‘His is an absolute integrity matched by phenomenal memory and a capacity for hard work’
Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, Supreme Court’s “Renaissance Man”, retires on August 12. He was sui generis on the Bench. Sharp, brusque, fearless and armed with repartees. He did not suffer incompetence and frivolous cases in court, dismissing both without mercy.
His professional trajectory, for lack of better words, has been path-breaking. In 1993, then Chief Justice of India M.N. Venkatachaliah amended the court’s rules to designate him senior advocate at the age of 37. He was appointed Solicitor General of India in 2011. He became only the fifth lawyer in the nation’s history to be directly appointed as judge of the Supreme Court in 2014.
An institution in himself
But Justice Nariman has always been more than a lawyer and a judge. Parsi priest, a scholar of classical western music and theology and a published author are some of his many caps. Penguin, which is releasing his new work ‘Discordant Notes -The Voice of Dissent in the Last Court of Resort’ in two volumes, introduces the author as “an institution in himself”.
Justice V. Ramasubramanian, who shared the Bench and many laughs with Justice Nariman, called him a “one-man army”. He referred to Justice Nariman’s blistering pace and scope of work. Most judgments would be ready for pronouncement within 48 hours of the closure of arguments in court.
“I once told him in a lighter vein that had you been a woman, you would not have waited for nine months to deliver. He retorted saying ‘please be happy so long as they are not premature babies’,” Justice Ramasubramanian reminisced about his colleague at a public event.
Justice Nariman almost single-handedly steered the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code through its teething years. Of the 164 Supreme Court judgments on the Code, 81 were authored by him.
“Justice Nariman spoke through his judgments. He has no personal agenda. His is an absolute integrity matched by phenomenal memory and a capacity for hard work. He is one of our great minds,” Justice Ramasubramanian said in his speech.
Words scrolled on an invitation for the launch of Justice Nariman’s book ‘Inner Fire’ in 2016 captures the essence of his pursuit of happiness through the path of truth. They read, “Truth is good. Indeed, it is best. It is happiness. Happiness comes to him, who, for the sake of truth, follows the path of truth.”
Justice Nariman’s judgments in his seven-year tenure tap the myriad nerves of our social and legal fabric.
The Supreme Court amended its rules following his judgment that review petitions filed by condemned prisoners should be heard in open court and not within the four walls of judges’ chambers.
He struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which armed the State with power to send people to prison for ‘uncomfortable’ social media messages. In his judgment in the Shreya Singhal case, Justice Nariman said, “The freedom of speech and the Press is the Ark of the Covenant of Democracy because public criticism is essential to the working of its institutions.”
His opinion saved the day for the “little man’s right to privacy”. It paved the way for privacy to be read into the Constitution as a fundamental right.
He cleansed a colonial smear from the Indian Penal Code by decriminalising homosexuality. He said the community is entitled to live with dignity. He banished the crime of adultery, saying the penal law made the husband the ‘licensor’ of his wife’s sexual choices.
Justice Nariman was part of the majority on the Bench which held that women aged between 10 and 50 years cannot be barred from the Sabarimala temple on the biological ground of menstruation. Later, when the case came up for review, his dissent shone as much as his earlier majority opinion. His absence on the Ayodhya Bench was stark.
His judgment on instant talaq found the Muslim man’s “capricious and whimsical” right “manifestly arbitrary”.
Justice Nariman held political parties accountable for the ‘criminal’ candidates they field in elections. His last judgment on August 10 chastised the lawmakers. “The nation continues to wait, and is losing patience. Cleansing the polluted stream of politics is obviously not one of the immediate pressing concerns of the legislative branch of government.”
He urged Parliament to take away the Speaker’s power to decide disqualification under the Tenth Schedule. He said an independent tribunal should be formed for this function.
In one of his judgments he pondered about law’s tolerance for moral wrongs. “Many things which are not punishable are morally worse than many things which are punishable… The rich man who refuses a mouthful of rice to save a fellow creature from death may be far worse a man than the starving wretch who snatches and devours the rice. Yet we punish the latter for theft…”
Senior advocate Fali Nariman once said it had taken him and his wife a while to appreciate the qualities of their son’s head and heart.
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