March 24, 2004
Emerson used to say that nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm: V M Tarkunde, like his mentor M N Roy, was an enthusiast with a vision — a vision inspired by idealism. Alas, the disciple has now followed his master, and is no more.
‘‘Great men’’ are the guide posts and landmarks in the State. The population of this country is accelerating, but the numbers who fit that description are rapidly diminishing: to me, this is the single most alarming aspect of our Indian polity — the marked decrease of men (and women) who can be reckoned as ‘‘guide posts and landmarks in the State’’. There is now one less to be counted in the reckoning.
Radical humanists like Tarkunde refused to become members of any political party, always supporting candidates of integrity — telling people that they were not obliged to vote for any party, that they could select and nominate their own men and women, whom they would be able to influence better. This humanist political approach was intended to create small islands of democracy and freedom, the nucleus of a democratic humanist society — in which education would not only create a discriminating electorate, but teach people to live a cooperative life.
All this now sounds like Utopia — but that is because we have stopped honouring and respecting great men.
I had the privilege of knowing Tarkunde since I was ten or twelve years in practice on the Original Side of the Bombay High Court. Tarkunde had been a distinguished advocate on the Appellate Side, and then, on his elevation as a judge, he sat exclusively on the Appellate Side of the High Court. In those days the Appellate Side Bar and the Original Side Bar were distinct and different — appeals on the Appellate Side came from the district courts in which invariably the members practising on the Appellate Side were briefed, whereas suits and original petitions and actions in Bombay were filed on the Original Side, in which members of the Original Side Bar were briefed.
After Tarkunde established himself as an able and competent judge he was asked to sit on the Original Side. I remember that seniors were alarmed that a person with little experience of conducting original trials should be brought to try cases in one of the premier High Courts in the country. But they were all prophets of doom. Tarkunde soon established himself as a master of facts and a good purveyor of the law — able to pick up the justice of the case, and to discern and apply the justice in the law governing the case. He had a penchant for justice.
He would try to administer justice according to law, and when, on a few occasions, the law did not favour the facts of an individual case he would try to administer justice — period: on these occasions he invariably cocked a Nelson’s eye at the law: somewhat like Lord Denning used to do when sitting in the Chancery Court in England in his young days.
After he retired prematurely at the age of 60, Tarkunde came to practice in the Supreme Court in New Delhi — always a principled advocate, always the righteous lawyer: for instance, he never appeared for management but always for labour. There was much money in commercial cases if you appeared for corporate houses, but he always — not invariably, but always — declined the offer of a brief from a corporate house if it was against the employee or would be inimical to the cause of labour.
Always a human rights enthusiast and internationally recognised as such, he championed what at the time appeared to be unpopular causes. He never deflected in his views, never compromised to please someone.
He was reliable, and solid as an oak. Younger lawyers and NGOs flocked to him — it mattered not whether he received any payment: he took up the case, and argued as vehemently as he could. For many of us who had seen him practice here after 1970, his retirement from the profession in the late 1990s was a great disappointment: not only because one liked to hear him in court, but particularly because he was almost like no other lawyer, a moral human being. After all, consistency of the moral dimension is the true measure of greatness in every human soul. Tarkunde was a great soul.
He has passed on after having lived a full and honorable life: when a great tree falls, the forest somehow looks barren.
As a member of an older generation of lawyers, I pay my tribute to him and salute him. Writing about a good life is easy, living one is the more difficult. Tarkunde lived the good life — he was our Bar’s noblest soul.
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