In Memory Of Soli Sorabjee: Fali Nariman, Arvind Datar, Yashwant Sinha Reminisce
When Soli Sorabjee was appointed India’s Attorney General in 1989, his mentor Nani Palkhivala, one of India’s greatest jurists, wrote to him: “The greatest glory of the Attorney General isn’t to win cases for the government but to ensure that justice is done to the people.”
He probably knew he could have those lofty expectations from his younger colleague.
Sorabjee worked as a junior in Palkhivala’s chamber and assisted him in the landmark Kesavananda Bharti case. Over time he came be recognised as a leading jurist himself, served as Attorney General of India twice and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2002.
A legal scholar, a lover of jazz, a man with a great sense of humour, even a gifted mimic—in the days since his death on April 30, Sorabjee has been remembered as many things to many people.
I remember him as a senior advocate who never lost his patience with young journalists. He was always glad to explain the law and its implications, correcting gently, listening patiently. And always, speaking candidly.
Sorabjee celebrated his 91st birthday in March.
“In the passing of Soli Sorabjee, we lost an icon of India’s legal system. He was among the select few who deeply influenced the evolution of constitutional law and justice system,” the President of India said on social media.
Chief Justice of India NV Ramana condoled his loss and said: “His body of work, spread over nearly seven decades, in defending the fundamental rights and human rights is of international repute. He will be remembered as a legend who added strength to the pillars of democracy.”
Here below are reminisces of a contemporary jurist Fali Nariman; a leading senior advocate who worked with him as a junior, Arvind Datar; and a politician who in the past sought his advise on state matters, Yashwant Sinha.
Fali Nariman, Senior Advocate
Noted jurist Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabjee were contemporaries, rivals and friends. They both worked in the chambers of Jamshedji Kanga also known as the “grand old man of the Bombay bar”. In a phone conversation, Nariman recounted their times together from that period, Sorabjee’s success and their enduring friendship.
You are both legal legends of our time, contemporaries and also maybe in some ways competitors?
We have been friends for many years now and he was a remarkable chap. He was very successful right from the start and his greatest success was the passport case (Maneka Gandhi case, 1978) when he was a very young man in the Supreme Court. That passport case has become a legend now on fundamental rights and so on.
After that, he never looked back. He had one success after another—when he became Solicitor General for a while (1977-80) and then he was Attorney General on two separate occasions, one in 1989 and in 1998 for five years.
We appeared against each other quite often in the Supreme Court, but that's all part of the game.
We were in the same chamber—the Jamshedji Kanga Chamber in Bombay for many years and we hardly had a chair to ourselves, because it was a very successful chamber. Jamshedji Kanga was a classic figure, he was a giant of a man, with a giant of a mind and a giant of a heart, too. He was the person who really molded all of us by his example, he was a charming person. He was an amazing human being and actually we owe everything to him. All of us, Nani Palkhivala, myself, Soli Sorabjee—all of us because if we are what we are, we are because of him.
What was the profession like when you and Mr. Sorabjee were young lawyers?
It was very different but we were very fortunate. He was two years my junior but roughly speaking, we were there at the same time. The judges were exceedingly good to young people. For young people who prepared well, the judges were absolutely outstanding. All of them. I mean there was not a single judge about whom we complained. Of course judges have their weaknesses and have their habits but we have to somehow know those habits of the mind. But they were all very good to people who prepared their cases and of course we always prepared our cases extraordinarily well as young people and because we had that urge to get on in the profession and we had a star studded senior lead list of professionals who outshone us. We had judges who used to look upon us as people who’d be the next generation of lawyers and so encouraged us.
Were you and Mr. Sorabjee friends at the time you’ll were working together?
Yes, we were rivals as well as friends. We were all friends at the bar and the fact that you appear against each other doesn't mean you’re enemies. But ofcourse we argued against each other, we tried to excel against one another and so on and so forth. That was all part of the game, a part of the progression as in all professions.
What do you remember most about Mr. Sorabjee?
He was an outstandingly convivial man, full of fun, full of laughter. Ofcourse we all inherited it from Jamshedji, to laugh at ourselves and laugh at others and so on. We had that great backing of the old man behind us.
He was very astute, he had a command over the case law, he knew a lot of case law, he was adroit and knew when to shift his focus a bit. He was an outstanding lawyer, there's no question about it otherwise he wouldn't have been at the top of the bar that he was for many years.
On a lighter note, did he win more cases or did you?
A lawyer, when he gets on in life loses more cases than he wins because you see, nobody needs a senior lawyer if he has a good case. Only the funny, bad and the difficult cases come to us but that is always so. You go to a very famous doctor only if you are extraordinarily ill or something has gone very wrong with you. It’s the same sort of thing in every profession.
Your thoughts on Mr. Sorabjee as we reminisce today.
Passing and going at this stage and in this manner was a very sad business for me. We used to have a lot of talk and fun together, and my wife and his wife were also very close to each other when my wife was alive. Now, it’s quite a problem for all of us but then that’s how life is.
Arvind Datar, Senior Advocate
Senior Advocate Arvind Datar had been a junior lawyer for two years in 1982 when he first had the opportunity to work with Soli Sorabjee. Later, in 2012 they co-authored a book on legal legend Nani Palkhivala. In a phone conversation, Datar shared his memories of Sorabjee.
I had the privilege of co-writing “Nani Palkhivala: The Courtroom Genius” with him. He was very clear and (though he) was functioning as a junior, he remembered all the landmark cases as they were argued and which Palkhivala himself argued.
When we wrote The Courtroom Genius we thought that the book will sell two or three thousand copies and we told the publisher that there is no question of royalties as it’s in the memory of Palkhivala. The book went on to sell 35,000 copies and it’s still in print. So, he’d keep joking with me that “because of you, I’ve lost a lot of money”. He’d always be pulling my leg and saying, see Arvind, because of you, I’ve lost a lot of money.
Then, when we started the Palkhivala Foundation he immediately agreed to deliver the first lecture. When he came to the hall, he was wearing a slightly unusual tie, it was all out of fashion. He didn’t say anything, and I also didn’t ask. When he went up on stage, he said that “I’m wearing this tie because this is what is what Mr. Palkhivala had given me at the bar”. He had kept that with him. That was a nice touch and if I recall the video, it was a superb lecture.
When we started the Nani Palkhivala Arbitration Centre he instantly agreed to be a part of the governing body. In Delhi, there were five or six conferences. For every conference he would be there from the beginning and he wouldn’t ever insist on being on the dais. He would say that I’ll just come and attend. He would just come and sit. For the National Arbitration Conference he came till 2019, he attended every conference and would be there from the beginning. So that was his dedication.
Ofcourse, he was a great champion of freedom of speech. He did more than anybody else on media law and freedom of speech and privacy issues.
Right till 2019 I would meet him every time in the Supreme Court and he would come and speak to me. “Kaay, kasa kay (How’s it going?),” he would ask, in Marathi. We would sit in the consultation room and have a cup of coffee or something and I could see him getting frail day by day.
He is one of the greats. Fali Nariman, Soli Sorabjee, Anil Diwan—all the greats of that era.
I joined the bar in 1980 and in 1982 the first matter that we had in the Supreme Court was along with Gulam Vahanvati and Soli Sorabjee. I met him in February 1982, when I was just two years at the bar. He used to live in Sundar Nagar at that time. He was very effective as a counsel.
He was very persuasive, and he never raised his voice. I have never seen him lose his temper or shout or something like that. He was very persuasive and often, he would have a sense of humour. He had a very dignified sense of humour.
One thing to remember is, despite his busy practice, he continued to write articles in newspapers. He did so in Indian Express and he used to regularly write despite his busy practice. He was forthright in his views. He used to come out and say what he wanted to say especially on media issues and so on. Very few of us keep writing after doing well at the bar. Even after having other commitments, but he kept writing in newspapers on top issues too.
Yashwant Sinha, Former Cabinet Minister
Soli Sorabjee served as India’s Attorney General for the second time in 1998-2004, during the NDA government led by Prime Minister Vajpayee. At the the time, Yashwant Sinha was cabinet minister. He recalled working with Sorabjee and narrated this in a phone conversation.
First of all, my deepest condolences to Mrs. Sorabjee, on the passing away of Soli. As you may note, I refer to him as Soli, because that is how we used to address each other, by first names. That became possible because he was a person who never stood on any formality. The moment we first met, he was so informal, that we immediately came to the point that we decided to address each other with our first names—Yashwant and Soli.
As you’re aware, I handled two portfolios in the Vajpayee government—Finance and External Affairs—and in both there were occasions where one had to deal with aspects of law. Though the process was for all other ministries to refer the matter to the Law Ministry, and then for the Law Ministry to make a reference to the Attorney General, we (at the MoF and then the MEA) used to suggest, often, to the Ministry of Law that we were interested in getting the view of the Attorney General on this matter or that issue. The method was there would be a background note and at the end of it, an issue was framed, for his advice. This is how it was sent to Soli, the Attorney General, and we used to receive his advice and would generally act upon it. He used to be invited to cabinet meetings to brief the union cabinet on important legal issues.
So, there were often times where one acted quite closely with the Attorney General and it was a great pleasure. He was such a senior and respected lawyer that whenever it happened that I wanted to meet him, I would offer to go to his place. I have very pleasant memories of working with Soli Sorabjee as a minister of the Government of India.
Note: Kaushik Vaidya contributed to this story. He spoke to Yashwant Sinha.