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Judicial giant Fali S Nariman leaves an unmatched legacy

Feb 22, 2024 05:56 AM IST

Fali S Nariman, a legal luminary, Padma Vibhushan recipient, and champion of justice in India, passed away at 95, leaving behind a legacy of integrity and impact.

“I have lived and flourished in a secular India. In the fullness of time, if God wills, I would also like to die in a secular India,” Fali S Nariman, a distinguished legal luminary and veteran lawyer stated in his book Before Memory Fades: An Autobiography, indicating the monumental sense of probity and concerns for the constitutional ethos that the titan of the legal profession had till he breathed his last in the wee hours of Wednesday.

Eminent jurist Fali S Nariman (HT Archive)
Eminent jurist Fali S Nariman (HT Archive)

A Padma Vibhushan recipient, Nariman, 95, died peacefully at around 12.40am on Wednesday at his New Delhi residence, leaving behind a legacy of matchless expertise, unwavering integrity, and profound impact. Nariman is survived by his son and former Supreme Court judge Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, daughter-in-law Sanaya, and daughter Anaheeta. His wife Bapsi Nariman died in 2020.

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Born in Rangoon January 10, 1929 — then British India — Nariman was enrolled as an advocate of the Bombay high court in November 1950, setting out on a journey in the year the Constitution was enacted which would shape the landscape of legal practice for generations to come. With an innate passion for justice and an insatiable curiosity for the intricacies of the law, Nariman quickly rose through the ranks, earning a reputation as a brilliant legal mind. He was designated a senior advocate in 1961. In May 1972, Nariman was appointed as additional solicitor general of India; nevertheless, he left his position the day the Emergency was declared on June 26, 1975.

His illustrious career spanned an extraordinary seven decades; initially in the Bombay high court and later in the Supreme Court where Nariman fearlessly navigated a complex legal terrain, setting precedents and championing causes that advanced the cause of justice, equality and constitutionalism.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Nariman, often referred to as the “Bhishma Pitamah” (father figure) of the Indian judiciary, had been at the forefront of several landmark judgments that aided the Supreme Court in breaking new ground. Serving as a beacon of wisdom and guidance, he appeared in an array of Constitution bench cases that went a long way in helping the apex court interpret constitutional provisions and redefining the legal fabric.

Some of the key cases that Nariman was a part of as a lawyer included the Golak Nath case (even constitutional amendments are amenable to judicial review), the TMA Pai case (right of minorities to establish institutions of their choice) and the SP Gupta and NJAC cases (where he stood for the independence of judiciary in the appointment of judges).

With his unparalleled dedication and tenacity, Nariman’s was the hand that stood out among the number of fingerprints when it came to protecting the independence of judiciary. Nariman’s biggest imprint on constitutional law that endures to this day are the three cases that established and solidified the collegium system of appointing judges — the 1993 Second Judges case, the 1998 Third Judges case, and the 2015 challenge to the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled his death, saying he has left an indelible mark on Indian jurisprudence. “Deeply saddened by the passing of legal luminary Shri Fali Nariman Ji. His contributions to the field of law were immense, leaving an indelible mark on Indian jurisprudence. Heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and the legal fraternity. Om Shanti,” Modi said in a message on X.

Beginning the day’s proceedings in the Supreme Court on Thursday, Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud said: “We mourn the sad demise and passing away of Mr Fali Nariman. He was a giant of a legal luminary. We are very sad.”

In a post on X, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi called it “an end of an era”. “A living legend who will forever be in hearts & minds of those in law & public life. Above all his diverse achievements, he stuck to his principles unwaveringly &called a spade a spade, a quality shared by his brilliant son,” he said.

Beyond his remarkable courtroom prowess, Nariman was a mentor, a trailblazer, and a pillar of the legal community. He generously shared his knowledge and expertise, nurturing the next generation of lawyers and imparting invaluable lessons on the importance of integrity, empathy, and resilience.

“The Rule of Law in India has lost its greatest warrior today. Go well Fali Sir. I have learnt so much from you and above all am grateful for your kindness. You will continue to inspire generations of men and women of law,” senior advocate Sanjay Hegde wrote on X.

Nariman’s contributions extended far beyond the confines of his practice. He was a tireless advocate for social justice, lending his voice to countless causes and lawyers’ bodies dedicated to uplifting the values cherished by the Constitution. A former member of Rajya Sabha, Nariman had been the president of the Bar Association of India, an honorary member of International Commission of Jurists, and the honorary president of International Council for Commercial Arbitration.

Nariman had a maestro’s talent not only for the law but also for the letters. He was a prolific author who penned several books, including Before the Memory Fades, The State of the Nation, India’s Legal System: Can it be Saved? and God Save the Hon’ble Supreme Court. In his latest book released last year, You must know your Constitution, Nariman navigated through the journey of the Indian Constitution with riveting anecdotes as he emphasised: “A Constitution does not survive on its contents, it is the spirit of constitutionalism among the representatives of the people which keeps it alive and functioning.”

With an unflinching commitment to fairness and equity, Nariman was the conscience-keeper of the legal profession, who minced no words in criticising the judgments of the Supreme Court as well as in commending them.

In his articles and interviews to several media organisations, Nariman berated the Supreme Court’s judgment in affirming the Centre’s 2019 decision of abrogating Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu & Kashmir. Regretting that none of the five judges on the bench had a dissenting view in their December judgment, Nariman said that the apex court’s judgment might be politically acceptable but was constitutionally incorrect.

On the other hand, Nariman applauded the Supreme Court in striking down the electoral bond scheme of political funding. In his letter to advocate Prashant Bhushan, who led the fight against the scheme in the top court, Nariman expressed the hope that the test of “manifest arbitrariness” used by the Supreme Court to annul the EB might enable the Supreme Court to strike down the “no-bail-for-now” provision in recently enacted laws. The amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in 2018 make the grant of bail extremely difficult and puts the onus on the accused to show his innocence instead of making it obligatory for the prosecution to demonstrate evidence of guilt.

In a post on X, Bhushan on Wednesday wrote: “Very sad news. Eminent Jurist Fali S Nariman Passes Away. He was also regarded as the ‘Bhishma Pitamah’ of the lawyer community. A great lawyer and close friend of our family. His passing away at this critical juncture is an enormous loss for our country.”

Every courtroom, column, and discussion in the Supreme Court was lit by Nariman’s remarkable wit and brilliant intellect. After over seven decades of excellence and unwavering dedication to the pursuit of justice, Nariman leaves behind a monumental void in the world of law, letters and constitutionalism.

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