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River rows to caustic comments: Remembering a courtroom titan

The era of Fali is over. He will go down in the history of Karnataka for his contribution to redressing the injustice caused to the state.
Last Updated 21 February 2024, 17:49 IST

As I got up in the morning, I saw a message — "Is it true that Fali is no more?” I immediately called his secretary who said, "Sir passed away at midnight." I sat down sipping my tea recalling the long years I spent with one of India's foremost jurists.

Obituaries are flowing from everywhere expressing grief. The grand old man Fali Nariman (95), who was undoubtedly a giant of a post-independence Indian bar, didn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade either in court or in public. His intellectual depth drawn as a student of law, philosophy, and literature was unparalleled. He was a true constitutionalist and liberalist to the core.

I first met Fali, as we called him fondly, during a hotly contested service matter in 1987 over the seniority of direct recruits and promotees. After listening to his raging voice without any impoliteness, a litigant official said, “We may win or lose the case, but I heard an accurate presentation of the case in flawless English!"

My real saga with Fali started in July 1990 when a senior colleague, Sharat Javali, dragged me into a historical state water dispute on Cauvery. Krishna, Mahadayi, etc., followed over time. Inter-state disputes have political overtones and go through twists and turns for decades. Americans say there is nothing like a resolution of inter-state water disputes, it's only a management of disputes.

Working with Fali was an institutional experience. As a professional, he remained unperturbed by loss or win. His professional honesty was unquestionable and loyalty was marked by passion.

Briefing Fali at his iconic roundtable was nothing short of a boxing game. He kept screaming for facts and precedents from the thousands of pages strewn around. This was a time when there were no AI searches. The lawyers and technical experts were always on their toes. Initially, we used to feel embarrassed by the way conferences were held by him. A bureaucrat once asked me, "Do we pay Fali to get dressing-downs during conferences?"

However, we soon understood that Fali has a style. He wouldn't listen much to what the briefing team wanted to say but at the same time extracted from them what he wanted to know, leaving them drained.

Almost 5,000 or more hours with Fali over the last three decades are filled with anecdotes. He would address juniors with their nicknames like 'Fatty', 'Guru' etc. He would snap at any junior who failed to answer his question(s), telling them to stop yapping! He would giggle at the technical experts and engineers pinching his finger on his palm indicating them to check their data with calculators.

He took notes from everyone and put everyone in the briefing team on some research job or the other. Sometimes he used to be caustic to communicate better. While drafting the Ordinance that vacated the interim order of the Tribunal in 1991, the minister said, "...our MLAs want to bar even the final order." Fali turned to the minister and asked him to tell the MLAs 'not only your chair but the government will also go...'

After settling a plaint in the SYL matter for dissolution of the decree of the Supreme Court, Fali humoured "…Captain (Amarinder Singh) will be buried either three feet below the canal or three feet outside the canal unless we act carefully."

The most difficult time faced by Fali in the Cauvery matter was during the cross-examination of his dear friend Dr Swaminathan. It was a clash of giants. After a marathon questioning for two days, Fali politely said, "Dr Swaminathan you have not applied your mind." Dr Swaminathan smiled graciously and disagreed. 

Meeting Fali was a routine for chief ministers and irrigation and law ministers from Karnataka. Along with chief ministers or ministers, dozens of TV channels and journalists would flock to his Hauz Khas bungalow. Fali was exceptionally fond of Deve Gowda. He liked the flamboyance of Bangarappa. He appreciated the involvement shown by Moily. He was influenced by the charm of Krishna. He liked the resilience shown by Siddaramaiah during the crisis. He remembered Naniah for his articulation, Bommai as the son of his friend SR Bommai, HK Patil for his exceptional interest in pursuing the Almatti case, and MB Patil for his redoubtable energy in fighting legal battles.

The era of Fali is over. He will go down in the history of Karnataka for his contribution to redressing the injustice caused to the state. He guided in difficult situations and ably led the state. The burden of releases at the border in Cauvery stood reduced from 320 TMC (under pre-constitutional agreement) to 177.25 TMC annually... succeeded in getting surplus water allocation (Scheme B) and the right to raise the Almatti dam to 524.256 mts... Mahadayi water for Hubli and Dharwad. HK Patil has rightly said while paying him tribute in the State Assembly that a canal shall be named after Fali Nariman in memory of his contribution to the state.

(The writer is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court)

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(Published 21 February 2024, 17:49 IST)

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