A career with many firsts
An elephantine memory, a forensic ability to interpret laws and a thundering voice -- justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, a man ordained a Parsi priest at 12, will leave the Supreme Court on Thursday after seven years of judgeship.
There are a number of firsts one can associate with justice Nariman. His trajectory as a lawyer and judge has indeed been out of the ordinary. In 1993, no less than the then Chief Justice of India MN Venkatachaliah amended the rules to designate him as a senior advocate at 37 against the mandatory 45. And this was just the start of a trailblazing career.
Son of eminent jurist Fali S Nariman, he would walk the corridors of the Supreme Court as a one-man army, without the usual paraphernalia of a big lawyer. While every senior lawyer will have an array of juniors around them, he had none -- and said he never needed any.
In 1996, he appeared for the petitioners in KR Lakshmanan vs State of Tamil Nadu, challenging a state law that sought to impose restrictions on horse racing for being a game of chance. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that horse-racing was a game of skill, and quashed the state legislation as being unconstitutional. The key takeaway was the declaration that any restriction imposed upon the fundamental rights of the citizens must be fair and reasonable, and that unreasonable intrusion into these rights will be ultra vires of the Constitution.
He was later associated with Vodafone’s $2 billion tax matter; Novartis’s case on protection of its anti-cancer drug; Khoday Distilleries Ltd’s case on use of word “scot” on the premium whiskey brand Peter Scot; and Enercon’s case on law of arbitration and private international law.
He was appointed Solicitor General of India in July 2011 and served till February 2013 when he resigned from the post reportedly due to difference of opinion between him and then Union law minister, Ashwani Kumar, on certain crucial cases pending before the top court.
In July 2014, he was elevated to the Supreme Court as a judge, becoming only the fifth lawyer in the history to be directly appointed from the bar. The first judgment justice Nariman wrote within two months of his appointment gave a hint of the path he would follow -- a protector of rights and liberty.
As part of a Constitution bench, justice Nariman gave those facing death sentences a chance to argue their review petitions in an open court instead of coming to a decision in the privacy of the judges’ chambers. Deciding a batch of petitions involving eight death row convicts in September 2014, the judgment noted that oral hearing was an indispensable facet of the right to life enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution, and hence “oral hearing, in death sentence cases, becomes too precious to be parted with”.
In 2015, he authored the judgment that struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which authorised police to arrest people for social media posts construed “offensive”or “menacing”. He held that Section 66A “arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately” invaded the right to free speech, right to dissent, right to know, and had a “chilling effect” on constitutional mandates.
He later authored judgments expediting the trials in the Babri demolition case; declaring privacy as a fundamental right; striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised homosexuality; holding instant triple talaq as null and void; banishing adultery as a criminal offence; introducing concept of creamy layer even for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; and allowing women of all ages to Kerala’s Sabarimala temple.
On Tuesday, in his last order, he called out lawmakers for not framing a stricter law to decriminalise politics. “The nation continues to wait, and is losing patience. Cleansing the polluted stream of politics is obviously not one of the immediate pressing concerns of the legislative branch of government,” he lamented.
A man of varied interests, justice Nariman listens to Western classical music, especially Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Verdi. Music and musical concerts also make him travel across the globe. He likes to immerse himself in books, and has an avid interest in history, philosophy, literature and science. Justice Nariman is also a prominent scholar of Zoroastrianism and comparative religion.