Soli Sorabjee ‘the sentinel of constitutional rights’

Erstwhile Attorney General of India and an eminent and victorious jurist Soli Jehangir Sorabjee was born on March 9, 1930, in the then called Bombay (now Mumbai). He passed away on April 30, 2021, at a hospital in New Delhi. As stated by his son, Hormazd Sorabjee the cause of his death was coronavirus. His roots were raised from a well-off Parsi family. At the age of 20 Soli Sorabjee lost his father, Jehangir Sorabjee who was a distinguished businessman while his mother Khorshed Sorabjee was a housewife. Even though he was born in a moneyed family he was never lured by the business career. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and obtained his law degree from Government Law College, Mumbai. He tied the knot with Zena Sorabjee and had four children. His daughter Zia Mody is the only one to choose law as her career and she is currently the founding partner of AZB & Partners which is India’s one of the most significant corporate law firms. Sorabjee is also survived by three sons i.e., Jehangir who by profession is a doctor, Hormazd who is a car expert, and Jamshed.

CAREER

Mr. Sorabjee commenced his professional practice in the field of law in 1953 in the Bombay High Court. Being a great legal scholar, as soon as Sorabjee entered the bar, his learning, and eloquence made him eminent. He possessed clear discernment and deep learning of law. Sorabjee had a penchant for heated debating, he served the nation as a legal professional for decades. He was well versed with constitutional law and had a resolute faith in the constitutional ideals peculiarly those relating to the freedom of speech and human rights. He was a highly confident speaker who spoke with utmost accuracy, in-depth knowledge of law, and credibility of the case. He was a guardian of civil rights and liberties during the time of emergency as he provided legal guidance to the political prisoners from 1975 to 1977. He was even engaged in cases to protect the rights of minorities.

In his tenure, he made an immense contribution in the field of law and played a crucial role as a great jurisprudent in some of the most exemplary cases which defined the nation’s legal outlook that helped in crafting the country’s jurisprudence. Sorabjee was such a superior and virtuous lawyer that in the last few years many young lawyers who aspired to build a career in the field of law congregated to work under his guidance. He even nurtured many budding lawyers in his office and gave quick-witted legal minds to the nation. Mr. Sorabjee said “Lawyers don’t retire, they practice till they die. My only advice to young lawyers is to choose a stream of practice or even profession which interests you to continue till that time, don’t think of just making money out of it.”

While remembering Late Soli Sorabjee the current Chief Justice of India Justice N.V.Ramana stated that “I must admit that he was one of those who inspired me to continue in the profession apart from his courtroom genius Soli was an epitome of grace, modesty, humility, integrity, and kindness which always stood out to me.”

Apart from being a great lawyer and colleague, Soli Sorabjee was even an iconic and innovative author and columnist who mostly wrote regarding the issues related to the protection of human rights, validating constitutional law, and freedom of speech and expression. He earned great admiration and popularity for his contribution to the working of Indian constitution which also stems from his off-the-court interventions in terms of erudite columns to newspapers. Some of his commendable works are – The Laws of Press Censorship in India (1976); The Emergency, Censorship and Press in India (1977), and Law and Justice (2004).

During the early days of his career, he was notably assisting as a petitioner’s counsel to one of the greatest intellectuals of modern India i.e., Nani Palkhivala who was a brilliant mind and a courtroom genius in the landmark Keshavananda Bharti Case (also known as fundamental rights case) who contended against the government. With a stretch of numerous accomplishments at the Bar, Soli Sorabjee was eventually designated as a Senior Advocate in 1971 of Bombay High Court. He even gave his service as the Solicitor General of India from 1977 to 1980. He was appointed as the Attorney General for India twice – first from 1989 to 1990 and again from 1998 to 2004.

The honour Mr. Sorabjee received for his immense benefaction towards doctrines and provisions for free and fair elections cannot be revoked from the constitution, nor can the constitution be amended to the effect that elections would take place if and when parliament determines instead of every five years. To this, he also added that judiciary cannot be deprived of the power of judicial review, nor can the rule of law be abrogated.

Sorabjee was awarded The Kinloch Forbes Gold Medal in Roman Law and Jurisprudence in 1952. He was honoured with Padma Vibhushan for his work on Freedom of Speech and Expression and Protection of Human Rights. His leading issue was Censorship and Publication.

NOTABLE CASES

Mr. Sorabjee, made substantial attainment of fame and honour in his legal possession by making his witty and profound appearance in numerous landmark and torch bearer judgements.

Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerala (1973)

Cultivating the ‘basic structure’ doctrine as a safeguard against the exploitation of the Constitution.

Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala dealt exclusively with three main issues:

1. Constitutional Validity of 24th Constitutional (Amendment), Act 1971

2. Constitutional Validity of 25th Constitutional (Amendment), Act 1972

3. Extent of Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution

Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerala is a case ‘unique in the history of international constitutional law for several reasons: the anxious political circumstances in which it was delivered, the shift in the balance of democratic power it caused, the unparalleled number of separate opinions delivered by the court as well as the sheer length of the judgment itself.

The court held that under Article 368, which provides Parliament amending powers, something must remain of the original Constitution that the new amendment would change. The ‘basic structure’ doctrine has since been interpreted to include the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law, Independence of the judiciary, the doctrine of separation of powers, federalism, secularism, sovereign democratic republic, the parliamentary system of government, the principle of free and fair elections, welfare state.

MANEKA GANDHI V. UNION OF INDIA (1978)

Expanding the meaning of the ‘right to life’ under the Constitution of India

Delivered by a 7-judge bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court on 25th January 1978, this decision marked the development of a new era with respect to the interpretation of fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Maneka Gandhi is a reflection of dynamic constitutional interpretation. It signifies the court’s changing approach towards the Constitution. In the decades that followed, it was treated as an organic document whose interpretation must evolve with the times. Substantive due process and, more broadly stated, the court’s power to review the content of legislation to ascertain if the mandate of Article 21 had been met, eventually found its way to India more than twenty-eight years after the founding fathers of our Constitution abandoned it.

HOBBIES

Apart from showcasing his brilliance in the courtroom and his deep understanding of law Soli Sorabjee had a keen interest in jazz and one can say who has known him that his love for jazz can be equalled to law. And his love was so pure towards jazz that he departed on the international day of jazz. His enthusiasm for jazz can be seen when you visit his home in Neeti Bagh, where you can find a cabinet full of vinyl recordsof jazz. In India, Sorabji had a great hand in making jazz popular. He was the first president of Jazz India. He also introduced the jazz festival in Delhi. His favourite artist was Benny Goodman, one of his favourite songs of Benny was ‘Farewell’. He played the clarinet and one of his favouritetunes was Moonglow by an American clarinettist. He was a very rapacious reader, he had keen interest in reading because according to him they were short and crisp. One of his favourite essayists was William Hazlitt. His interest can also be seen in the field of poetry, one of his favourites was Shakespeare’s sonnets and Victorian poets. He used to read the work of many authors one of his favourites was Bard of Avon by Shakespeare and also the literary works of Prime minister Nehru. He had a prodigious memory, once he remembered the timetable of western railways to sharpen his memory and he could recite it decades later also. Soli Sorabjee had little mischievous traits in him, he was often seen cracking jokes, he often used to lighten the mood in a serious meeting by saying something laced in mischief that would put a smile on the face of everybody. Mr. Sorabjee was very fond of celebrating his birthdays as his birthday planswould begin one month beforehand. Around his birthday i.e., 9th march he used to become very excited, he used to personally plan his birthdays, he looked after things likesending invitation cards to set the menu. He annually travelledto London, where his routine was also fixed, he used to stay at the Barbican, had meetings under Selfridge clock at noon, and spend his evening at his favourite bar at Mayfair. Soli Sorabjee showed how to live to the fullest by balancing work life and personal life and excelling at both.

Sorabjee’s endowment in legal jurisprudence and contribution to the Supreme Court in various remarkable cases will forever be treasured and remembered. He contended emulously to use constitutional principles to settle contemporary problems of politics and governance.

Apart from being a great lawyer and colleague, Soli Sorabjee was even an iconic and innovative author and columnist who mostly wrote regarding the issues related to the protection of human rights, validating constitutional law, and freedom of speech and expression. He earned great admiration and popularity for his contribution to the working of Indian Constitution which also stems from his off-the-court interventions in terms of erudite columns to newspapers. Some of his commendable works are – The Laws of Press Censorship in India (1976); The Emergency, Censorship and Press in India (1977), and Law and Justice (2004).

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