Soli Jehangir Sorabjee is no more. While the world lost a legal luminary, a legend of the law, I lost my teacher, my mentor. In this profession, the first identity one has is the chamber one belongs to – and that chamber becomes your family. In one sense, I lost the head of my professional family.
Sir needs no introduction. A young boy from a business family graduated from the Government Law College and joined the profession in 1953. He found a place in the famous Chamber No. 1 of the Bombay Bar headed by Sir Jamshidji Kanga, under the tutelage of Kharsheedji Bhabha. His other chamber colleagues were Nani Palkhivala, H.M. Seervai, Fali Nariman, and the like. With the beginning of his professional life coincided the life of our Constitution – in whose development Sir played a very essential and important role in over 70 years. Soon, by sheer perseverance and hard work, he began to rise to the top of the profession in Bombay and soon began being engaged in the Supreme Court too. What is remarkable is that his career blossomed along with constitutionalism in India. At the young age of 41, he was designated as senior counsel by the Bombay High Court in 1971.
In the landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati, Sir assisted his friend, philosopher and guide, Nani Palkhivala, in developing the limitations on the constituent power of Parliament to amend the Constitution – what has become the indomitable basic structure doctrine. A champion of civil liberties, he went from one High Court to another to defend civil liberties and successfully getting illegal detention Orders quashed. In 1977, when the Emergency was lifted, he moved from erstwhile Bombay to Delhi upon being appointed the Solicitor General after a small stint as Additional Solicitor General. And, thus, began a journey close to four and half decades in the Supreme Court. It was always fair to the Court, and his opponent hardly took any time before he made his mark. Always practising the highest levels of integrity and fairness, and yet a fierce counsel with mastery on the facts and the law. As Law Officer, he helped develop the meaning of “due process” in Maneka Gandhi and appeared in several high-profile cases. He began his stint as a private lawyer in 1980 and regularly appeared as one of the top senior counsel in the Supreme Court.
In 1989, when Mr V.P. Singh became Prime Minister, he first became the Attorney General for India and distinguished himself in the highest office at the Bar. He was instrumental in arguing the famous case of KihotoHollohan, S.R. Bommai, and many others. In 1998, when Vajpayeeji became Prime Minister, he again became Attorney General and continued till 2004. After 2004, he appeared in the B.P. Singhal and Rameshwar Prasad. But all this is too well known. He shared a passion for defending civil liberties, more particularly the freedom of speech and expression. Perhaps this is only a minuscule of the phenomenon of Soli Sorabjee.
The most touching of his gestures was when a client had paid his fees, but not mine; he refused to appear for the client until his junior’s fees being cleared. He always used to tell the briefing lawyers to clear the junior’s fee before his own as the juniors required it more
Apart from being a first-class lawyer, Sir was the epitome of mentorship. The top legal luminaries from Harish Salve and Gopal Subramaniam to Justice Uday Lalit, Sir, mentored them all. The list can go on and on. He firmly believed that every senior’s obligation to take in his chambers junior counsel and train them in the art of advocacy. He was a hard taskmaster – something I can vouch for, being his junior for seven years. He was a teaching senior – somebody who would take time out and teach his juniors. At no stage did he discourage his juniors from taking their own briefs. In fact, in one instance, when I was in his chamber, I appeared on caveat against him, my senior, without even as much as a demur from him – but instead encouragement. On one occasion, when I had a conflict with the conference timing in a matter because of a prior professional commitment, and I apprised him of it, he unhesitatingly changed the conference timing to accommodate me. The most touching of his gestures was when a client had paid his fees, but not mine; he refused to appear for the client until his junior’s fees being cleared. He always used to tell the briefing lawyers to clear the junior’s fee before his own as the juniors required it more. I do not know whether I deserved such patronage, but these things made the man stand much above the great lawyer he was. This did not mean that his juniors had not to work hard – he made sure we worked very hard and made sure that we learnt to be on our own in the profession. After all, this is not a 9 to 5 job – but a 24/7 profession. Sir was firmly against profiteering from the profession and never charged very high fees – for he believed that the profession was a noble one. And from him, I learnt respect for the profession. In a letter he wrote to me on my fortieth birthday, he wrote, “May I wish you a very happy and prosperous birthday and many more to come which will project you as a counsel, not rolling on wealth, but one who upholds the Rule of Law and constitutional values.”
These words have been the guiding factor in my professional life.
His sharp sense of humour and wit is well known to all, and even those who were the butt of his jokes laughed – for he meant no ill but only good humour. His large library of non-law books evidences his passion for literature and poetry. His love for music, particularly Jazz, is known to one and all. And his love for the India International Centre – where one could often find him reminiscing is also well known and was my last meeting with him on his 91st birthday on 09.03.2021 when he kept on asking me “Do I look 91”? I Will miss you Sir, and I wish you peace and promise you that your guidance will always be a beacon for me to uphold the Rule of Law. Gratitude.
(The writer is Advocate On Record in Supreme Court)