One does not think of the law as an accessible profession. Even if you disregard the vastness of the field and the patchwork of laws that make up the Indian legal system – there’s still the small matter of finances. Putting yourself through any of India’s top law schools is an expensive endeavour. The result? Lawyers who come from primarily privileged backgrounds and who find it hard to relate to all sections of society. Professor Shamnad Basheer is trying to change that, one student at a time.
Shamnad Basheer is the founder of IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access), an organisation that was created to empower underprivileged and marginalised sections of society and give them the opportunities required to pursue law as a profession. Today, IDIA has branches in almost every state, students in most of the major law schools in the country, and is working towards creating the legal champions that our country needs.
How It All Began
A graduate of India’s best-known law school, National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Basheer went on to do his postgraduate at Oxford University. He later began his teaching career in the United States at George Washington University, specialising in Intellectual Property law. However, in 2008 he made the decision to move back to India and invest in the students of his homeland. Why?
He explains, “I returned to India based on the promise and vision of one man – Vice Chancellor MP Singh. He is a phenomenal man who is one of the top constitutional law scholars in the country. He had a vision for legal education in India. He thought that we were blindly replicating what had been handed down for many decades. We were creating a factory for lawyers without using the university as a repository of good ideas and knowledge – making it a real good research and knowledge hub. He wanted to break the frontiers of education and create something new and revolutionary, building up the institution.”
Basheer decided to give teaching at NUJS a shot, and what was supposed to be a year-long trial period turned into five. He was struck by the complacency of the system and the lack of diversity that he saw in his classrooms. He found that the system relied heavily on having bright students who learnt a lot from each other. Internships with top law firms were the primary aim and employment was the end goal.
Things came to a head when Basheer found himself teaching a class on the Plant Variety Protection Act. He says,
“I asked how many of them were familiar with agricultural practices like harvesting, sowing to a significant degree. Not a single hand went up. In one of the premier law institutes in the country, not a single student in the class was familiar with agriculture, which is the backbone of India. 60% of our livelihood is still coming out of agriculture! We teach social justice, equality, constitution and all these glorious values in law schools, but we have a serious problem of exclusion. We took a diversity survey and realised that out of the 80 odd students in law school at that time, only one had been to a school in a rural area during class 12. Only one had studied in vernacular medium. All the others were privileged, urban educated, English medium educated kids. We knew this was a serious problem. We talk about equality, social justice and inclusion, yet in our own backyard we don’t practice it.”
Chasing Social Equality
Though Mr Singh supported Basheer’s quest to diversify the student body, the rest of the college was not as enthusiastic. Teachers and students alike were sceptical of admitting students from underprivileged backgrounds – concerned with the standard of education at the institution.
Undeterred, Shamnad Basheer laid the foundations for what would become IDIA by recruiting students to the cause. He says, “We collected a bunch of enthusiastic students, students who identified with the cause. These were students who were on the fringes of the social set up at these universities because they were not privileged. They didn’t speak posh English and felt a bit isolated. They were the first bunch of students who identified very strongly with the cause.”
Today, IDIA is almost entirely a student volunteer-run operation. The reasoning behind this was simple, “People wanted a perfect system. They suggested that we follow a system similar to Oxford or Harvard. We can’t follow that model because A) we don’t have the money and universities are struggling to stay afloat. B) If you give it to the universities to do it themselves they will make a hash of it. So, we decided to follow a unique model that relies on forces who work within the universities – the students.”
Basheer has an interesting way of describing the organisation, “Today, if people ask what your model is for IDIA, I tell them it is actually an ISIS kind of model. It was a completely decentralised set up run by students across the board. Students would go to schools, and the purpose was two-fold. One is that when students do it, they do it with a rare kind of passion. Two, the students themselves get sensitised. Remember, large portions of these students were privileged and had never been to an agricultural field or to remote parts of India.”
Putting Theory Into Practice
Their pilot run was in North-East India, a deliberate choice because there were very few students from the region in law school at the time. The team was surprised to find that students were completely uninterested in the law. This was because they had little to no exposure to it. They were quick to make them aware of their options. Basheer reminisces,
Basheer reminisces, “ We told them about law schools and their prospects and that it is one of the most diverse career options. With the law, you can go to court to be a litigator or a law firm. You can go to a corporate setup or a company to be a company lawyer. You can go abroad and be an international lawyer. You can work with the World Bank or the UN, do Human Rights law or be a legal journalist. You can be a legal entrepreneur. The sheer diversity will appeal to a wider cross-section of people. If money is your concern, the law is one of the most lucrative professions today if you go to a good law school.”
However, getting these students into law school wasn’t the end of IDIA’s battle. Once they were admitted, they faced a host of problems. These students were usually products of a neglectful education system and were unable to cope with the workload. They also faced discrimination on the social front and found it hard to integrate into the student body. To provide them with a support system, Basheer and his team began the CHAMPS program.
CHAMPS stands for Creativity, Holistic, Altruistic, Maverick, Problem Solvers. Shamnad explains the thought process behind these ideas:
“We found that almost all these lawyers are super creative. So we wanted more lateral lawyers and less literal lawyers because lawyers have become very good at literal arguments.
When a client comes with a problem, don’t just rectify the symptom that you see. Solve it holistically so that the problem goes away and everything is taken care of once and for all.
The reason why a lot of people go into law schools is because they want to help others. They want to advocate somebody else’s cause. That is altruism at a very deep level. We want to take them back to that.
We don’t want people who will just go with the conventional setup, but people that will challenge convention wherever there is a demand that convention be challenged – mavericks.
Law was always about problem-solving. Today, lawyers have become problem aggravators. They contribute to the problem more than they solve it. They keep matters pending in courts, they fleece clients. We want to tell them – you were meant to solve problems that people have. So go back to your roles as problem solvers!”
Opening Doors For More Students
IDIA has a wing that is dedicated to helping students with disabilities. Shamnad Basheer and his team (which includes Anusha Reddy), are focused on creating a more welcoming and accessible environment for these students. The inspiration for the disability wing came (at least on Basheer’s part) when he became involved with a group of disability activists, “We were trying to change the Copyright Act. The blind cannot read books and they need accessible formats, but the moment you convert a book into a Braille format or screen reading format digitally, you commit a copyright infringement. Because of this, institutions were not converting books en mass for the blind and it was creating a bottleneck.”
He continues, “I was the legal expert on it. The others were disability activists working with several organisations across India. We finally got to present this before the Parliament Standing Committee. There was lady lawyer who is blind herself and was hesitant to speak in the beginning but eventually agreed. She spoke for 5-7 minutes about her experiences and difficulties as a blind lawyer. It was such a powerful speech that the entire room stood up and gave her a standing ovation.”
The experience not only opened Basheer’s eyes to the difficulties that disabled students and professionals faced, but the importance of having advocates from marginalised communities to share their personal experiences. One of the core aims of IDIA is educating disenfranchised youth and giving them the opportunity to champion their own causes.
He says, “Why should they rely on our generosity, our aid? Let us build lawyers from within these communities because they will advocate their cause much better than any of us. Once you become a lawyer, you effectively become a communicator. You become an advocate for the community and you can articulate their concerns much better. You can learn the art of speaking, the art of making arguments, the art of persuading people. That is what a lawyer does and these are important skill sets. So, if we give them these skill sets, we are not just giving them a vocation or a job or a livelihood. We are also effectively building the next set of leaders for the communities.”
IDIA is an effective avenue to creating a new generation of lawyers – ones who are more connected to the country they belong to. Representation is the keyword here, and Professor Shamnad Basheer and his team are ensuring that those who were once considered voiceless and lesser can not only speak up – but they can argue effectively too! We love that the legal community is taking steps towards diversity and inclusion, and can’t wait to see what is in store for these future champs.
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