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A Life In The Annals Of Constituent India: A Tribute To Fali S. Nariman

Fali S. Nariman, a name frequently uttered with reverence in the corridors of the Supreme Court, was a part of major cases that shaped India's constitutional journey and jurisprudence.

Sanjay Rawat
Fali S. Nariman Photo: Sanjay Rawat
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A 12-year-old, forced to undertake a great trek through dense forests along the Indo-Myanmar Border, uprooted from home and hearth reaches British India. Little did he know that there was no going back from here. This 12-year-old boy went on to become an eminent jurist and a constitutional lawyer par excellence in Independent India. Fali S. Nariman, a name frequently uttered with reverence in the corridors of the Supreme Court, was also a part of major cases that shaped India's constitutional journey and jurisprudence. The Home and Hearth that he left behind were found when India attained Independence and subsequently, the Constitution was adopted in form and force.

Memories and Reflections of a life well lived

In his autobiography 'Before Memory Fades', he carefully reflects on his legal career, and his choices and also imparts valuable knowledge to the legal fraternity as well as words of encouragement for budding lawyers. He mentions longingly about the time when he enrolled at the Bombay Bar in 1950 and joined the chambers of Sir Jamshedji Kanga, citing such days to be the happiest of his early professional years. The autobiography is rich with anecdotes and memories that provide a bird's eye view of the bygone era of the emerging legal practice post-independence. While he proceeds to render an informative and detailed account of his learnings at the Bombay Bar, he also imparts crucial insights and advice to the younger generation of legal practitioners. With reminisces also comes reflection, as he also boldly introspects to express regret over his representation of Union Carbide Corporation and the concomitant inadequate settlement that was signed for compensating the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. While such reflections are a rarity, they were found in abundance in his autobiographical account wherein he alludes to the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record

Association vs Union of India case also known as the Second Judges Case. He alludes to this case with regret as a case -which I won but which I would prefer to have lost. While major cases as such have been elaborated on in his reflections, the case of Nergesh Meerza which restricted the scope of Article 15(1) thereby denying women air hostesses the right to continue in employment after marriage, does not feature. While he graciously accepts in his autobiography that - the problem with human failing is that sometimes one lives to regret them. This coming from such an eminent jurist and law of exceptional legal finesse prods us to reflect upon our choices and actions. It is also important for us to imbibe his unflinching ability to call out injustice which reflects his grit and courage to stand up to regimes with dictatorial tendencies. It is in this vein upon the declaration of Emergency in India that he resigned from the post of the Additional Solicitor General as a mark of his protest.

He was a man of many roles, and in every role that he donned he left an indelible mark. As a nominated Rajya Sabha MP by the President of India for legal excellence, he also proved to be an exceptional Parliamentarian. His interventions, debates, mentions, and private member bills such as the Judicial Statistics Bill (2004), Disruption of Proceedings of Parliament (Disentitlement of Allowances to Members) Bill, 2004, etc. This portrays his undying commitment to democracy which has been considered a great contribution to the Parliament. Moreover, out of the many professional accolades he received, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan (1991), Padma Vibhushan (2007), and the Gruber Prize for Justice (2002).

A Sentinel of the Constitution

Carrying the legacy and the mantle of the first generation of post-Independence lawyers, throughout his career spanning over 75 years, he has been a staunch defender of the true spirit and form of the Indian Constitution. Starting from the case of I.C Golaknath v. State of Punjab where the court held that Parliament cannot curtail fundamental rights by amending part III of the Constitution to the National Judicial Appointments Commission case which reinstated the collegium system for judicial appointments thereby restoring the Independence of the Judiciary. A defense that was idealistic but rooted in pragmatism as he once wrote " A written constitution when enacted takes on a life of its own", developing its ethos along the way in the guidance of its appointed functionaries". This defense of the world's longest-written constitution touched upon the very bedrock of its existence. The veteran Senior Advocate believed that the basic structure doctrine evolved by the Indian Supreme Court reflects the foundational roots of the Constitution and remarked in caution that- " You can criticize it but one must not shake the foundation. Then it becomes an earthquake. In a firm but metaphorical way, he guided and shaped India's growing constitutional jurisprudence.

The last caution

Carrying the idealistic pulse from the newly independent India, at the very end of his memoir, he remarked- "I have lived and flourished in a secular India, in the fullness of time, if God wills, I would also like to die in a secular India”. In his memoir, he expresses yet another regret regarding the intolerance that had trickled into Indian society. He was a proponent of every ideal that the Constitution distilled. From minority rights to the independence of judiciary and freedom of speech to Indian national integration he was a warrior of a bygone era. It is now with our sense and sensibility that we must reflect on a life lived in principle and pay heed to the last caution imparted couched in the language of the Constitution-that is by the people and for the people. May the legal luminary rest in peace beneath the sky and earth of Constitutionalism that still prevails to an extent.

(Prathiksha Ullal is an advocate and currently works as a research fellow with Vidhi, Centre for Legal Policy) 

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