Age had dimmed neither the vigour nor intensity of Fali Nariman

Fali S. Nariman was many splendoured in what he did, so it is impossible to paint a complete picture of the man and his work. File
| Photo Credit: PTI

The country and its legal profession suffered an irreparable loss in the early hours of Wednesday when Fali Sam Nariman crossed the bar to move to the Almighty’s court. He was 95, but age had dimmed neither the vigour nor the intensity of the man. His last book was published just a couple of months back, his article on Justice Muralidhar co-authored with Justice Lokur and this writer is still recent, and his last interview still fresh in memory. “Old lawyers don’t die/ fade away, they just lose their appeal” is a legal joke, but Fali neither faded nor lost his appeal to the many who loved and respected him.

Nariman was many things and so it is not difficult to write about him. He was many splendoured in what he did, so it is difficult nay impossible to paint a complete picture of the man and his work. As an advocate he was head and shoulder above his peers. His stentorian voice and forceful delivery, unassailable logic, deep knowledge of the law, assiduous preparation backed by a reputation for unwavering integrity made him an opponent to dread. But he was fairness personified in his duty to court and profession, and while he could bring down seniors with ease he was kind and encouraging to juniors. When I opened the arguments for the Ram Setu case before the Chief Justice’s Bench of five judges, Nariman was lead counsel for the government. I confined my arguments to the environmental angle, and when I finished he said, loudly, “Now that is the way a case should be argued”. I prize no encomium more.

He was far more than the best lawyer. He was a writer, and his books on law and justice carry a lightness of touch with the depth of intimate knowledge from years of engagement and reflection. He was one of the best public speakers, lacing his speech with wit, anecdotes and reflective wisdom. He was sought after for interviews, and was both accessible and articulate, And he was the public intellectual par excellence, who kept standards of probity at a premium. Above all was his attitude to power. He cared a hoot for the power of power, and for those who wielded it wrongly. He delivered two notable slaps in the face — one for Mrs. Gandhi’s government when he resigned as Additional Solicitor General immediately after the Emergency was declared, and another for Mr. Modi’s Gujarat government after the Godhra massacre when he returned their briefs. He was the tallest lawyer in the country, but he never became the Attorney General, no prizes for guessing why.

There is a clarity of mind that comes from exercising the facility of plainspeak, which is lost to those who fail to speak when they should. Nariman didn’t mince words, he didn’t spare persons who needed to be called out. He called a spade a spade, not a faulty diamond. And the higher the office holder, the sharper the phrase. But anger was less acute than disappointment. For he wasn’t focused on running down a person, his crosshairs were fixed on issue and action and consequence and what that person stood for. Secular India had no better champion than him. Parsi himself, born in Rangoon, early years in Bombay, he knew the intrinsic value of the mosaic that this country is and abhorred the unichrome. In St. Stephens College case he helped to bring in the law to protect minority education institutions, and he deeply deplored the failure to scotch the controversies around places of worship.

He was one of a very select group of those who stood out boldly and strongly, in conviction, attitude, thought and speech – a League of Extraordinary Legal Gentlemen. With his passing, the candle dims. While our farewells are laced with grief, we must remember however that the best tribute we can pay, and the best testament of our love and respect for him is to hold fast to the traditions he exemplified. If we do that, the Old Warrior will rest in peace.

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