Soli Sorabjee's walk into eternity Legends never die, their legacies remain there forever. Soli Sorabjee's contributions and legacies will be gratefully remembered forever India might be facing an acute shortage of judges, but there is no dearth of lawyers in the country. There never was. Thousands of youngsters join the Bar each year with dreams in their eyes. India was still a...
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Soli Sorabjee's walk into eternity
Legends never die, their legacies remain there forever. Soli Sorabjee's contributions and legacies will be gratefully remembered forever
India might be facing an acute shortage of judges, but there is no dearth of lawyers in the country. There never was. Thousands of youngsters join the Bar each year with dreams in their eyes.
India was still a young Republic. The meticulously crafted Constitution of India had been adopted just three years back when a 23-year-old young law graduate from Bombay's Government Law College, who responded to the call of Soli Jamshed Sorabjee or just Soli, joined the legal profession in 1953, with dreams in his eyes. Dreams of scores of youngsters joining the legal profession wither away, but here was Soli, determined to live his dream. He was here to stay and leave an indelible imprint as one of the doyens of the Indian legal system.
People are born, they live and then they die -- it's a cycle that one must go through, but only those become immortals who know the art of living like Soli. He lived the life as few did, and when he breathed his last on 30 April 2021, the entire nation plunged into gloom for, not many leave a defining legacy during his 68 years career, making him a living legend.
Born into a relatively wealthy Bombay-based Parsi family on 9 March 1930, Soli's businessman father Jehangir Sorabjee died when Soli was merely 20. His mother Khorshed, a homemaker took care of him and ensured that her son does whatever he wanted to do. He graduated from St. Xavier's College and then enrolled for a law degree.
He started his law practice at the Bombay High Court as a junior in the chambers of Sir Jamshedji Kanga, an eminent lawyer of his time. It was here that he met another junior of Sir Kanga, Nani Palkhivala. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and an association of two brilliant legal brains that was to define the Indian judicial system with their interpretations of the Constitutional laws and forceful arguments.
Soli is believed to have imbibed a liking for brief and crisp pre-hearing briefings from Palkhivala. Later in life, when he was on his own, this remained a signature style of Soli Sorabjee. Many of his juniors would burn the midnight oil to study the case and brief him. They would find him uninterested in great details. He would just grasp the basics and argue in the court in his own style. He had an uncanny ability to read the mood of the judges and would change the track of his argument based on his judgement of judges' moods.
"He (Palkhiwala) was senior to me in age and the profession but I would often joke that I was senior to him in terms of marriage," Soli had said in one of his television interviews.
He was still young and definitely not raw when in 1971 the Supreme Court designated him as a Senior Lawyer, a prefix that every Indian lawyer dies for.
Sorabjee's first brush with fame came when he joined hands with Palkhivala in the famous Keshvananda Bharati vs State of Kerala case in which the verdict was pronounced in 1973. It is seen as a defining moment of the Indian judiciary as in which the Supreme Court laid down the doctrine of the inviolability of the basic structure of the Constitution.
The Apex Court decided that it had the right to test laws passed by Parliament upon the touchstone of whether they altered the basic structure of the Constitution. It is widely accepted that the Top Court's verdict saved democracy in India by preserving the concept of the supremacy of the Constitution and putting to rest the British concept of parliamentary supremacy.
Sorabjee and Palkhivala went down in the annals of the Indian judicial system for their significant contribution to the interpretation of constitutional law. By now Sorabjee was recognised as the champion of free speech and civil liberties.
"Soli steadfastly believed in Voltaire's famous dictum that he would disagree violently with anyone but defend to death that person's right to disagree with him," his junior and neighbour at South Delhi's famous lawyers' colony Neeti Bagh, Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, said in a tribute.
Sorabjee's fearless character became visible during the dark years of Emergency as he took up cases of those detained under the draconian MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) as he was opposed to the suspension of civil liberties and fundamental rights during that phase.
Sorabjee never bothered about his fees and would work pro bono if he felt something wrong was being done that was against the spirit of the Indian Constitution. Expectedly, he ended up rubbing the powers that be, the then Indian premier Indira Gandhi, the wrong way. Many including his family feared that he would be arrested and jailed, but that never happened.
Sorabjee's contributions are limitless, be it the court in Maneka Gandhi passport case in 1979 holding that a person's fundamental right entails that he or she cannot be denied a passport without ascribing a reason, or Ahmedabad based-St. Xavier's College's petition against the State of Gujarat in which the court upheld the rights of minority bodies to set up and run their educational institutions.
The Apex Court's verdict in the 1989 in the SR Bommai case was to become a guiding light for Indian democracy as he fought the then Karnataka chief minister Bommai's dismissal by the state Governor Buta Singh at the behest of the Rajiv Gandhi government at the centre.
Sorabjee's forceful arguments changed the course of Article 356 under which there is provision for the central government to dismiss an elected government in a state. In its judgement that was passed in 1994, the Supreme Court stated that the power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute, and is open to judicial review. It led to some kind of curtailment on whimsical dismissals of governments in states ruled by opposition parties. In the later years, courts ordered the reinstatement of many dismissed governments and the verdict laid down the rule that the majority of a government cannot be tested only on the floor of the Assembly and not in the Governor's house.
Sorabjee served as the Attorney General of India twice -- between 9 December 1989 and 2 December 1990 and then again between 7 April 1998 and 4 June 2004. While serving as the Attorney General, he was nominated as a recipient of Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award of the country.
Soli Sorabjee's love for music and literature is legendary. He was known as the moving spirit behind jazz music in India. He was introduced to jazz accidentally when he was all of 18. He had asked for a record of the HungarianDances by Brahms and the salesman of Bombay's famous Rhythm House store gave him something else instead.
"I found it nothing like Brahms at all," he said in an interview with a TV channel. It sounded so different and fell in love with it when he played the record the third time on his gramophone. It happened to be Tiger Rag by the Benny Goodman Trio. Sorabjee later became the architect of the annual Jazz Yatra, a week-long music festival. The lawns of New Delhi's India International Centre (IIC), of which he was a life trustee, is bound to miss him and the sounds of jazz.
His birthday parties at the IIC was something everyone looked forward to. He had grand plans of celebrating his 90th birthday at IIC In 2020 which he had to cancel due to the outbreak of COVID-19. And COVID-19 it was that took away his life. He ended up contacting the deadly virus, was hospitalised at a famous South Delhi private hospital, but could never recover from it. He breathed his last on 30 April 2020.
Sorabjee is survived by his wife Zena, daughter Zia Mody – famous lawyer, and sons Jehangir, Hormazd and Jamshed and seven grandchildren. He lived in Delhi along with his wife and Hormazd.
As the saying goes, legends never die, their legacies remain there forever. Soli Sorabjee's contributions and legacies will be gratefully remembered forever.