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HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksInterview: Abhinav Chandrachud, author, Soli Sorabjee: Life and Times

Interview: Abhinav Chandrachud, author, Soli Sorabjee: Life and Times

What took you by surprise as you learnt more about Soli Sorabjee in the course of doing your research for this book?

While researching the book, I was surprised by two things in particular. First of all, I was quite interested to see Sorabjee’s win-loss ratio as a lawyer. As a private lawyer, he won around 50% of his cases but as a law officer, he won around 70% of his cases. These were, of course, cases which were reported in the law reports, and I collected the data myself. In my book, I have offered some possible explanations as to why this might have been. Surely his advocacy skills did not improve each time he became a law officer. Secondly, I was quite fascinated by Sorabjee’s career trajectory as a junior lawyer. At the age of 34, the Supreme Court gave him his first reported judgment in a case he had argued himself. However, only a few years later, by the age of 37, some 50% of his reported judgments came from the Supreme Court alone. In other words, 14 years into his law practice, he already had a substantial foothold in the Supreme Court. His practice took off thereafter once he got his own chamber in the premises of the Bombay High Court at the age of 38.

Did you come across any stories that you found interesting but could not include due to space constraints?

There were many aspects of Sorabjee’s life that I was not able to write about due to constraints of space and time. Interestingly, when Sorabjee was conferred the Padma Vibhushan in 2002, he lost the award at Rashtrapati Bhavan after the ceremony (Sorabjee believed that it had been stolen by somebody), and was eventually sent a replacement. His love of jazz music and support for jazz musicians was something that I wish I was able to say more about. Sorabjee supported a famous Indian saxophone player, Rudy Cotton, when he fell on hard times. I have only briefly touched on Sorabjee’s international experience. He was a fellow at St Anthony’s College at Oxford in 1991 and he loved Oxford. He was involved with the International Law Association. My book focuses on Sorabjee’s professional life, not his personal life. I was also not able to sufficiently cover the last 15 years of his life, after he stepped down as Attorney General.

296pp, ₹799; Penguin Random House

It must have been hard to write this book since you knew Sorabjee personally, and were helping him put together his autobiography not so long ago. How did you prepare yourself emotionally?

Broadly speaking, biographers are of two kinds: those who cannot help but develop a deep sense of admiration for their subjects, and those who detest their subjects (imagine writing a biography of Hitler, for instance). After all, if you are going to devote a year (often, several years) of your life to writing a biography, it is difficult to do so if you do not have strong emotions (positive or negative) concerning the person you are writing about. Both kinds of biographers, however, have to write their biographies objectively and develop a sense of distance between themselves and their subjects. As a biographer, I tried my best to be objective about Sorabjee, though I certainly admired him as one of the towering figures of the legal profession. Interestingly, one of the best biographies written in India is a biography of President S Radhakrishnan by his own son, S Gopal. One can only imagine how difficult it would have been for S Gopal to write an objective biography of his own father.

Did you look up to Sorabjee while you were a student? When did you first meet him? How did the bond grow?

I first met Sorabjee when he delivered a lecture at a round table conference held in Bangalore, perhaps sometime in 2002, when I was a high school student. Thereafter, when I was a paralegal at AZB & Partners between 2006-08, as a law student at Government Law College in Mumbai, I had the privilege of briefing him on more than one occasion. What struck me was that he was very kind to juniors in conferences and would even encourage law students to speak if they had something to say. I remember that I once had a cold during a conference with him in Delhi, and I did not utter a word for fear that he might discover that I was unwell and ask me to leave the room! The highlight of my experience as a paralegal at AZB (when I was still a law student) was when I went to Delhi one summer to brief Sorabjee myself and get his written opinion in a case. I had never met him socially before the idea of the autobiography came about in 2018.

What, according to you, are his most important contributions?

In his legal career of nearly 68 years, Sorabjee had 1,124 reported judgments to his credit in cases that he had appeared in before the Supreme Court, High Courts and tribunals. However, his contributions in two fields are particularly noteworthy. Firstly, his arguments in cases concerning the freedom of speech and expression in India were important. Sorabjee convinced the Supreme Court that there was nothing objectionable about the six-part television series called Tamas which portrayed communal tensions in Partition-era Lahore. When his opponent in court suggested that truth, in India, can be more dangerous than fiction, he responded that India’s national emblem had the motto Satyameva Jayate (The truth always triumphs). Secondly, his contribution in cases involving the dissolution of state legislative assemblies is well known. In the Bommai case, he persuaded the Supreme Court to hold that the “floor test” was essential before dissolving a legislative assembly. However, as I have said in the book, since the Supreme Court finally decided the Bommai case some five years after the Karnataka assembly had been dissolved, Sorabjee’s client, SR Bommai, won his case but lost his government!

Could you tell us a bit about his work during the Emergency and his association with Jayaprakash Narayan?

The Emergency changed the nature of Sorabjee’s practice. Until then, Sorabjee was primarily a customs and excise lawyer. After the Emergency, he started appearing in a number of habeas corpus cases seeking the release of the government’s political opponents. Since the censor was prohibiting pro-free-speech judgments from being published during the Emergency, Sorabjee decided to write a book on free speech with the sole objective that it would contain, in its appendix, a compendium of pro-free-speech judgments that journalists and lawyers would have access to during the Emergency. The book, which was eventually published by NM Tripathi in April 1976, had been rejected by several publishers who were afraid of incurring the government’s wrath. Sorabjee was ostracised by many of his friends who were in favour of the Emergency. In the Freedom First case, which Sorabjee argued in the Bombay High Court during the Emergency, he convinced the High Court to set aside the censor’s decision to prohibit nine articles from being carried in Minoo Masani’s journal. In fact, Masani got Sorabjee to help Jayaprakash Narayan write his will when the latter was being treated at Jaslok Hospital in Bombay.

Sorabjee also represented the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the victims of the anti-Sikh riots after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. Was he satisfied with the results of his work?

I did not get a chance to discuss any of these cases with him. In 2018, when I met him, his memory was not very strong for the relatively recent past. However, he had written in one of his columns that the year he spent as the Attorney General for India under the National Front government, when he argued the Bhopal case, was “one of [his] most memorable”.

How do you feel about the fact that he served as Attorney General under a government formed by the Bharatiya Janata Party? Some peers and juniors lost respect for him after that. Senior human rights lawyers refused to comment when I reached out for quotes after Sorabjee’s death. They never forgave him. What do you make of this?

Sorabjee was, in a sense, intellectually opposed to the ideology of the BJP. In 1995, he signed a statement appealing to the voters of Maharashtra not to vote for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in the assembly elections. He was shocked that year when the Supreme Court decided to dismiss a case concerning hate speech, involving a political leader in Maharashtra who was accused of inciting communal riots. The main opposition to the airing of the Tamas serial on Doordarshan in the 1980s came from the BJP, and Sorabjee succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to uphold the Bombay High Court’s decision to allow the serial to be shown on television. When Vajpayee lost his trust vote in 1996, forming the shortest government in India’s history, Sorabjee wrote in one of his columns that the BJP needed to “shed its obsession with demolishing mosques” and replace “Hindutva” with “Indianness or Bharatva”, though he admired Vajpayee. The fact that Sorabjee was offered the highest law officer post in the country despite all of this says something about him, the prevalent political regime at the time, and the Zeitgeist of that era. Perhaps this shows us that Sorabjee was the kind of fair and balanced lawyer whom even opponents could reach out to. The prevalent political environment was perhaps not as polarized as it is in today’s social-media fuelled world where “You are either with us or against us” seems to be the generally held sentiment. That was also a time of weak coalition governments where a balanced candidate had to be selected who would be acceptable to all the political parties in the alliance.

How would you describe the evolution of his political beliefs and praxis?

Sorabjee was an admirer of Nehru, but a staunch critic of Nehruvian socialism. He was one of the strongest opponents of the Emergency and believed that it was imposed for “phoney” reasons. He was a liberal who believed in the freedom of speech and expression. He was opposed to the ideology of the BJP and Shiv Sena, but admired Vajpayee (as did many others, including Nani Palkhivala). I do not think any of these views changed over the years. It is not fair to confuse a lawyer’s personal or political beliefs with the cases that a lawyer argues in court. A criminal lawyer, for instance, may represent a person accused of murder in court, but that does not mean that he or she believes that murder is a good thing.

Can you recall any conversations you had with him about jazz?

Sorabjee stumbled into jazz. A salesman at Rhythm House, a popular record shop in Bombay, gave him a jazz record (Tiger Rag by the Benny Goodman trio with Sweet Sue on the flip side) instead of the one he really wanted at the time – Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No 5. However, once Sorabjee heard the record, he was hooked. He found the music uplifting. He actually got to know Benny Goodman (one of the greatest jazz clarinettists of all time) quite well. Sorabjee was invited to his 75th birthday party, a black-tie event, and even visited his penthouse in New York. He supported Indian jazz musicians through Capital Jazz. Sorabjee and his junior, Harish Salve, used to share an interest in jazz.

What kind of support did you get from Sorabjee’s family and friends?

The book could not have been written without his family’s support. It was his daughter, Zia Mody, who first suggested that I help him write his memoirs. I thereafter met and interviewed his family members – Zena, Zia, Jehangir and Hormazd, who gave me wonderful stories about him and his life. In fact, I met Jehangir on several occasions, and most of the photographs in the book come from his collection. I could not have found out as much as I did about Sorabjee’s grandfather, Hormasjee Sorabjee, without the information that Jehangir gave me. Jehangir went through several drafts of the book and Zia went through the final draft. Though it is an “authorized biography”, to their credit, the Sorabjee family did not prevent me from talking about difficult subjects like his relationship with his senior, the Corliss Lamont episode, his equation with Ram Jethmalani, etc.

During the #MeToo movement, a female advocate filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court “seeking redress and protection for sexual harassment and sexual assault by Soli J Sorabjee.” How did you grapple with this as you worked on the book?

I would not like to comment on the merits of this case as I believe it may still be sub judice. In my book, I have written about two cases that were personally filed against Sorabjee. One was filed in the Allahabad High Court, challenging his appointment as the Attorney General for India at the age of 68. The other was filed in the Calcutta High Court alleging that he had committed contempt of court for making a speech about judicial appointments. Both cases against him were dismissed. I am not aware of any judgment of any court finding Sorabjee guilty of sexual harassment or sexual assault. In India, we believe that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, I do not want to comment on the merits of any pending or sub judice case.

Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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