Public intellectual and jurist, God’s good man - Hindustan Times
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Public intellectual and jurist, God’s good man

Feb 21, 2024 10:00 PM IST

In Fali Nariman’s death, India has lost its tallest spokesman for honesty in public intent and private conduct

Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to Prime Minister (PM) Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and National Security Adviser, was not an excitable man. And he did not speak two words when one would do. But in 1999, when PM Vajpayee had recommended to President KR Narayanan the name of Fali S Nariman for being nominated under the President’s discretion to the Rajya Sabha, the tough former diplomat rang me (I was then secretary to the President) with barely suppressed happiness to convey the glad tidings. “I think the President will be pleased with the name,” he said. “Nariman is so fair-minded, so objective, and so very well-liked across the board.” President Narayanan was indeed very happy with the name.

Senior advocate to the Supreme Court Fali S Nariman. (PTI) PREMIUM
Senior advocate to the Supreme Court Fali S Nariman. (PTI)

Did PM Vajpayee think of the name himself? He might well have. Did Brajeshji suggest it? He might well have. Atalji’s private secretary Shakti Sinha would know.

Be that as it may, the choice was an inspired one. It must be said to the credit of the PM and his advisers, but most of all to the credit of Fali Nariman’s stature, no one thought the renowned jurist and quondam Additional Solicitor General of India would, as a member of Parliament (MP), be soft on the ruling establishment or somehow get co-opted by it. The thought simply did not occur to anyone. That is what is called independence. That is what is called autonomy. That is what is called izzat (dignity). And unlike many or even most nominated members, Nariman chose to not join any party — a choice they have.

Nominated MPs get very little speaking time. But some people impact their surroundings by their mere presence. Nariman did that in the Supreme Court and the Upper House of Indian Parliament. On January 27, 2000, President Narayanan, while addressing MPs on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Republic of India said: “Today, when there is so much talk about revising the Constitution or even writing a new Constitution, we have to consider whether it is the Constitution that has failed us or whether we have failed the Constitution.” From the galleries, I noticed Nariman erupt in delighted applause, thumping the desk in front of him, with the Central Hall resounding with approbation. And as I was on my way out, he came up to me and said: “Brilliant, brilliant… Our President is brilliant… We have failed the Constitution, we have…” Nariman was aware of the National Democratic Alliance government wanting to have the Constitution reviewed, a step which, in fact, took place less than a month after President Narayanan’s address, on February 22, 2000 — exactly 24 years ago today. The government set up a Constitution Review Commission to suggest possible amendments to the Constitution. President Narayanan had hinted at it in his speech when he said “…there is so much talk…” and Nariman by his celebration of the President’s position had made his own position clear. He, as a sitting MP, was not included on the Commission which had a galactic composition, totally broad-based and fair-minded, headed by none other than former Chief Justice of India, MN Venkatachaliah. The Vajpayee government’s preference was clear but its process was clean. Neither Narayanan nor Nariman could fault the composition. Grace came naturally in those times.

Nariman’s being in Parliament was akin to a conscience-keeper being in the atrium of India’s legislative genius. He represented the Constitution’s foundational objectives, its driving force which was about rights and duties woven into the resplendent shot-silk of democratic republicanism. He knew, better than anyone I can think of, the meaning of the Latinism audi alteram partem (hear the other side). There is everywhere “the other side”. In a country like India, so diverse, so variegated, there is another side to every other side as well, an inside in every inside. And so be as just as one can be, but you will still leave someone out of justice. Nariman knew this.

He was fair, he was not flawless. Who is? But he was that which makes the flawed less flawed by being aware of human fallibility. Did he not go wrong by appearing for Union Carbide in the Bhopal gas tragedy case? He did. But he very honestly admitted that was a mistake. Was he prudent when he appeared for former chief minister J Jayalalithaa on October 17, 2014, in a conviction and obtained bail for her, which was earlier rejected? Not every lawyer seeks immaculacy in the client, only legal merit in the brief. The great Nani Palkhivala had appeared for Indira Gandhi even though, like Nariman, he had opposed the Emergency.

In Nariman’s death, India lost its tallest spokesman for honesty in public intent and private conduct, probity in public service and private enterprise, and simple decency in public dealing and private equations. He was free of all sanctimony, all pomposity. Nariman was the closest approximation I have known to that elusive person – God’s good man.

Than His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there cannot be a more mind-rinsing sage. But even HH was on a plinth lower than his questioner when he answered somewhat ambiguously a question Nariman posed: “You do not believe in God, Your Holiness, but you do pray. What in your view is the role of prayer?” Nariman’s prayer was to what and to whom? Only his theologically trained son would know. But I would submit it was to human conscience, the seat of ethics.

Nariman has gone to where his fond wife Bapsi has waited for him. I can hear her say to him: “Fali, now please forget PILs and all that. Let us watch from here the earth so enfolded by ego, so corrupted by power. We are in a better place than where we were.”

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former administrator, and diplomat, is a student of modern Indian history. The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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