Shamnad Basheer: A ‘guiding light’ fades away

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One of the dearest mentors of the legal profession dies at the age of 43

Shamnad Basheer, a well-known and highly regarded legal scholar, teacher, writer, activist and lawyer, has unexpectedly passed away at the relatively young age of 43. An intellectual property rights expert, he is perhaps best known as the person behind SpicyIP, India’s leading blog for intellectual property (IP) and innovation law, which he founded in 2005.

Shamnad BasheerMr Basheer is remembered also for his efforts to expand the understanding of the intricacies of IP law in the courts. Reacting to the news of his demise, Justice Aftab Alam, a former judge of the Supreme Court whose courtroom Mr Basheer most famously appeared in during the Novartis Glivec patent case in 2013, said: “It was no time for him to die. He was one of the best that the national law school has produced. The world of legal research, law teaching and genuine legal activism is much poorer by his demise.”

Among Mr Basheer’s many achievements was the founding of Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA), a non-profit organization that he set up in 2010, which seeks to increase diversity in legal education. Mr Basheer was concerned that legal education especially in the top-rung National Law Schools suffered from a noticeable lack of diversity within the student population. Over the years IDIA has helped scores of high school students from under-represented communities gain admission to India’s top law schools after first making them aware of the benefits of law as a viable and lucrative career.

Karthika Annamalai, an associate at AZB & Partners, is one of the many who benefited from Mr Basheer’s vision for access to legal education. Paying tribute to his memory she said: “For many of us IDIA scholars, Professor Basheer was a fatherly presence who always had our backs – he was our guiding light. It was his courage and conviction to always stand up for equality and against injustice that inspired many of us to dare study the law and accomplish what we believed to be impossible.”

As an academic, Mr Basheer taught first at the George Washington University Law School in Washington DC where he was a visiting professor of IP law. In 2008 he returned to India to a chaired professorship in IP law at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Studies in Kolkata.

Mr Basheer’s first job after graduating from the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, was at Anand and Anand in New Delhi. Saikrishna Rajagopal, managing partner of Saikrishna & Associates, began his career at the same firm. Describing Mr Basheer as “a wonderful colleague at work, a beloved friend in life and a tenacious adversary in court” Rajagopal said: “He was truly a pioneer in his field and he had this incredible capacity to love and nurture despite all his physical sufferings.”

Mr Basheer, who had received the Infosys Prize in Humanities in 2015 for his work on legal education and on democratizing the discourse around IP law and policy, had been unwell for some time.

After his time at Anand and Anand, where he eventually headed the firm’s telecommunication and technology practice, he went to the University of Oxford where he pursued and achieved a BCL, MPhil and DPhil as a Wellcome Trust scholar.

Mr Basheer had been an editorial board member of India Business Law Journal since the first issue in June 2007 and supported the publication over the years.

“I am devastated by this tragic news,” said James Burden, the publisher of India Business Law Journal. “Shamnad was an amazing person, not only a brilliant legal mind, but someone who was genuinely committed to doing good in the world. Countless people’s lives are better because of Shamnad. His death is a terrible loss not only for the legal profession, but for society as a whole.”

Passionate about his beliefs

Justice Aftab Alam, a former judge of the Supreme Court, who presided over the landmark Novartis Glivec patent case in 2013, recollects the time Professor Basheer addressed his court

I knew Shamnad more by his reputation, hearing from others about his brilliance and steadfast convictions. I had not met him then.

My first encounter with him was at the hearing of the Novartis case at the Supreme Court. During the course of the long hearing, I could see someone sitting in the second row along with Gopal Sankaranarayanan, now a senior advocate, intently watching the court proceedings. At that time, I did not know Shamnad by face and had only vaguely heard about him as a graduate of the national law school, deeply interested in the law of patents. I didn’t pay much attention to the young man sitting in court, until at one stage in the proceedings he came up to the lectern, introduced himself as Professor Basheer (I was then able to place him), and said that he did not represent any of the parties in the case.

Nonetheless, having regard to the great importance of the matter and the far-reaching consequences the decision of the court was likely to have on issues of public health in the country, he said he would very much like to address the court. We agreed to hear him more as an indulgence to the apparent earnestness of a young man. But we soon realised that he was giving us valuable inputs more in the nature of an amicus and as someone quite disinterested in the result of the case from a material point of view.

It was clear that he passionately believed in what he considered to be the correct and honest contours of the law of patents and he expressed his views with great facility of expression. I have seldom come across such passion, combined with such ability and competence.

Later on, I continued to hear about his works and his achievements as a teacher and scholar. I came to know that he had set up an organization to help and prepare children from less privileged backgrounds for admission into the national law schools with a view to alter the class composition of the law schools and to make them more egalitarian. I was also aware that he managed to do all of this while battling some undiagnosed ailment, which caused him much physical pain.

Last March he wrote to me to say that he was now a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and that he was organizing a workshop on IPR for a group of senior law students and professors visiting India. On his invitation, I attended the workshop and found him at his intellectual best there.

Last evening I heard the shocking news of his passing. It was no time for him to die. He was one of the best that the National Law School has produced. The world of legal research, law teaching and genuine legal activism is much poorer by his demise.

A legal rockstar from the start

Ameet Datta, a partner at Saikrishna & Associates pays his tribute to his close friend

Shamnad and I interviewed together at Anand and Anand on the same day in late 1999. There I was with my (rather inadequate) resume, straining, even double spaced, to complete one page and there sat Sham, smug as only NLS law school grads could be with his glittering resume, complete with copies of his published, outstanding academic papers and articles on patent law and other topics. The first thing I ever said to him was “Was it necessary for you to interview along with me?” He laughed and told me not to worry.

Sham was viewed from the beginning as a legal rockstar – this was no empty description. He quickly demonstrated he was capable of unbundling complex legal issues and always seemed to be working. This man worried me as a colleague. There was simply no getting ahead with Sham. Yet, when I committed a terrible faux pas as an associate by refusing to do some task I thought was too menial, Sham declared that he too would leave the firm if I had to leave. There was no real reason for him to do so as we didn’t know each other well at the time. But, Mr Pravin Anand, who by then had taken Sham under his wing and loved him like a son, looked at me and pretty much let my idiocy slide there and then. This in essence was Sham. His love and empathy especially for underdogs propelled him in many things he did.

Sham could have had all the wealth and success the legal profession had to offer in India or elsewhere. Yet, he chose to reject this life and threw himself into academics. I often asked him why and he said, “I think I will make more of a real difference as an academic.” Sham was not one to continue to toe a client’s line. For him, the law meant much more. He was heavily criticised by pharma generic and originator companies when in a standout paper he essentially suggested a policy middle path relating to data exclusivity for pharma test data by calling for a compulsory licensing regime for such data. Sham enjoyed this battle and, I suspect, he enjoyed the fight for the sake of the fight if the issue was one that he cared deeply about.

Sham was always ready to take up cudgels for underdogs. His championing of student interests in a DU [Delhi University] case put a serious strain on his relationship with my firm which was acting for the publishers. Yet his love for me (and my love for him) and his deep relationship with Sai [Saikrishna & Associates managing partner Saikrishna Rajagopal] went on unabated, with the screaming matches finally being conclusively drowned in many, many drinks, tears and eventually battered into submission by a lot of backslapping.

In the end, Sham weighed around 40 kilos. A mysterious illness, immune system-related, left him gaunt and unable to bear even the slightest variation in temperature. He always ran a temperature and was often unwell. I think that while he was always spiritually inclined and would often call excitedly from Sikkim or some other place declaring he had at last found his spiritual master, his illness made him question this world and his place in it even more. I would like to think he reached a place of acceptance and peace which most of us, even those spiritually inclined, would struggle to reach.

I met Monica when she interned with Sham and he was overjoyed when we married a few years later. Monica idolised Sham. Sham told me on 3rd August how proud he was of what Monica had achieved.

My daughter Tara is distraught that Sham has gone. They would spend time chatting with each other about her life and friends. This wasn’t a one-sided conversation where the grown up asked all the questions but a conversation among equals. This was his natural ability – something I saw in his students who milled around him, eyes full of love and respect for him but also knowing that they could connect with him as if he was their age. IDIA was an expression of Sham’s love for young people and the promise that students from disadvantaged backgrounds held for our country. Sham never requested help for IDIA, he demanded it and you gave it. And it felt good when he patted you on the back.

I keep asking him when he would come to Delhi. ‘Soon da’ was his standard response. Sham’s last message to me was on 3rd August “I will heal soon and come to you. Either in the body or the spirit. You know how I love the metaphysical! That’s a promise! Lots of love to you and the magical mons and the treasure that is Tara.”

He left then. All of us lost him. Lost a part of us. I will wait for you my brother.