Former attorney general of India Soli Sorabjee. (HT archive)
Former attorney general of India Soli Sorabjee. (HT archive)

Adieu Soli Sorabjee, jurist, legal luminary, and jazz aficionado

Soli Sorabjee, 91, a former Attorney General of India, passed away on Friday at a hospital in New Delhi, where he was undergoing treatment for Covid-19
By Utkarsh Anand, Dhamini Ratnam
UPDATED ON MAY 01, 2021 04:28 AM IST

Soli Sorabjee, 91, former attorney general of India, a staunch proponent of freedom of speech, and an eminent lawyer associated with a series of landmark judgments, died on Friday at a hospital in New Delhi.

Sorabjee famously joined jurist Nani Palkhivala and veteran lawyer Fali S Nariman to fight the 1973 Keshavanand Bharti case in the Supreme Court that eventually led to the legal doctrine of “basic structure” of the Constitution. It was the only time a bench of 13 judges, the full strength of the apex court at that time, sat to decide a case. It was the longest heard case before the court -- 69 days from October 31, 1972, to March 23, 1973. The Bharati judgement, by a majority of 7:6, said amendments should not alter the “basic structure” of the Constitution, and has become the bedrock of Indian constitutional law.

Sorabjee was the petitioner’s lawyer in the landmark SR Bommai case, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s 1994 verdict that held the power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute and subject to judicial review. He was also involved in the Prakash Singh case in which the top court directed the Centre to appoint the National Police Commission and paved the way for significant police reforms.

In the 1984 anti-Sikh riots cases, Sorabjee worked with Citizen’s Justice Committee and took up cases pro bono for the victims. He also led the fight in the Maneka Gandhi case in which the Supreme Court expanded the meaning of personal liberty to mean life with dignity, and ruled against any arbitrary action not only of the executive but also through any legislative act.

In 1997, Sorabjee was appointed as a special rapporteur on human rights in Nigeria. He later became a member of the United Nations Sub Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and went on chair the commission from 1998 to 2004. Since 1998, he was a member of the United Nations Sub Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Sorabjee also served from 2000 to 2006 as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

He was decorated with India’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, in 2002.

Jazz, his first love

Known for his association with human rights cases, Sorabjee began his practice in 1953 at the Bombay high court. In 1971, the high court designated him as a senior counsel. He served as the solicitor general of India from 1977 to 1980 to became the country’s attorney general first from 1989 to 1990, and then from 1998 to 2004.

But jazz, as Sorabjee would often say, was his first love.

He developed an interest in jazz by a happy accident, Naresh Fernandes writes in his book on the history of jazz in Mumbai, Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The story of Bombay’s jazz age. The salesman at Rhythm House – a famous music shop that was set up in the late 1940s and shut shop a few years ago – gave Sorabjee a recording of Benny Goodman Trio’s “Tiger Rag” instead of Brahm’s “Hungarian Dance No. 5”, as asked for. “The first playing of the record had an electric effect, especially the sound of Benny’s clarinet and the feeling of spontaneity throughout the performance,” the book quotes Sorabjee.

Sorabjee also began to take clarinet lessons from famous jazz musician Hal Green, and performed at amateur concerts. During the war years, he and a group of boys from his school, St Xavier’s High School at Dhobi Talao, would tune into Radio SEAC that would host jazz music shows. This group started what was the country’s first jazz magazine, Blue Rhythm, in 1952 (the magazine lasted a year).

“We would listen to the greats, who made up what was called contemporary jazz in the 1960s like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. Not many know but Soli’s love for jazz started during his school days,” said former advertising executive Stanley Pinto, who was also a jazz pianist and hosted jazz concerts in then Calcutta in the 1970s and 80s.

Though he stopped playing the clarinet because of breathing problems, Sorabjee believed jazz deeply influenced the way he practised law. He would say it helped him improvise as the situation demanded in court.

Tributes pour in

Tributes started pouring in as the news of Sorabjee’s death broke. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him an outstanding lawyer and intellectual.

President Ram Nath Kovind said India has lost an “icon of its legal system”.

Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said, “In his (Sorabjee) nearly 68-year long association with judicial world, he made immeasurable contribution in enriching the global jurisprudence of human rights and fundamental rights.”

Attorney general KK Venug opal told HT, “He was one of the best constitutional lawyers. He was a strong defender of the fundamental rights. His parting is a great loss to the entire legal community and a big personal loss to me.”

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