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Monday, August 15, 2022

Remembering Giani Zail Singh in the week of his 100th birth anniversary

Giani-ji possessed earthy wisdom and humour and was always willing to forgive and forget

Written by Fali S. Nariman |
Updated: May 7, 2016 10:41:34 am
Giani Zail Singh, Zail Singh, President, indian president, president Giani Zail Singh, nationalist, nationalist Giani Zail Singh, british india, indian express, indian express editorials Giani Zail Singh (Center)

I first came into contact with Giani Zail Singh when he took up his phone as the home minister and directly dialled me at my home. He began the conversation with a friendly “Nariman sahib, haal chaal kya hai?” I came to know him better later but he was one who always put you at ease. Once he summoned then-editor of The Indian Express Arun Shourie, who had written an article criticising Singh’s actions as president. But when Shourie arrived at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, to his surprise, Gianiji bared his pearly white teeth, hugged him and began exchanging pleasantries. When Gianiji’s secretary whispered to him that he was supposed to chide Shourie and get angry with him, Gianiji loudly responded “unko likhane deo, parhta kaun hai?”

This story, even if apocryphal, is so typical of both Shourie, who was never afraid of criticising anyone in authority, and Gianiji, who possessed earthy wisdom and humour and was always willing to forgive and forget.

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I also recall a seminar inaugurated by Zail Singh as the president, held in Bombay, whose theme was “Administration of Justice in the year 2000 AD” (at that time, a long way off). At first, he read out a mundane speech written for him in Hindi but then, seeing the lack of response from the nearly 600 delegates present, he put down the script and regaled us all with some extempore stories. For instance, a description of the conditions under which judges functioned in the erstwhile Indian states in British India.

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The ardent young Zail Singh was a great nationalist and he had been put in jail on innumerable occasions at the instance of the ruler of a princely state. He told us that on one occasion, in his youthful exuberance, he protested to the presiding judge against his fresh detention in prison on the evidence of a tutored witness who had deposed about his allegedly illegal activities on each of the five previous occasions when Zail Singh had been ordered to be imprisoned; and Zail Singh now demanded that he should be permitted to cross-examine this tutored witness, and for that purpose to bring in a senior lawyer from British India. The judge — in the Indian state of Patiala — was a kindly man. He adjourned the court and asked the exuberant young Zail Singh to see him in his chamber. And in the chamber, the judge remonstrated with him for being impetuous. The judge told him (in Zail Singh’s own words): “Zail Singh, tu buddhu hai (you are foolish Zail Singh!). What’s all this talk about cross-examining the witness produced by the police? They have only acted because the Maharaja has asked them to. Don’t you know? If the Maharaja asks me to acquit you, I will acquit you and if he tells me to convict you, I will convict you. So, let’s have less talk about lawyers from British India and get on with the case!”

The tradition then of judicial independence in British India (and later in independent India) has been essentially an English inheritance, now independent India’s single greatest asset! It started in England, of course, with the Magna Carta, which the bad King John was made to sign at Runnymede. Everyone knows this. But it is worth a moment’s reflection to remember that if King John had prevailed over the barons at Runnymede (and not they over him), and he had fed the Great Charter to his horse instead of affixing his seal to it, a large part of the world (including ours) would still have been living under a government, but it would have been a government not of laws, but of despotic men.

I believe that under our Constitution a president provides the window (perhaps the only one) in the wall of separation that divides those in government from the rest of the populace. So, even after the constitutional amendment of 1978 obliging the president to act in accordance with the re-considered advice given by his council of ministers, (proviso to Article 74) there is no prescription as to the time when the president should so act. Time runs in the president’s favour, and the astute Zail Singh used this to great advantage. When the Post Office Bill 1987 was submitted to him for assent, there was much criticism of its provisions, particularly the one which permitted an interception of all communications through the mail by the government of the day. Although the bill had been passed by both Houses of Parliament, Gianiji paused and harkened to public opinion. He could sense the public outrage, and responded to it by not giving his assent. Before demitting office, he wrote on the files that he hoped that his successor would not clear the bill. As a consequence, the public outcry against the bill gathered greater momentum, and the bill lay unsigned even on Zail Singh’s successor, R. Venkataraman’s desk. The latter having expressed his own displeasure at the bill, returned it to the prime minister of the day, V.P. Singh, in January 1990. The bill was then tabled again in the Rajya Sabha, where it still remains, officially and only in name as a pending bill. The bill has become, in the words of Granville Austin, “a parliamentary relic”.

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Zail Singh, born 100 years ago on May 5, is the holder of a world record: The only president in a parliamentary system of government to have refused assent to a bill passed by both Houses of Parliament, and yet not having had to face a motion for impeachment.

May his colourful soul rest in eternal peace.

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(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘President, precedent’)

The writer is a constitutional jurist and senior advocate to the Supreme Court.

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First published on: 07-05-2016 at 12:02:44 am
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