Legal Eagles: Stories of the Top Seven Indian Lawyers – Indu Bhan

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The landscape of Indian legal jurisprudence is graced by and littered with stars whose brightness is eternal, and twinkle, indelible. The who’s who of India’s legal fraternity is a precocious Hall of Fame, pride of a nation and a formidable array that intimidates and inspires. A few names – without being disrespectful to the inadvertently omitted – that assail the memory and mind, constitute, H.M. Seervai, a giant of his profession and a doyen of Constitutional Law, the iconoclastic and trenchant Ram Jethmalani, the innately brilliant and trendsetting V.R. Krishna Iyer; one of the longest serving Chief Justices Y.V.Chandrachud, and finally the best in class, the incomparable genius, Nani Palkhivala.

Thus, it is an extremely difficult, and if I may take the liberty to add, courageous endeavour to attempt chronicling the achievements of a select sample from what is a maddeningly lambent pool. This is exactly what Ms. Bhan attempts, and – to give credit where it is deservingly due – succeeds in great measure. Choosing seven powerful and highly successful lawyers, all of whom have carved a niche for themselves in post liberalization India, Ms. Bhan takes her readers on a journey that is exhilarating, enthusiastic and thoroughly enjoyable. The pantheon of luminaries making the pages of Ms. Bhan’s book consists of Harish Salve, Mukul Rohatgi, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Arvind Datar, Aryama Sundaram, Prashant Bhushan and Rohington Fali Nariman. Quick witted, focused, indomitable and with a razor-sharp hold over their chosen subjects, the magnificent seven have over the years, astounded, amazed and awe inspired peers and the layman alike with their gilt-edged performances within the confines of a Court. Every recent judicial verdict of national prominence has the imprimatur of one of these titans or for that matter, more than one since these alpha males of the legal world constantly find themselves in jousting contests with their equally accomplished peers.

Ms. Bhan’s book provides a sneak peek into the general approach followed by each of the seven stalwarts as they go about their business and lends an insight into how the philosophy each one adopts towards life in general. Hence, the references to music, Yoga, travels and meditation. The book also highlights the travails and tribulations experienced by these lawyers at some point in their lives. Harish Salve failed the Chartered Accountancy examinations twice and was on the brink of giving up before being egged on by his illustrious father N.K.P. Salve. A major surgery in his final year at school medically disqualified Arvind Datar thereby putting paid to his hopes of joining the merchant navy and owning a gargantuan shipping company. Datar has even gone to the extent of naming his prospective company Disco—or Datar International Shipping Company. Facing adversity in the best manner possible is staring it back at its face.

Rohington Fali Nariman was ordained as a priest in the Zoroastrian tradition when he was all of twelve years. He cut his teeth dueling with the very best in so far as law career is concerned. Two significant cases helped him gain invaluable experience at an early age. While one was against well-known lawyer and Advocate General of Maharashtra H.M. Seervai (Needle Industries case, the other was against former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee (Swadeshi Cotton Mills case). However, the case that allowed Nariman to escape the shadows of his illustrious father, (one of the greatest ever lawyers the nation has been graced with) was the He believes that the K.R. Laxmanan v. State of Tamil Nadu (1996), case in which a landmark judgement was delivered. “Some of the other important cases that he has been associated with include Khoday Distilleries Ltd v. The Scotch Whisky Association (2008). For the first time, the Supreme Court allowed the Khoday group to use the word ‘scotch’ on its premium whisky brand, Peter Scot. It rejected the liquor body’s allegation that the word ‘Scot’ was deceptively similar to ‘Scotch’, which led the consumers to believe that the product had a Scottish connection.”

Rohinton Nariman also wrote a landmark judgment where the “Supreme Court bench in March 2015, struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, a provision that so far had been widely misused by the police to justify the arrests of Internet users for allegedly posting ‘offensive’ content on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Stating that the provision was vaguely worded, which allowed for its misuse by the police, Rohinton said the law hit at the root of liberty and freedom of expression. ‘The section is unconstitutional also on the ground that it takes within its sweep protected speech, and speech that is innocent in nature, and is liable, therefore, to be used in such a way so as to have a chilling effect on free speech, and would have to be struck down on the ground of overbreadth,’ he ruled, while upholding the validity of Section 69B and the 2011 guidelines that allowed the government to block websites if their content had the potential to create communal disturbance, social disorder or affect India’s relationship with other countries.”

A lover of Mozart, Verdi, Bach and the like, Nariman has also been instrumental in setting up the Supreme Court Lawyers’ Welfare Trust, which works for the welfare of lawyers. The trust encourages young talent and supports less-privileged members of the Bar.

Prashant Bhushan is well known for his propensity to employ the instrument of Public Interest Litigation (“PIL”). A few disgruntled, genuinely so, voices have even termed him to be a mercenary of the PLI. But this indefatigable lawyer has kept at with a vigour bordering on the maniacal. Whether it be the PIL that had the impact of the Supreme Court declare as arbitrary and illegal, more than 204 government allocations of coal blocks to steel, cement and power companies since 1993, or the one where Prashant Bhushan Prashant “alleged that the Mukesh Ambani–run Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd had been given an undue benefit of more than Rs 20,000 crore by allowing it to offer voice services on its 4G spectrum by converting its Internet service provider (ISP) license into a unified access services license”, the PIL purveyor is in the think of the action. Prashant Bhushan was also involved in the 2G Spectrum scam, which the “Time” magazine listed as being second only to Watergate in so far as abuse of power was concerned. At the time of this review, Prashant Bhushan find himself at the risk of being reprimanded if not prosecuted by the Apex Court for a contempt of court matter.

Harish Salve represented Kulbushan Jadav, who is languishing in a jail in Pakistan, after being accused of spying charges, at the International Court of Justice and secured a resounding victory for India. The heart-warming aspect of this case being the fact that Salve charged just a token sum of INR1 for representing Jadav. An incorrigible Dilip Kumar tragic, Salve’s moment of glory came when he won a landmark decision in the Supreme Court that quashed a jaw dropping income tax demand of $2 billion on Vodafone. Early in his legal career, “Harish decided to relocate to Delhi to try his luck by setting up his practice at the Supreme Court, and joined J.B. Dadachandji & Co. as an intern. It was at this time that he got an opportunity to assist Palkhivala in the Minerva Mills case. Later, in 1980, it was Palkhivala who suggested that Harish join the chambers of senior counsel Soli Sorabjee, who later became the Attorney General of India in April 1991. After that, there was no looking back.” Solicitor General of India (SG) in 1999 during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, Salve held office till 2002. He was conferred the Padma Bhushan, the country’s third-highest civilian honour in 2015.

Abhishek Manu Singhvi was just thirty-four, when he was designated as a senior advocate. This made him India’s youngest ever senior advocate. With a stellar academic repute that included distinctions at St Columba’s School, St Stephen’s and Trinity College, Cambridge, Singhvi shot into fame by appearing in a raft of prominent cases. An Amicus Curiae in the D.K.Basu case on custodial deaths, representing Naveen Jindal in the right-to-fly-the-tricolour case, appearing in the NTC Bombay Mills case on urban environmental concerns, Mandal case on reservation for backward classes, and the Renusagar case on international commercial arbitration represent a few shiny feathers in Singhvi’s illustrious cap. In his capacity as the official spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, Singhvi spends a significant time in appearing on various discussions, deliberations and debates on social media and television.

During his college days, Mukul Rohatgi and two of his classmates had a routine to swear by. This continued years after their academic days. Rohatgi, former Finance Minister of India, the late Arun Jaitley and now a prominent lawyer Karanjawala would meet on Saturdays for lunch at Pickwicks, a restaurant at the Claridges Hotel. ‘I would regularly go out with Jaitley and Karanjawala. My father had gifted me his old Fiat car and we would all go gallivanting in it. The day would end with me dropping them to Dhaula Kuan. From there, Jaitley would take an autorickshaw to his house in Naraina, Karanjawala would take one to Saket”, recollects Rohatgi in an interview with the author. An imperious lawyer known for his ferocity in his arguments, Mukul Rohatgi was appointed the fourteenth AG of India in 2014. “The real turning point in his life was leaving the Delhi High Court and then doing cases on a larger canvas by working for the government and various PSUs, be it the 2G spectrum case, the coal scam, mining matters at the Special Forest Bench for Goa, Karnataka and Orissa, or cases of petrol pump cancellations. There were cases that would attract public attention, whether it meant appearing for yoga guru Baba Ramdev, or attending to complaints against Maharashtra politician Raj Thackeray—and that made all the difference.” A keen swimmer, Rohatgi is also a regular contributor to philanthropy. His altruism extends to generous contributions to the Blind Relief Association, Help Age India, and an orphanage in New Delhi.

Arvind Datar would be remembered by many as the lawyer who represented Michael Jackson. A Chennai-based producer filed a suit against the world-famous singer in the Madras High Court seeking an interim injunction against the singer’s concert, which was to be held in Mumbai. He wanted the singer and the organizers to furnish security for his claim for damages against Michael Jackson for breach of a contract that the singer had signed with him. Elaborate arguments later, “the Madras High Court refused to grant an injunction, and the historic concert took place in Mumbai. This was a major victory for Arvind as he was still not yet a senior.” Arvind Datar has one uncompromising principle which he follows even to this day. A refusal to visit the offices of any client or chartered accountant. Deriving inspiration from a famous legal personality K. Bhashyam Iyengar, who had refused to even meet the then British governor who had wanted to consult him on a personal matter, Datar began emulating Iyengar. As Ms. Bhan informs her readers, “one lawyer he particularly admired even as a student was R. Kesava Iyengar. Therefore, when the contempt case came up for hearing, he decided to brief him. They worked together for almost twenty days, and this was an unforgettable period of his life. ‘Although he was ninety-three years old at that time, his mind was razor-sharp. He gave me invaluable advice. For example, he told me that one should spend 60 per cent of one’s time in reading and preparation, and at least 40 per cent in thinking about the case.”

A man who enjoys traveling all over the world, Aryama Sundaram has a house in the picturesque hill station of Kodaikanal and loves the state of Goa as well. A man who quotes Kipling, Sundaram is one of India’s most vaunted and much wanted legal eagles. Enjoying a good career with the advertising and media company Ogilvy & Mather, Sundaram enrolled with the Madras Bar Council on 26 November 1980, and joined a law firm called King & Partridge. A tryst with a literature loving judge whose approbation Sundaram received after quoting Oscar Wilde, his career took an upward trajectory. Branching out on his own, he established Nataraj Rao, Raghu & Sundaram. Making his mark as a leading admiralty lawyer in the Madras High Court, Sundaram soon became a Senior in the Madras High Court. Some of the notable cases argued by this lawyer include the infamous IPL match fixing fiasco where he represented the BCCI and the 2G spectrum presidential reference where he was appointed by the Federation of the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry to be their lawyer.

“Legal Eagles” is a thoroughly enjoyable read. However, my only grouse with the book is the absence of a woman. One name that instantly comes to mind is that of the mercurial Zia Mody. Hoping that the author brings out a sequel showcasing the legal talents of women lawyers and judges in India.  

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