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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Soli Sorabjee’s heart beat for people’s rights

One of the outstanding Bombay lawyers, Sorabjee fought for this cause his whole life.

Written by Shanti Bhushan |
Updated: May 5, 2021 8:40:29 am
Soli Sorabjee

I am shocked at the sudden death of my very close friend Soli Sorabjee. I had only just recently, in December 2020, visited his home and met him and his wife, and found him in excellent spirits. We discussed with laughter and cheer, our old times together.

I have known Soli since 1975 and we had a common interest in fundamental rights, including the freedom of speech and expression as also the right to life and liberty in its expanded form. We argued the habeas corpus case together during the Emergency in the Supreme Court. I had come from Allahabad and he from Bombay.

During the 1977 elections, I was in Bombay with Jayaprakash Narayan presiding over an election meeting. Soli and some other lawyers were in the audience and they shouted that they wanted to hear me speak. I was then called to address the Bombay crowd. In 1977, when I became law minister, I persuaded Soli to leave Bombay and move to Delhi as Additional Solicitor General. I was very happy when he accepted my request. S V Gupte was then the Attorney General and later on we also brought K K Venugopal as second Additional Solicitor General after Soli. It was an excellent team and we functioned beautifully. I became close to Soli and his family and used to visit his home very often.

In the 1977 elections, the Janata Party won a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha with the Congress failing to get a single seat in nine northern states where they still had a majority in the state assemblies. We felt that, having lost the trust of the people, the Congress continuing to rule the state governments would be undemocratic and we decided to dissolve nine state assemblies and call for fresh elections. All nine state governments challenged this decision in the Supreme Court. Though Soli was still only the Additional Solicitor General, I asked him to represent the central government in this case. He argued brilliantly and eventually a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the central government. Fresh elections were held in the states and everywhere the Congress was voted out of power. This was also an important contribution of Soli Sorabjee towards establishing real democratic rights.

After the Bhopal disaster, a settlement took place between the government and Union Carbide which absolved the latter of all liability including criminal liability, in consideration of their paying $470 million. This settlement was endorsed by the Supreme Court presided over by the then Chief Justice R S Pathak. We decided to file a review application challenging that settlement on behalf of the victims. At that time, I am happy to record, that Soli, who was then Attorney General, argued to support our review on behalf of the government. The review petition was heard at length by Justice Venkatachaliah’s bench and was partially allowed, with the criminal liability waiver being set aside. Many important principles were laid down in that judgment. Soli’s stand showed that his heart was with the victims of the Bhopal tragedy and he did not want them to be shortchanged by this settlement.

When V P Singh became Prime Minister, he was very keen that I should become the Attorney General. In fact, he called me and tried to convince me to take up the post. I however told him that Soli would be the more appropriate choice, because my interest was in parliamentary issues and not so much arguing cases in court at that stage. Thereafter, Soli was appointed the Attorney General.

Soli, as his name suggests, was a great soul. His heart was for people’s rights, for which he struggled throughout his life. I do not regard him as anything less than Nani Palkhivala. He was one of the outstanding Bombay lawyers and had been trained in the chambers of the then great lawyers. Bombay, at that time, used to produce great lawyers like M C Seetalvad, Nani Palkhivala and Fali Nariman. It has been my great privilege to have started appearing in the Bombay High Court way back in 1965 and then again in 1969 and later in 1975 (when Indira Gandhi’s election case was decided). While at the Bombay bar, I developed a great affinity especially for my dear friends Soli, Fali, Nani, Seervai, and others. I will miss Soli for the rest of my life. He died in honour and glory and the nation is proud to have had a son like him.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 5, 2021 under the title ‘A fighter for rights’. Bhushan is a senior advocate and former law minister of India

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