Last week, a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi made an unusual offer to the lawyer representing Ramlalla, the infant deity, in the Ayodhya land dispute case. “Do you want to sit and argue?” it asked.
“It’s okay. Your Lordships are too kind. The tradition of the Bar has been to stand and argue, and I am concerned about the tradition,” the lawyer replied.
That exchange sums up what K Parasaran, 92 years old, is all about.
Since 2016, Parasaran’s appearances in court have been rare. But then, two big cases have brought the veteran senior lawyer and former two-time Attorney General of India back from Chennai to Delhi — the Sabarimala case and now, the Ayodhya dispute.
An erudite Hindu scholar and a quintessential government lawyer, Parasaran has enjoyed the trust of every administration since the 1970s. His courtroom orations are often lectures in Hindu scriptures. So much so, that Supreme Court judge and former chief justice of Madras High Court Sanjay Kishan Kaul referred to Parasaran as the “Pitamaha of the India Bar for his contribution to the law without compromising with his dharma”.
In the Sabarimala case, Parasaran appeared for the Nair Service Society to defend the ban on the entry of menstruating women in the temple. His argument was that the court is asking the wrong question to begin mental right to pray?”
“If a person asks ‘can I smoke when I pray’, he will get a slap. But if he asks, “can I pray as I smoke, he will be appreciated. So, the right question will bring the right answer, a wrong question will bring a wrong answer,” he told the judges.
During his arguments, Parasaran recited paragraphs from the Sundarakanda of the Ramayana to explain “Naishtika Brahmacharya”, or the celibate nature of the deity Ayyappa, to the judges. However, the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court decided against the arguments and allowed entry of women.
Earlier, when rival parties approached him to represent them in the Ram Sethu case, related to the bridge from mythology linking India to Sri Lanka, Parasaran chose to argue against the government and for protecting the Sethu from the Sethusamudram project. He recalled the Skanda Purana, which describes the link, when the judge asked why he was opposing the government. The case is still pending before the Supreme Court. “This is the least I can do for Ram,” he had said.
Parasaran was born in Tamil Nadu’s Srirangam in 1927. His father Kesava Aiyengar was a lawyer and Vedic scholar who practised at the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court. Parasaran’s three sons, Mohan, Satish and Balaji, are also lawyers. Mohan Parasaran briefly served as Solicitor General in the UPA-2 regime. The family’s fourth generation has also joined the Bar.
Parasaran started his practice before the Supreme Court in 1958. During the Emergency, he was Advocate General of Tamil Nadu and in 1980 was appointed Solicitor General of India. He served as Attorney General of India from 1983 to 1989.
Parasaran often found himself on the other side of Nani Palkhivala on key Constitution cases in the 1970s — Palkivala mostly appearing for private interests challenging tax and administrative laws.
In 1992, Mumbai-based Milon Banerji, who enjoyed the confidence of then MoS for Law H R Bhardwaj was appointed Attorney General, but Parasaran was referred to as the “Super AG” or the “de facto AG”. Since Banerji specialised in arbitration and commercial laws, Parasaran was indispensable to the government when it came to Constitutional cases.
Despite defending the government for decades, Parasaran did not shy away from disagreeing with the political leadership. In 1985, as Solicitor General of India, he advised the government to not act on the show-cause notice issued to demolish the Indian Express building as it was legally untenable.
However, when the Indira Gandhi government ignored his opinion, he refused to defend the government in court and offered to resign if he was forced to appear. The government, despite his public statement, not only kept him in office but promoted him as Attorney General of India in two months.
Much later, in 1997, Parasaran’s appearance at an unlikely location — a family court in the Tis Hazari complex in Delhi — showed the extent to which the Gandhi family still relied on him. Just days before Priyanka Gandhi was to marry Robert Vadra, a man who was later found to be mentally unstable had petitioned the court claiming that she was already married to him. “Senior Parasaran”, as he is referred to in legal circles, did not have to make much of an effort to convince the judges that the case was frivolous.
Governments changed but Parasaran was still sought after. Former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee appointed him as member of the drafting and editorial committee tasked with reviewing the working of the Constitution. While the Vajpayee-led NDA government awarded him the Padma Bhushan, the Manmohan Singh led UPA-1 government awarded him the Padma Vibhushan and nominated him to the Upper House.
As member of Rajya Sabha in 2014, he defended the National Judicial Appointments Commission. “Independence of the judiciary means institutional independence and is not related to each individual judge at the time of appointment. There is a great error in the thinking of the judges that if the executive appoints a judge he can never be independent,” he said.
Last week, when senior advocate Rajeev Dhawan objected to daily hearings in the Ayodhya case before the Supreme Court, Parasaran said: “My last wish before I die, is to finish this case.”