The life and times of Goolam Vahanvati

Published on Mar 31, 2021 07:00 PM IST

Revered by law aspirants across the country, Vahanvati was the 13th Attorney General for India and the first Muslim to become the senior-most law officer of the Indian government.

Goolam Vahanvati
Goolam Vahanvati
ByHT Brand Studio

When it comes to the pioneer lawyers that India has ever had, Goolam Vahanvati is among the first few names that cross our minds. Revered by law aspirants across the country, Vahanvati was the 13th Attorney General for India and the first Muslim to become the senior-most law officer of the Indian government. He has left behind a rich and inspirational legacy. As per sources, he was a UPA loyalist, and back in the day, he heavily influenced the politics of the country.

Vahanvati did not have a smooth life while growing up. He came from a middle-class family of Mumbai, and life threw many financial crunches at him. However, he did not let his economic background come in the way of his education. He graduated from St. Xavier's College and went on to pursue a law degree from Mumbai's Government Law College. He aced almost every exam he appeared for, and while studying as a Tata scholar, he also gave lectures at Sophia College and St Xavier's College in Mumbai. This teacher-turned-lawyer was heavily inspired by his father, Essaji Vahanvati, who was a practicing lawyer himself. The young Vahanvati used to sit in court for hours to witness his father arguing in cases. In an interview, he shared an instance of his father citing a page number during a case for reference, and a remark from the judge came, "We accept your word Mr. Vahanvati. We do not need to check the reference." It was this incident that left a profound impact on Vahanvati. Years later, when Vahanvati was in the Supreme Court, the judges told him that they had full faith in what he had said during cross-questioning. This instance made him believe that he was following the footsteps of his father and has honed his father's craft as a lawyer. It was the Bombay High Court from where Vahanvati began his career under Fali S Nariman, a well-known jurist of that time. He went on to work under other eminent advocates such as Ashok Sen, Ashok Desai, and Soli Sarabjee.

In the early 1980s, Goolam Vahanvati became no less than a legend in the Bombay High Court. Lawyers across the country knew him and have heard a lot about him. He was often regarded as the “go-to” junior counsel in the Bombay Bar. Thanks to his prodigious hard work and intelligence, it didn’t take him long to be the favourite of Mr. F.S. Nariman. As the advocate general of Maharashtra from December 1999 to June 2004, he successfully handled a lot of cases. He represented the state in the public interest litigation of the fake stamp paper scam of Rs. 60,000 crore. During this time, he was also successful in fighting the challenge to reservation for OBCs (Other Backward Classes) in higher educational institutions. Not only that, the Maharashtra government was also vigorously defended by him in the case regarding the Dabhol power project. Other vital cases in his career include Rajiv Gandhi assassination, FDI policy, Italian marines, and the Kudankulam nuclear plant.

Throughout his career, Vahanvati took upon a plethora of vested interests and also won. When the UPA rose to power in 2004, he was approached for becoming the solicitor general. He got promoted to attorney general in UPA 2. He was always keen on public service. After working in the Bombay High Court, he reluctantly decided on moving to New Delhi. At first, he had to struggle a lot. Initially, for almost two months, he stayed at a hotel at his own expense. He was tired of eating out and without any settlement. After he was allotted a home, he spent a lot of money on building his Canning Lane house.

It was in 1990 when Vahanvati got promoted as the senior lawyer. Throughout his legal career as a government lawyer, he was revered for following strict regulations and often turning down party invitations. He did not want to be accessible to networks or surrounded by the wrong people. From December 1999 to June 2004, Vahanvati served as the Advocate General of Maharashtra, in 2004, he was finally designated as the Solicitor General of India. In his career, Vahanvati handled an array of significant cases, some of which are still talked about

The legal luminary was 65 years old when he died of a massive cardiac arrest after being unwell for three months. On his death, many lawyers came up to express their shock and grief over the loss. Rafiq Dada, the senior counsel and formed president of Bombay Bar Association stated, "I saw him argue his first case. Even in the most difficult cases, he would find an easy solution. Sometimes, juniors get a lot of flak from Judges, but he would handle every situation politely... He went on to hold the highest legal position in the country. He was an outstanding lawyer."

He has been the guiding light for many law aspirants. He was blessed with a phenomenal memory and took up over 30 cases every day. He was one of the most sharp-minded and hard-working lawyers of India. Young lawyers often visited the court to listen intently to Vahanvati’s arguments and learn from him. His death will always be a great loss to the Indian legal fraternity. He is still remembered as a man with various interests. He liked listening to Cuban music of the 1950s and had a collection of rock music featuring Jim Morrison and Led Zeppelin. A foodie by heart, Vahanvati shared his culinary talent with the world by writing food recipes for columns in various magazines. His tenure as the top law officer of the country was marked by numerous controversial and high profile cases, such as the 2G scam case for which he was asked to depose as a witness in the trial of A. Raja, former minister. In an interview, Vahanvati admitted that the post of the attorney-general often turned out to be an "onerous responsibility".

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