Updated: April 14, 2020 12:22:11 pm
I was 20 years old, a final-year law student, when I first went to intern for the Attorney General for India. I showed up so early that the office had not opened yet, and was too nervous to contemplate switching on any lights. I sat in a corner in the dark. A few minutes later, someone bounded down the steps, looked at me, and said, “It’s always better to be a lawyer working in the light than in the dark”. Ashok Haribhai Desai had arrived at his office. It took me another month to muster up the courage to ask for a position as a junior.
Ashok Desai grew up in the city called Bombay, graduated with a degree in law from Government Law College, and then studied further at the London School of Economics. At Government Law College, his seniors included his old friend Fali S Nariman. He was called to the Bar from Lincoln’s Inn in London in 1956.
He often reminisced about his time in England, where he read voraciously and explored the city. His romance with the written word, whether poetry or literature or political philosophy, started early. From T S Elliot’s poetry to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or a Shakespearean play, Desai enjoyed immersing himself in the other worlds that books open up to their readers.
Early on in his legal career, Desai would teach at his alma mater and also work as a legal correspondent for the Times of India. He returned to the Bombay High Court soon after and began what would become an illustrious and much-storied law practice. Believing in the freedom of speech and expression, the young counsel Ashok Desai would fight off an obscenity ban on Vijay Tendulkar’s play — Sakharam Binder, about patriarchy — that debuted in 1974 on the stage in Marathi. A few years later, in 1977, Desai would be designated a senior advocate, in recognition of his craft and integrity as a lawyer. That integrity would move him to contest many a law and detention during the Emergency years. He recognised that the Constitution demanded the protection of her freedoms. This spirit of civil liberties would stay with him throughout his life.
As is customary in the legal profession, the senior counsel from Bombay soon moved to Delhi. He first moved to the capital to assume the position of Solicitor General of India in 1989, and later established a private practice. But, his professional legacy would be firmly established when he was appointed Attorney General for India in July 1996. There he would argue a wide array of cases representing the interests of the Union successfully. His array of dramatic wins as a lawyer didn’t change his world, for as he told us his juniors, “if you over-celebrate the wins, you will have to over-mourn the losses”. It is a good philosophy for all lawyers to live by.
An instance of Desai’s remarkable craft was made clear in cases like Nandini Sundar v Union of India, which he litigated pro bono for 12 years. He was confronted with a report prepared by 15 police officers that was deeply unsympathetic to the petitioner’s case — which challenged the appointment and use of private vigilante groups like the marauding Salwa Judum. Desai studied the report carefully, and then picked and chose every small instance and presented it as an overwhelming case to the Supreme Court. He would be responsible for ensuring that Salwa Judum was found unconstitutional.
His equanimity came from Buddhism, which he lived by. His sense of joy came from his wife and partner of many decades, Suverna, who he met, fell in love with and married, as a young man. The rich texture of his life and the legacy he leaves behind is not just that of his deep craft as a lawyer, but the success of his personal life — of a partnership built on mutual respect.
An evening at their home would have at the dinner table, writers, artists, scholars and dissidents. His three children Jai, Ami and Harsh, over whom he doted, completed the well-rounded life that Ashok Desai lived.
I am often asked by young lawyers who never met my senior what he was like. I say to them, Ashok Desai was like a flowing steady river on a beautiful sunny day.
If you sat by that stream, and let the sunshine fall on you, as it reflected on the water, you could experience a larger world, of knowledge and light. Like he told me many decades ago, it is better for all of us to work in the light and move away from darkness. In these constitutionally challenging times, Ashok Desai would tell us, move towards the light, and defend the sunshine that the Constitution guarantees.
This article first appeared in the print edition of April 14, 2020, under the title “Defender of the sunshine”. The writer is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India.
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