By: Indira Jaising
Goolam Vahanvati, one the finest legal minds in the country, is no more. His legal acumen was the envy of many, including myself. Every day that he was Attorney General, every case that we argued together was a learning experience. He never entered a courtroom for a final hearing without well-researched written arguments in place, even if they were in the form of a memo to himself.
One morning in 2009, when I was on a flight from New York to Washington, I got a call from him: “I am recommending you for the post of Additional Solicitor General, will you accept?” It was thrilling to be recommended by the Attorney General of India to be the first-ever woman Additional Solicitor General. Since then, it was five exciting years of work.
Goolam was a workaholic. He avoided the usual socialising of Delhi and paid the price for it — he lacked friends. When obliged by protocol to attend a party, he was the first to arrive at the appointed time and leave within the next half hour. Though he lived in Delhi for 10 years, the almost predatory ways of the political establishment and the networking required to survive did not suit him. He was a loner, content with his beautifully appointed house and the evergreen paradise he created out of a barren sarkari garden. He surrounded himself with alternative music and spent his evenings discussing the new and emerging forms of music with this few friends. Many of the trees that stand in 28 Canning Lane today have been planted by him with his own hands. Those who have inherited that garden must remember that the happiness comes from nurturing a garden and care for the trees he planted there.
He worked too hard, took upon himself the task of defending the government too seriously and that killed him. I often told him that he had done his duty as Attorney General and it was time for him to think of himself. His answer was, yes, I know when it is time to leave and I will. In hindsight, it almost seems he was talking of leaving this beguiling world.
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No Attorney General worked under the kind of pressures that he did. Managing the contradictions of a coalition government was no easy task for the Prime Minister and for his Attorney General an even tougher task. He is perhaps also the first Attorney General to be consulted by the government on legal issues arising from policy decisions. His critics said he had quick solutions to difficult legal issues, but that was his merit and genius.
A few days before the closing of his term, he fell ill and now it seems fatally ill. He died defending his clients.
Goolam had a command over language, mastery over facts and was always convincing in his opening arguments. This helped him clear a lot of misgivings about the government of the day and about the Prime Minister. There was a mutual fondness between him and Dr Manmohan Singh.
I will never forget the support he offered me on standing up for women’s rights. On one occasion, when I told Justice Katju in open court that he was a male chauvinist and that he could not refer to a woman in a live-in relationship as a “keep”, Goolam stood by me when complaints were made to the law minister to take action against me.
Having spent the better part of my life in court and working on women’s issues, I was naturally concerned about allegations of sexual harassment of interns by former judges and he knew he could not stop me from going public on the issue. Once again, he stood by me, though politicians and lawyers alike criticised me for overstepping the limits of behavior considered appropriate from an Additional Solicitor General.
I visited him at AIIMS, he was cheerful and had a kind word for the doctors who looked after him. Later, he was shifted to Mumbai and was in and out of hospital, but cheerful.
I suggested to him that he should write about his 10 years with government, and on all the cases he handled. He said he intended to do that, as what he had seen in government was an important part of contemporary history. But that book will now never see the light of day. Goolam died taking his many secrets with him,
(The writer is former Additional Solicitor General and senior Supreme Court advocate)