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Remembering Soli Sorabjee

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By Arvindar Singh
Eminent jurist Soli J Sorabjee passed away on 30 April at the age of 91 – another victim of Covid-19. He served twice as Attorney General during the Prime Ministerships of VP Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Soli was a man of many parts, apart from being an outstanding lawyer who was a great Jazz fan as well as a promoter of this form of music. Once asked if he would prefer going to a Jazz concert to appearing in court, he said he would prefer the former. He was also a bibliophile and had a vast library on topics quite varied from the law.

He once said that he could not find enough time for reading being so busy with his profession that he intended to go on a long cruise with only books as his companions! I wonder if he ever got down to doing that.

Soli started his career in the chambers of the legendary Jamshedji Kanga, whose photographic memory he was to praise later on. He also worked with Nani Palkhivala in the Kesvananda Bharati case, during which the doctrine of the Basic Structure of the Constitution was evolved and is the law of the land today. He admired Palkhivala`s clarity of thought and power of expression and I think he followed in his footsteps. He once said if the theory of reincarnation were true, Lord Macaulay was reincarnated in Nani Palkhivala as far as memory was concerned. Another important case he was involved in was the Bommai case which challenged the dismissal of the Karnataka government and made the misuse of Article 356 virtually impossible thereafter.

In later years, Soli spoke out emphatically about the commercialisation of the law and lawyers losing the sense of public service which existed in his time. He deplored the tendency of the legal community taking recourse to adjournments which unnecessarily created a backlog of cases and made genuine litigants suffer. He also did not believe in mincing his words. On being asked whether the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir was a historic step, he quipped, “A historic step can also be a blunder!” His sense of humour never left him. Once, when Prime Minister Vajpayee was undergoing knee replacement surgery in Mumbai, Soli was in the same hospital for a similar surgery and he told Vajpayee, “It is a good thing you are going in first, for if the surgeon makes some mistakes on you, he won`t repeat the same mistakes on me!” Talking about the Parsi sense of humour, he once said that Parsis also had an ability to laugh at themselves.

He spent a good deal of his time at the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi and had been its President for a few terms apart from being a Life Trustee. He contributed to the cultural programmes of the institution in no small way. He attended book launches and other events with great aplomb. Presiding over the book launch of my book on former Prime Minister Morarji Desai, he was able to regale the audience on the various facets of the late Gandhian`s life and paid tribute to him as a man of principle. Undoubtedly, with his going, the IIC has lost one of its pillars.

He had worked Pro Bono for the Citizens’ Justice Committee on the 1984 Anti Sikh Riots, served as Special Rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, was a member of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, apart from being a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

He was awarded the nation`s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, in 2002. Having lived a full life he responded to the inevitable call of his maker leaving his footprints on the sands of time.