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Abhishek Singhvi in addition to being a long time spokesperson for the Congress Party, is also one of India’s most pre-eminent lawyers. In his slim book, “From The Trenches”, Singhvi provides a glimpse into the eclectic nature of some of the most seminal cases argued by him in the Apex Court of India, the Supreme Court. A mixture of the aesthetic and asinine, these cases touch the lives of the common man in ways that are not ordinarily perceived. From Constitutional Law to Corporate Law the bouquet of cases make for some fascinating reading and involuntary introspection.
The book begins with a dissection of one of the most fundamental concepts dealt with by our Constitution, namely the freedom of speech as embedded within the provisions of Article 19(1)(a). The Government Telephone Company, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) filed a suit before the Bombay High Court alleging that Tata Press must be restrained by a Court order from publishing a Yellow Pages Directory. The Bombay High Court granted MTNL the injunction. Singhvi engaged by Tata Press, filed an innovative Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court arguing that the freedom of speech included within its ambit, commercial speech as well. Expressing oneself in a positive vein about something, Singhvi argued, must also be expended to issued involving commercial motives. Singhvi was treading uncharted territory because this issue was already decided by a larger Bench of the Supreme Court in an earlier case, Hamdard Dawakhana v Union of India. However, this case drew persuasive precedence from an American case, Lewis J, Valentine v F.J.Christensen, which was subsequently overruled. Arguing that the nature of request being made by Tata Press was completely new and distinguishable from the Hamdard Dawakhana case, Singhvi managed to get Tata Press a stupendous win.
Yet another Tata case involved Singhvi representing the TATA Group before the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal in the now infamous ouster of the late Cyrus Mistry from the Board of Directors. In this case Singhvi succeeded the Court/Tribunal in overthrowing the contention of oppression and mismanagement raised by Cyrus Mistry and concluding that the sacking of Mistry was purely on commercial, administrative and governance grounds.
Arguably the most interesting case dealt with by the book involved the right of the Jain community to continue the practice of ‘santhara’. Santhara or Sallekhana is a ritual under which a person voluntarily accepts death at the end of a long and contended life. This decision is reached by the concerned person with total acceptance of his family, when the practioner has either reached old age or suffers from a terminal illness or has become an involuntary victim of a natural calamity. A petitioner called Nikhil Soni filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court alleging that the practice of Santhara was akin to suicide or even the pernicious and now abolished practice of Sati and hence must be put an end to. He even argued that all the family members acquiescing the practice of Santhara must be booked under the provisions of Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code dealing with abetment of suicide. In Nikhil Soni v Union of India, Singhvi, an ardent Jain himself, was engaged by the Jain community to argue the case for them. Singhvi argued that the petitioner by virtue of being ignorant of the traditions and customs of the oldest religion in India, being not a Jain himself, had wrongly equated Santhara with suicide. A religious practice that causes harm or hurt to others is rendered impermissible under the Indian Constitution. However the Jain tradition belittles the act of suicide as harm caused to oneself and hence unacceptable. In just 3 sentences, the Apex Court dismissed the PIL and restored the practice of Santhara to its rightful pedestal.
The book contains other interesting cases such as the Jallikattu and Sabarimala verdicts, where the Supreme Court Judgments was met with unmitigated uproar and emotional outrages. Singhvi also recounts some unbelievable exchanges in the Courtroom transpiring between counsel and Judge. For example, when the brilliant lawyer G. Ramaswamy was vociferously arguing a point, Justice Kuldeep Singh interrupting him said, “Mr. Ramaswamy, how can we accept this point? Do you think we are fools?”. Ramaswamy, without batting an eyelid, retorted, ‘My Lords, I don’t know what to say. If I say, yes, I will be guilty of contempt. If I say no, I will be guilty of perjury.’ After a pregnant pause, the entire courtroom, the judges included broke into peals of laughter that carried on for more than a whole minute.
“From The Trenches” is a rousing read and a delicious appetizer for all those eager and bold enough to wade into the immensely complicated, yet astoundingly rich and fertile landscape of India’s judicial world.