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Celebrating the life and legacy of Nani Palkhivala, writes Soli Sorabjee – analysis


On account of sensational events that seem to happen almost daily these days, we tend to forget legendary personalities. One such was Nani Palkhivala, whose 100th birth anniversary was on Thursday, January 16.

Born in Bombay (now Mumbai), Palkhivala hailed from a Parsi working class family, and went on to become a household name in India. His father was in the palkhi (palanquins) business, and hence the surname Palkhivala.

Palkhivala’s schooling was in the city’s Tutorial High School. A brilliant student, after matriculation, he joined the St Xavier’s College, and completed his masters in English literature. Palkhivala applied for a lecturer’s post in the Bombay University, but a Parsi lady was appointed to the post. Thereafter, he enrolled at the Government Law College. Had Palkhivala got the lecturer’s post, Bombay University would have got a brilliant lecturer, but the world of law would have been a loser.

Palkhivala had the good fortune of joining the chambers of the great Jamshedji Kanga in Bombay. He had no godfathers in the profession. His rise was meteoric. Within a couple of years, he was briefed in every important matter in the Bombay High Court. Palkhivala was also a part-time lecturer in Government Law College, Bombay. He endeared himself to the students by his clear exposition of the subject, the Law of Evidence, with a dash of humour and wit. His was one class that students did not bunk. Indeed, they all wished that his lecture would go on beyond the allotted time.

For sheer advocacy, Palkhivala was unsurpassable. Clarity of thought, precision and elegance of expression, impassioned plea for the cause he espoused, excellent court craft, and extraordinary ability to think on his legs rendered him an irresistible force. He was also briefed in practically every matter of constitutional significance in the Supreme Court (SC). His forensic performances in the bank nationalisation and privy purse cases were remarkable.

But the pinnacle of his fame was his advocacy and his submissions in the Keshavanand Bharti case in which he persuaded the SC to hold that the power of amendment of the Constitution was not unlimited, and could not be exercised so as to damage its basic structure. That was Palkhivala’s great contribution to our constitutional jurisprudence. I had the good fortune and privilege of being his junior in that case, and have lively recollections of the preparations that went into the case. Palkhivala was at his forensic best in his submissions before the Bench, which was constituted to reconsider the Keshavanand Bharti decision. According to one of the judges on the Bench: “The heights of eloquence to which Palkhivala had risen have seldom been equalled and never been surpassed in the history of the Supreme Court.”

His feats were not confined to courts in our country. He represented India in three cases in the international fora. The first was before the special tribunal in Geneva (appointed by the United Nations) to adjudicate upon Pakistani’s claim to enclaves in Kutch. Another was before the International Civil Aviation Organisation at Montreal, and later in an appeal before the World Court at the Hague.

Palkhivala was well-known for his famous annual budget speeches, which had humble beginnings in 1958 in a small hall of an old hotel in Bombay. He spoke without notes and reeled-off facts and figures from memory for nearly an hour, keeping his audience in rapt attention. It was said that there were two budget speeches, one by the finance minister and the other by Nani Palkhivala, and Nani’s speech was undoubtedly the more popular and eagerly sought-after.

Palikhivala was not attracted by the rituals and ceremonies of religion. He believed in and practised the essence of Zoroastrian religion in which he was born, namely “Humata, Hukhata, Huvarashta” — good words, good thoughts, good deeds. Sri Aurobindo was his favourite writer and thinker, whose writings greatly attracted him. The fearlessness with which he spoke out, irrespective of the party in power, made him the voice of conscience of the nation.

The most outstanding quality of Palkhivala was his willingness to help people in need and his humility and modesty. Fame and fortune did not increase the hat size of the legendary Palkhivala. There was never a trace of arrogance or conceit. He was tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd.

In addition to law, literature was another bond between Palkhivala and me. We enjoyed Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the Victorian poets; Chesterton, Lucas and AG Gardiner were our favourite essayists. Palkhivala was upset, almost depressed, at the catastrophic decline in moral and spiritual values in our public life. His desire was to launch a movement for the regeneration of values, and to maintain and revive idealism among the young.

In the final lap, Palkhivala was ailing for some time. It was painful to see that a person so eloquent and articulate was unable to speak or recognise people, except occasionally in a momentary flash. He died on December 11, 2002. Born of the sun, he travelled a while towards the sun, and left the vivid air signed with his honour.

Soli Sorabjee is former Attorney-General of India

The views expressed are personal

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