Shamnad Basheer, My Friend – An Enigma, A Troubled Soul

Shamnad’s big idea was that diversity was not charity by the rich, but that the privileged were benefiting – a radical thought.

Prof. Shamnad Basheer At the IDIA Awards 2016. (Photograph: IDIA)    
Prof. Shamnad Basheer At the IDIA Awards 2016. (Photograph: IDIA)   

The common man would probably not have heard of Shamnad Basheer, a 43-year-old professor of intellectual property who died earlier this week. But for civil society and the legal community, it’s a great loss that we will never overcome. As someone commented on social media on Thursday, there has never before been such an outpouring of emotion, from so many different people, for an IP lawyer.

Although I was at the National Law School at the same time that Shamnad was studying there, I didn’t know him well. That is to say, that I knew that he was a student, but we didn’t interact much. We were not in the same class and our extracurricular activities were different. He was a charming Adonis-like judoka.

Although we knew of each other over the years, it wasn’t until 2011 that he called me, out of the blue, to talk about a project that he had conceptualised. That project became Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access —which at its heart, recognised diversity as a value, not just a means to equality. This was an original and novel thought that we discussed and it was a turning point in my life. I had, during my time in law school, written an amicus brief in a matter before the Supreme Court on the need for a limitation on reservations. We argued that reservations were a limitation on merit, efficiency, and progress in a market economy. How wrong we were then, and Shamnad presented me with an opportunity to redeem myself! The IDIA project grew rapidly and found many supporters. It changed law school campuses—from being a small group of privileged kids to a society where everyone benefited from diversity.

The big idea was that this was not charity by the rich, but that the privileged were benefiting from diversity—a radical thought.
Prof. Shamnad Basheer at the IDIA Annual Conference  2017. (Photograph: IDIA)   
Prof. Shamnad Basheer at the IDIA Annual Conference 2017. (Photograph: IDIA)  

Soon thereafter, we discussed the reform of legal education. He was the Ministry of Human Resource Development Chair Professor of Intellectual Property Rights at the National University of Juridical Sciences. This was an accomplishment for one who was still in his 30s. He had returned to India from George Washington University and immediately sought to reform legal education in India from within. He reminded me that I had taught his class and that I should now offer a full course at NUJS. Despite the hostility from the administration, we managed to conduct the course as an experiment in industry-academic cooperation, hoping that we could showcase the ‘practitioner in residence’ concept in academic institutions. Sadly, this experiment seemed to be ahead of its time, much like Shamnad. During that monsoon in Calcutta, I saw how much the students admired and adored him, even as they all felt that he was one of them. There was never a moment when he was alone in his office – there were always students and others waiting to see him for a variety of reasons.

He was like a ‘baba’ of the academic world – everyone who came to see him believed that he could help.

Shamnad was warm and affectionate but no one who interacted with him ever knew all of him. He was always a delight to meet and interact with, and everyone who met him was dazzled by his brilliance and warmth. Many who had never met him had doing so on their bucket list. When he visited me at Cipla, news quickly spread in the office that he was there, and many colleagues asked if they could just pop in to see him. He was a celebrity! His activism in the Novartis and Bayer cases —where he fought for lower drug prices and universal healthcare—explained only part of this phenomenon. Sadly, those two cases didn’t lead to better policy or jurisprudence to improve access to medicines, and remain only a beacon of hope. But that didn’t deter him—he wasn’t afraid to be the first or the only one fighting against injustice. Shamnad was the shining example of what NR Madhava Menon, the first director of the National Law School, imagined a graduate of the NLS to be—a “social engineer” who would use the law to fix society. Shamnad embodied the idea of the new age law school that NLSIU was expected to be. He was a respected academic and teacher, an activist in every aspect of his work but he wore his many accomplishments lightly. He was loved, even by those who disagreed with him, and that is perhaps how I will remember him.

Prof. Shamnad Basheer (centre, standing), at the IDIA Annual Conference 2017. (Photograph: IDIA)
Prof. Shamnad Basheer (centre, standing), at the IDIA Annual Conference 2017. (Photograph: IDIA)

Shamnad was a disruptor. His unrelenting mission to make a difference, to reform, even at great personal cost, was contagious and once infected, there was no cure. What began with an intervention in the Novartis case, where his advocacy in the Supreme Court caught everyone’s attention, continued with:

  • His challenge to Aadhaar (pending in the Delhi High Court).
  • A public interest litigation to reform CLAT, the national entrance exam for many National Law Schools.
  • A PIL to seek implementation of various aspects of the Patents Act to aid compulsory licenses which would accelerate access to medicines and limit unjust patent monopolies.

He seems to have left these behind for his friends to continue on the path he paved.

Shamnad was, for me, the gold standard for integrity and uncompromising with his principles. He rejected an offer from me, his friend, to consult on an IP project. He explained that it would not be “proper” since we were both involved in the Novartis and Bayer cases. No reasonable person would have suspected either collusion or conflict of interest, but Shamnad wouldn’t compromise on his high principles.

He did, however, find many opportunities to recommend me to his friends. On many occasions, I would be his replacement—most recently at the Dasra Philanthropy Week—when he couldn’t participate due to his failing health. Shamnad was generous to a fault—he would write emails about me, extolling virtues and qualities that I didn’t know I possessed. His name and goodwill opened doors that he used selflessly. Much of the recognition that I have received as a commentator on IPR and healthcare is thanks to Shamnad.

Calls from him were unscheduled, badly timed, random, but always interesting. Last year, when the news of the hip implant scandal broke, we spoke many times. The two of us agreed on a legal framework to lay out, and we wrote and spoke in one voice as often as opportunities presented themselves. He was also unpredictable. I once waited over seven hours for him outside the gates of the National Law School, but all the frustration and anger that built up over that time melted away once he turned up, and at the end of a couple of hours, I agreed to do what he wanted.

Those of us who loved him felt his deep affection and warmth but also his deeply agitated soul. It was obvious that Shamnad was an irreverent seeker of answers to questions, both of this world and the spiritual. He sought answers in spirituality and even the occult. We failed to help him find those answers or even help him deal with his failing health. All we can do is now hope that he finds the answers in the other place.

Murali Neelakantan is an expert in healthcare laws. He was Global General Counsel at Cipla and Glenmark, and Senior Partner at Khaitan & Co.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.