A well-known academic and legal activist, Prof. Shamnad Basheer, who was the first Ministry of HRD Chaired Professor in Intellectual Property Law at National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata is a man who believes,“Law has the potential to redress inequity and transform me into an agent for social change”. The former Frank H Marks Visiting Associate Professor of Intellectual Property Law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington DC speaks to Nimesh Chandra on what ails the Indian legal education system.
Q. What drew you to Law?
A. I’ve always reacted strongly to issues of manifest injustice, even as a child. So I guess Law and the pursuit of justice was a natural fit for me. After Law School, my interest in science and technology and a quirk of fate pushed me to specialize in Intellectual Property Rights with a leading law firm in Delhi.
After a couple of years there, I became more interested in the macro aspects of Law and in policy-making, and so decided to pursue an LLM. Although I had every intention of returning to India to resume my legal practice, fate destined otherwise, as I landed an attractive PhD scholarship at the University of Oxford. Within a couple of years, I was lucky enough to walk into a terrific job opportunity at the George Washington University Law School and then there was no looking back.
Q. The Infosys Prize 2014 in Humanities recognized your theoretical work that has a wide-ranging practical relevance on legal issues. Could you elaborate?
A. I feel odd speaking about my worthiness for this award. I will take the easy way out and quote Prof Amartya Sen’s kind words on why I was picked (he was the jury chair for the humanities division, under which I was awarded).
â¦It is my wonderful duty to congratulate Prof. Basheer for his remarkable work on legal theory, legal practice and also legal education. And he’s being honored by the Infosys Prize in Humanities for the major breakthroughs he has made, particularly in his academic work dealing with intellectual property rights generally, but patent laws in particular. He has also linked up the practice of law with the theory of it in a totally remarkable and convincing way. He has also been a major factor in the expansion of legal education in India whereby people can participate in the reasoning that goes into legal decisions on subjects including patent rights and so on, which affect the lives of so many people...
I’m not sure that the setting up of more Law Schools would necessarily help, particularly if they were in the same mould as the existing ones. On the contrary, it may just exacerbate the problem
Q. India has a relatively limited number of contributions in the global knowledge pool as far as academic law is concerned. Why is it so?
A. This owes itself to a variety of factors. Firstly, we lose out our brightest and best Law students to the corporate legal sectorâ¦we must also appreciate that many of them are driven by necessity. Whatever be the reason, academia is not able to attract this talent pool. Even the few students that flock to academia find that the ecosystem is not a particularly conducive one. Our universities and institutions reward mediocrity more than merit. They are largely status quoist, with a fanatical adherence to seniority at the cost of merit, and designed to suck the passion and creativity out of the most committed. As a result, legal academia in India throughout the Law Schools is largely populated with sub-standard teachers. As for research, there is no serious culture of research at even the best National Law Schools, which focus predominantly on teaching and churning out easily employable Law graduates. However, on the brighter side, things are slowly changing. Young scholars are emerging from our midst and opting for careers in academia and research, either at Indian universities or abroad.
Q. How do you look at the academic leadership of universities in India, including premier Law institutes?
A. The less said, the better. We have very few visionaries heading these institutions. The vast majority is run-of the-mill academics with no academic or administrative rigour. That many of the premier Law Schools haven’t progressed much beyond their initial years speaks volumes about the lack of leadership at many of the so-called “islands of excellence”. More worryingly, the institutions are designed in such a way that they yo-yo according to the whims and fancies of the VC chosen to lead them. We need to find ways of securing these institutions on firmer institutional moorings so that they are not unduly dependent on the worth or otherwise of just one individual chosen as VC.
Q. What is your opinion on the regulation of Law education in India?
A. When once asked what he thought of Western “civilization”, Mahatma Gandhi was reported to have said: “I think it would be a very good idea”. I guess his quip pretty much informs my views on the regulation of legal education as well. Regulation of legal education (at least of the good robust sort) would certainly be a good idea!
Unfortunately, the current state of regulation leaves much to be desired. For one, there are constant turf wars between the various regulatory masters that legal education often answers to: the Bar Council of India (BCI), the University to which the Law School owes its allegiance, and the UGC which often kowtows to the Ministry of HRD. The major part, of course, is played by the BCI, a body whose very competence to regulate a sophisticated field like legal education is very suspect, stacked as it is with lawyers who’ve never really been part of an educational ecosystem. This needs to change, and the BCI needs to consult more with legal academics and find ways in which to evolve more holistic progressive policies that guarantee sufficient freedom for the Law Schools to experiment with curricula and yet ensure some basic minimum standards that all Law Schools will abide by.
Q. Is there a mechanism wherein more people can contribute significantly to legal learning and practice?
A. Clinical legal education is the answer, where students are made to work on real cases as part of their Law School curriculum, rather than merely studying theory of law. Indeed, clinics are an excellent way of fostering better engagement between the Law Schools, the legal profession and the courts.
Q. Will setting up of more National Law Schools help?
A. I’m not sure that the setting up of more Law Schools would necessarily help, particularly if they were in the same mould as the existing ones. On the contrary, it may just exacerbate the problem. For, where are these new Law Schools going to recruit? India faces a serious deficit of good quality facultyâ¦ Given the tight job market, where are we going to find jobs for all students that graduate from these new Law Schools? The US has begun facing this problem and the bubble around legal education and its many splendored wonders (in terms of guaranteeing comfortable well paying life) has all but been busted. Students are now asking questions about the promises Law Schools make and the huge fees that they charge. We should focus on improving the existing Law Schools, nudging them towards higher standards of educational excellence.
First Published on : 09 January 2015.