When a young colleague, recently inducted to the Bench, approached the former Chief Justice of India Sarosh Kapadia, who died on January 5, for advice, one of the pieces of wisdom he imparted was to be careful of relatives and friends. When I asked Sarosh later at a family function if this was indeed true, he nodded, smiled wistfully and said, “You know I have no friends.”
Friendless he may have been, but he had no dearth of admirers. He was friendless out of both choice, being a very private individual and a belief that a judge must keep his distance from society, and compulsion, as he hailed from a family steeped in gent-eel poverty. His singleminded ambition was to conquer his circumstances through hard work and a commitment to honesty and integrity.
As a college student, he had decided his ultimate destination would be the Bench. His father, his younger brother and he would go for brisk walks from their humble two-room house in Khetwadi. On these long walks, whenever they would pass the apartments of the judges of the Bombay High Court on Narayan Dabholkar Road, young Sarosh would point to the nameplates and tell his brother with quiet confidence that one day his name would also be displayed there. What he couldn’t envision was that his final destination would be 3, Krishna Menon Marg, the official abode of the CJI.
Straight out of school, Kapadia went to work to support the family’s meagre finances. Morning college, then work at the offices of Nanabhoy Jeejeebhoy, and studying in the evenings. Very soon, there would be no cricket or films but an uncompromising dedication to his legal practice. There was an unwavering concentration on the ultimate journey from the Bar to the Bench, which was accomplished in 1991, when he became a judge of the Bombay High Court at 44.
On the Bench, he quickly gathered a reputation for uncompromising integrity and hard work. Kapadia had a very clear sense of what his job entailed. Delivering the sixth Setalvad Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, said, “Leading an exemplary life is the highest form of ethical conduct. This is the keystone of our modern codes of judicial conduct. We need a clean man in the black robe to uphold the independence and the integrity of the judiciary.”
Kapadia never sought any government sinecure to retain his Lutyens bungalow and the red light. He relocated to Mumbai, set up his practice in arbitration and providing legal opinions, and eschewed the limelight. Kapadia also displayed compassion for litigants but never ever resorted to populism. He was an ardent student of Buddhist
and Hindu philosophy. He was also a traditionalist as far as his own Zoroastrian religion was concerned. He had an impish humour, a side he exposed only to his close family.
What of his legacy? During his tenure as CJI, he brought dignity to the office and to the institution of the Supreme Court. Late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam once paid him the deserved compliment of being the most honest man in the country. He was also a traditionalist in interpreting the role of the judiciary and was very clear about the separation of powers. He said, “Judges must eschew any suggestion that duties of the judiciary are owed to the electorate; they are owed to the law which is there for peace, order and good governance.”
Both these qualities of Sarosh Kapadia — impeccable integrity and understanding of the judiciary’s duties — should be enshrined in the hallowed portals of our courts.