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Ashok Desai: From Narmada to Sec 377, many landmarks in 6 decades

Desai dealt with several landmark cases including decriminalisation of homosexuality, Narmada dam, Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in Assam, and the Vineet Narain case on investigation into corruption allegations against top public officials.

Written by Apurva Vishwanath | New Delhi |
Updated: April 14, 2020 5:43:56 pm
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Former Attorney General of India and senior advocate Ashok Desai died in Mumbai on Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 87.

Fondly known as Ashokbhai in legal circles, Desai began his practice in 1956 in the Bombay High Court. He moved to Delhi after being appointed Solicitor General of India, a post he held from December 1989 to December 1990. A public interest and constitutional lawyer, he served as Attorney General of India from July 1996 to May 1998. In 2001, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan and the Law Luminary Award.

Desai dealt with several landmark cases including decriminalisation of homosexuality, Narmada dam, Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in Assam, and the Vineet Narain case on investigation into corruption allegations against top public officials.

A London School of Economics graduate, Desai studied law at the Government Law College in Mumbai along with Fali Nariman, Anil Divan and Soli Sorabjee, who would later be his peers as India’s finest constitutional lawyers.

Desai’s first big case was when he appeared against former Maharashtra chief minister A R Antulay in the quid-pro-quo corruption matter. Desai won the case, leading to one of the first instances when a minister had to demit office because of court orders. He took on the Maharashtra government again in the Backbay Reclamation case, in which he successfully argued that the government can only auction land at market price and not arbitrarily.

In 1972, when Vijay Tendulkar’s ‘Sakharam Binder’ faced a ban, it was Desai who came to his rescue. Desai was an important figure in Bombay legal circles during the Emergency to mobilise lawyers in fighting preventive detention cases. He also fought the Salwa Judum case in the Supreme Court against the Chhattisgarh government.

Lawyers and political leaders including NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Congress leader and senior advocate Kapil Sibal, BJP leader and lawyer Gaurav Bhatia and Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nandy expressed condolences and paid rich tributes to Desai.

“Saddened to hear about the demise of Senior Advocate and Former Attorney General of India, Shri Ashok Desai, a brilliant lawyer and Padma Bhushan awardee. My sincere condolences to the family,” Pawar tweeted.

Senior advocate Menaka Guruswamy, one of Desai’s juniors, said the “legal profession today is lesser with this loss”.

With inputs from, ENS Mumbai

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