diwali, Christmas etc. Prof Mitra, the then Vice Chancellor was incredibly gracious in accepting this error and immediately made amends!

This incident may have sowed the seeds of cause lawyering in me and taught me two valuable lessons for life: one was to always speak out against injustice, wherever they might be and howsoever minor they might seem at that point. And secondly, the best way to redress an injustice was to first open a dialogue with the alleged perpetrator, without necessarily assuming that they were one’s adversaries, to be outsmarted at any cost in an adversarial zero sum game! A philosophy that continues to inform many of our battles at IDIA. Prior to taking GNLU to court over their wrongful denial of admission to one of our IDIA scholars (Donnie Ashok), we exchanged several emails and phone calls with the GNLU administration to attempt to resolve this amicably. It was only when this failed that we went to court.

What is your vision about the impactful and popular IDIA campaign?

We have a rather radical goal/vision for IDIA. Which is to ensure that we become redundant in the next 30-40 years! And that is the target that we have set for ourselves! We are of the strong belief that there should be no place for a third party organization such as IDIA to intervene for the specific purpose of ensuring access for the marginalised to premier law schools and the top echelons of the legal profession Rather the ecosystem itself should be evolved enough to embrace such diversity and inclusion even absent an external impetus! This vision ensures that we don’t merely confine ourselves to the micro level challenges and tinker around the edges to make small gains, but continuously think through ways in which to transform the ecosystem as a whole. Utopian? Maybe! But as someone once said: Though perfection be an ideal, we must always strive towards it! Or as Dr Ambedkar put it in relation to equality: “Equality may be a fiction but nonetheless one must accept it as a governing principle.”

Anybody who has met you (even once) admires your enthusiasm, positivity and charm. What’s the secret?

I’m not so sure about the charm, but I’d like to believe the enthusiasm and positivity bit. The secret? Pure passion! A zest for life and all that it has to offer! And a keen sense of wonder. As a school kid, we were taught this song by the Carpenters and the words remain forever etched in my heart: “Such a feeling’s coming over me. There is wonder in most everything I see”! I guess it is this “wonder” that keeps me going!