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The conscience keeper of the Bar

As a human being, Fali was warm and friendly. The fact that almost everybody addressed him as Fali, despite his stature and seniority, is a clear indication of his warmth.
Last Updated 21 February 2024, 17:54 IST

The news of the demise of Fali Nariman on Wednesday morning stunned the legal fraternity. Despite his age (he was 95) he was doing quite well. Less than a fortnight ago, he addressed a large gathering of journalists and others at the IPI-India Awards function. A fighter for the protection of our fundamental freedoms, he said, "We are past the age of free speech and entering another age — an age of thought control. You will say what thought control prompts you to say. It is a serious problem." On the freedom of the press, he expressed disappointment at India's fall in the world press freedom index. "The condition is not at all suited for a free press," he said.

Fali Nariman (Fali as everybody called him) began his practice in the Bombay High Court and soon became a leading lawyer. He was appointed as an Additional Solicitor General of India and carried the Constitution of India and the fundamental freedoms guaranteed to all of us in his heart. Therefore, when Emergency was declared in 1975, he put in his resignation. Given the times, it was brave of him but clearly, his conscience did not permit him to represent an authoritarian regime.

As a leading lawyer in the Supreme Court, he was extremely popular with the Bar and greatly respected by the Bench. His presentation of cases was a lesson in advocacy and I had the good fortune to assist my senior in opposing him in a rather complex matter in the Delhi High Court. Though we lost the case, I learnt a lot by just observing his advocacy skills. Much later, I had the fortune of being on the Bench when he led the challenge to the Constitution Amendment which brought in the National Judicial Appointments Commission. The manner in which he presented the case from different perspectives and passionately called upon the judges to protect and preserve the independence of the judiciary was simply amazing.

As a lawyer, there is no doubt that he was outstanding and a leading light. Everybody accepted him as the doyen of the Bar and, in a sense, he was the conscience keeper of the Bar. I can say with certainty all judges in the Supreme Court had great respect and regard for him and if they had the good fortune to have him address the court, they would certainly cherish the memory.

As a human being, Fali was warm and friendly. The fact that almost everybody addressed him as Fali, despite his stature and seniority, is a clear indication of his warmth. He was well read outside the law and hearing him speak on occasions was a delight. He had a passion for music and his variety of interests enabled him to get along with young and old. Fali was a simple man who believed in simple living and dedicated his time, to the extent possible, to the welfare of the legal profession and for the good of the country.

Fali was highly respected not only in India but across the world. I have had occasion to interact with some leading lawyers and judges both in the East and the West and they all spoke in glowing terms about Fali. Each one remembered either having met him or having attended an event where he gave a speech or participated in a discussion. Many of them continued their association with Fali and developed lifelong friendships.

Our country will miss a great lawyer and a great human being. In his passing away, there is a void that will be very difficult to fill. Rest in peace, dear Fali.

(The writer is a retired Supreme Court judge)

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(Published 21 February 2024, 17:54 IST)

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