Late Professor Shamnad Basheer: A tribute from a village

May 14 was the birthday of Professor Shamnad Basheer.
Prof Shamnad Basheer
Prof Shamnad Basheer

May 14 was the birthday of Professor Shamnad Basheer. Sadly, he was not here in this mortal world to celebrate it. A great academician and visionary leader, Professor Basheer left this tangible world last year. Nevertheless, his work continues to inspire many.

Of his many innovative works, Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education (IDIA), is of particular interest to me. Founded by Prof Basheer, IDIA aims to enable students from disadvantaged sections of society in rural and small-town India to secure admission to the premier law schools of India.

Professor Basheer was vocal of students from disadvantaged sections of society having a shot at legal education. In an interview with Bar & Bench, he remembered Bharat Ratna awardee Professor CNR Rao (an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University), who was the Principal Scientific Advisor to then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. CNR Rao once exclaimed that our Einsteins are in our villages. Professor Basheer said,

“Let me take the liberty of rephrasing this to: Our Palkhiwalas are in our villages!”

Prof Shamnad Basheer

Barriers to legal education for a student belonging to the underprivileged sections

Language as a barrier

Professor Basheer, in the abovementioned interview, addressed the question of proficiency in English required for legal education. He said that most students from rural India, having studied in vernacular medium all their life, lack the required proficiency in English. Professor Kamala Sankaran also raised this issue in a webinar on conducted by Jindal Global Law School.

Recently, a student from NLSIU Bengaluru wrote a piece in the law school’s magazine mentioning how he faced caste-based slurs, and his English speaking abilities were ridiculed in the class. He writes,

“I started to participate in practice debates because I wanted to speak in English…I first tried to speak in class a few times while seated at the back of the side rows, all the while anxious of being made fun of… I got stuck trying to formulate a sentence and a batchmate of mine looked at me and smirked. That was it. All that effort into building myself up, deflated…I would face the same kind of deflation, only this time it would be at the hands of a Professor, who would use his privileged position, to mock me for the class’s entertainment.”

Article 348(1) (a) of the Constitution of India provides that all the proceedings in the Supreme Court and every High Court shall be in the English language. The state government schools functioning in rural areas use vernacular languages as the medium of teaching. Recently, the Andhra Pradesh government passed an order which made English medium education compulsory in school. However, the Division Bench of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, in the judgement of Dr Srinivas Guntupalli v. The State of Andhra Pradesh and ors, struck down that Order.

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Nowadays, several private schools which are functional in smaller towns and some villages use English as the medium of instruction. But not everyone is capable of managing the fees. Even the fees of a kindergarten (KG) student in such schools is over Rs 1,000 per month. In contrast, government schools are free of cost up to 14 years of age.

The difference between the privileged and underprivileged sections of the society is widened further because of this English language gap. No matter how much the government invests in higher education, the idea of ‘Vishwa Guru’ would remain a naïve dream, until school-level education is strengthened. The problem of lack of proficiency in English is not limited to just legal education but is all-pervasive. The problem is evident in IITs and NITs as well.

Law School Fees

The fee-structure at the National Law Universities creates problems for students belonging to lower socio-economic classes. There is a great divide between the fees asked by traditional universities and those charged at NLUs. Even in traditional universities, the difference in the fee structure for the three-year LL.B. programme and five-year LL.B. programme is significant. This difference in paying ability affects the notion of equal opportunity in legal education.

The Way Forward

In 2015, a third-year student of the prestigious IIT-Bombay took his life because he was unable to ‘speak fluently in English’. After all his perseverance and toil, he made it to IIT-Bombay, but killed himself because of ‘language’. After his suicide, IIT-Bombay took the initiative of conducting lectures for first-year students in regional languages like Bengali, Marathi and Hindi.

Likewise, law colleges may open a soft skill centre to train needy students in English. College mates may also take the initiative to help students who face the language problems. The need of the hour is to ‘teach’ a friend and not ‘taunt’ for his/her poor English performance. The problems of fees also need to be curbed to ensure access to decent legal education to those who cannot afford it.

The loss of Professor Basheer seems like a personal loss to a student like me. His vision and the objective behind IDIA are noble. His concern for the students of rural India was commendable.

Former PM Dr Manmohan Singh once called the NLUs "islands of excellence amidst a sea of institutionalised mediocrity". For how long will this statement hold value if NLUs fail to admit those who cannot afford the fees? Professor Basheer opined that the higher fee-structure in NLUs make them more elitist and less diverse.

The government may allocate funds for scholarships of those students who are unable to afford legal education. The Central government should grant NLUs the status of ‘Institutes of National Importance’ like IITs, NITs and IIMs. Legal education also needs philanthropists, and NLUs must look forward to attracting them.

Professors like Shamnad Basheer are invaluable gems. His unfortunate demise is an irreparable loss to not just the legal community, but also the whole of humanity. He held an unparalleled passion for the advancement of legal education in India. He will continue to inspire the generations to come. Salute!

The auhtor is a LL.M Candidate (International Law) at Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi. He secured Rank-1 in SAU LLM Entrance Exam 2018 and received ‘President Scholarship’ for session 2018-19.

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