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Saturday, July 21, 2018

When a PM gave me counsel

And other memories starring leaders and lawyers

Written by Soli J. Sorabjee | Updated: January 4, 2018 12:05:13 am
Morarji Desai led the Janata Party government from March 24, 1977 to July 28, 1979. (File photo)

Going down memory lane, some incidents are unforgettable. One of these is my meeting with former Prime Minister Morarji Desai in connection with proceedings before the Shah Commission which was constituted to enquire into the excesses committed during the Emergency.

The proceedings were getting a bit melodramatic and Justice Shah informally conveyed his discomfiture. I was requested to convey the same to the PM who gave me an appointment at 7:30 am. All spruced up and looking fresh, I met him and impressed upon him the necessity of having a senior, experienced counsel to appear before the Commission. I suggested Karl Khandalwala, who was well-versed in criminal law and criminal practice. He agreed after a dig at my preference for a “Bombay Parsee” counsel.

Morarjibhai was quick and firm when taking decisions. After the meeting, which lasted barely 10 minutes, he enquired about my mother-in-law, the late Shirin Fozdar, whose Bahai religion forbade the consumption of alcohol. I said she was in good health but added, “Morarjibhai she is a fanatic and would not eat a bit of a big cake which had only a teaspoonful of liquor in it.” Morarjibhai looked at me sternly and said, “she is right” and added, “when we next meet, I will convince you that she is right”. After a month or so, I had occasion to meet Morarjibhai and sure enough the same topic cropped up about my mother-in-law. Morarjibhai persisted that she was right and wished that I would follow her example of total abstinence from alcohol. Despite my admiration for Morarjibhai, I regrettably did not follow his wish and advice.

Another incident embedded in my memory is US President Bill Clinton’s visit to India. He was given the customary reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan where selected people were invited to meet him. When my name was called out with a bad accent, “Soli Sorabjee, Attorney General for India”, I went up and said “welcome to India Mr President. I am not going to talk to you about the Constitution or the Rule of Law in India but about jazz musician, Lester Young, who was nicknamed the President”. Clinton’s wide open lips exhibited his astonishment that an Indian attorney general was familiar with an American musician and his nickname, “Pres”. He said he frequently listened to Young and thoroughly enjoyed his tenor sax solos. Time did not permit more conversation about “Pres” but whenever we met later he referred to the incident in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

R.J. Kolah, a senior counsel, had two loves in his life. The law and practice of income tax and racing at the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Bombay. In an income tax appeal, Kolah was vociferously arguing his client’s case. That led Chief Justice M.C. Chagla, who was on the bench to remark, “Mr Kolah, me thinks the lady protest too much”. Kolah apparently not familiar with Shakespeare, was shocked and exploded, “My client is a joint Hindu family, there is no lady in my case”. CJ Chagla, with a benign smile, agreed there was no lady in the case.

The scene is the Bombay High Court Library. I hear erudite and senior lawyer A.G. Noorani complain to another lawyer, Murli Bhandare, that “you have insulted me”. Murli had considerable labour law practice, mainly in the Dadar and Parel courts. In true Parel style, he said “then I will add injury to insult”. And, lo and behold, he picked up Noorani by his collar and pushed him into the glass of the library with all the glass pieces falling over. Advocate General M.P. Amte who happened to be there was shocked and said “Sorabjee, what is happening? Advocates fighting in the high court”. I just nodded my head in disappointment and tried to suppress laughter at this bizarre and deplorable incident.

The writer is a former attorney general of India

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