Opinion: Fali S Nariman - A Tireless Defender Of Civil Liberties

Fali Sam Nariman, the last of the extraordinary doyens of India's legal fraternity, died on Wednesday, but he leaves behind a legacy that will live on for generations. 

Fali, as he was popularly known among his peers, epitomised the celebrated 'Bombay Club' of the Supreme Court of India, graced by legends like MC Chagala, MC Setalvad, CK Daftary, Nani A Palkhiwala, Ram Jethmalani and Soli Sorabjee, among others. These legends redefined almost every characteristic of constitutional law through the splendidness of their advocacy and their profundity. 

Ram Jethmalani, a good friend of Fali Nariman, once famously said, "If you want to be a good lawyer, be an architect and not a mason. You must have knowledge not only of law but history, current affairs, politics, theology, and much more." Fali Nariman embodied that statement.

Nariman started his practice in 1950 and, by the 1970s, began practising at the Supreme Court. He had resigned as the additional solicitor general when Indira Gandhi had imposed the Emergency - an example of his allegiance to civil liberty and the fundamental rights of citizens.

In his book, 'Before the Memory Fades', Nariman wrote: "Edmund Burke used to say that the study of law 'renders men acute' and that 'they can augur misgovernment at a distance and sniff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze'". This is a sentiment he treasured throughout his legal career spanning seven decades. 

His uncompromising commitment to individual liberty within the framework of the Indian Constitution propelled him to call out the Supreme Court judges for delivering the Article 370 judgment. "It (the judgment) is erroneous and bad in law," he said, but clarified in the same breath that he meant no disrespect to the Supreme Court through his criticism. Such was his belief in the oath to the Constitution and the rule of law and procedure.

There is no dearth of cases for which Fali will be remembered, but whenever the sovereignty of the judiciary will be called into question or debated, posterity will think back to one of his most famously argued cases, the "National Judicial Appointments Commission" case, which was struck down by the Supreme Court. Through the case, Fali was successful in helping retain the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of the judiciary and preventing interference by the executive.

Lawyers are justifiably unapologetic for the cases they fight or have fought in the past because popular public morality and legal requirements are often at odds. But Fali was a legend who always defied norms.

Fali argued for Union Carbide in the Bhopal Gas Leak case and helped make a deal outside of court that gave $470 million to the victims. But when he was asked if that was a mistake, he said yes.

"Yes, I think so. Because I thought this was one more case that would add a feather to my cap. I mean one is always ambitious at that age. But I found later - but then it's too late, one can't walk out of the case one has already taken up - that it was not a case, it was a tragedy. And in a tragedy, who is right, who is wrong etc, all becomes marred in a great deal of justifiable emotion," he said.  

His numerous articles, his speeches, the judgments of his argued cases, and his books - like, 'Before Memory Fades: An Autobiography', 'You Must Know Your Constitution', 'God Save The Honourable Supreme Court', 'India's Legal System- Can It Be Saved?', 'The State of The Nation', 'The Delightful Mr Daphtary' and a few other books are an astute affidavit of his universe of knowledge and his craft of harmonious existence with the world. 

A famous light-hearted saying that echoes in the corridors of the Supreme Court goes that Fali Nariman alone has the proficiency and legal discernment to recycle a criminal case into a constitutional case. When Fali played a key role in the Kesavananda Bharati case, remembered in popular memory as the 'Basic Structure Case', he was being shaped to be a jurist who would forever defend the majesty of the Indian constitution to its last letter.

The grandest commendation the Bar and country can give to this legend is by forever remembering his message: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Rest in Peace, sir.

(RK Singh is a Supreme Court advocate)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.