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India's disability community mourns Dr Shamnad Basheer, its staunchest warrior

Tributes are pouring in for acclaimed legal scholar Dr Shamnad Basheer who died on Thursday. Just 43 years old, Dr Basheer was founder of the trust, Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education (IDIA), which made legal education accessible for all, including students with disabilities.

An overwhelming sense of shock and loss among the legal fraternity and disability community over the sudden death of Dr Shamnad Basheer. Dr Basheer, who was just 43, was found dead in his car in central Karnataka on Thursday. He was there for a meditation retreat. Police rule out any foul play and believe that he may have slept off in his car with the heater on and choked to death.

As founder of Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education (IDIA), Dr Basheer empowered youth from marginalised backgrounds to take up a career in law. He was a much loved and respected figure in the disability community as well. Along with a group of disability activists, he is credited for one of the most progressive provisions in copyright law. The provision allows copyrighted work to be converted so persons with disabilities can access it without worrying about copyright infringement.

Shampa Sengupta, the well-known disability rights activist from Kolkata, worked with Dr Basheer on this pathbreaking campaign.

We worked together during the campaign in 2009-2010 for Copyright Amendment so that print disabled people can access books easily. We remained in touch after he started IDIA and worked jointly so that students with visual impairments get equal opportunities in law education. Personally, I will miss his long phone calls and detailed emails. We pledge to take his vision forward towards an inclusive world. - Shampa Sengupta, Sruti Disability Rights Centre

Although not a disabled person himself, Dr Basheer was deeply committed to the cause of access for all and equal opportunity. "I met him for the first time when we were presenting to Parliament on the copyright issue", recalled Kanchan Pamnani, a Mumbai based lawyer who is visually impaired. Kanchan initiated and drafted a representation on behalf of visually challenged people to the National Securities Depository Limited and the Indian Banks Association, which led to guidelines that have benefited the disabled community.

Looking back to that meeting with Dr Basheer she says "he was not disabled but had researched the subject thoroughly and had been guiding us, strategising with us and lobbying for us in government circles and in the legal community. One thing I still remember is how he looked at us and said it was a great thing that the community that was most affected was leading the fight".

IDIA is a non profit body that trains visually impaired students but also supports them with accessible study material, helps them out with stipends and placements. Turab Chimthanawala, a company secretary based in Mumbai, recounted his association with Dr Basheer on the Access India group.

"He had very kindly arranged for Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) preparatory material in soft copy . And then at NALSAR University of Law, his team had arranged for students to read to me during my first semester", says Turab, who is partially sighted. "Accessible study materials were easily available without us making repeated requests/follow ups. His demise is a huge loss not only for the disabled and legal fraternity but for India. While there are many stalwarts, few use their intellect and outreach to impact other's lives".

Sentiments echoed by Rahul Bajaj, India's first disabled student to win the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to pursue law from Oxford University.

"He was my foremost mentor. it is a huge personal loss. Soon before I left for Oxford, he fondly told me that he tells everyone that I will be India's first visually impaired Supreme Court judge. Such was the greatness of the man - He knew how to see the best in us all and to provide one the encouragement to develop those facets of one's personality."

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