A patient mentor, protector of freedom of expression and passionate about jazz
Prominent Lawyer and Former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee died of complications from covid-19 at the age of 91 in New Delhi on April 30, 2021. Mr. Sorabjee was considered by his peers as one of the best jurists of independent India. His legal career spanned almost 70 years and he appeared in several important cases of his time.
Mr. Sorabjee was Attorney General from 1989 to 1990, and then from 1998 to 2004. He was also Solicitor General and Additional Solicitor General of the Government of India.
“He has held the post of Attorney General with great dignity, competence and commitment to the rule of law,” said Lalit Bhasin, president of the Society of Indian Law Firms “.
Mr. Sorabjee received the Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest civilian honor, for his exceptional and distinguished service. He began his legal career in 1953, enrolling at the Mumbai Bar. The Supreme Court appointed him as senior counsel in 1971, when he was 41 years old.
“During my long association with him starting in the mid-1970s, I had never seen Soli raise her voice in the courtroom,” Bhasin said. “He followed the British tradition of ‘talking’ to judges and not yelling at them. It was always a pleasure to hear him speak anywhere and on any subject because of his versatility.
He dealt with matters of significant public importance involving the interpretation of the constitution. One of these was the historic case of Kesavananda Bharati v Kerala State (1973). Mr Sorabjee assisted Nani Palkhivala, another prominent jurist, in the case where the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the basic structure of the constitution was sacrosanct and could not be changed by parliament through of amendments.
Another notable case was Maneka Gandhi v Indian Union (1978), where the Supreme Court clarified the right to personal liberty granted by Article 21 of the Constitution. Mr Sorabjee appeared as additional solicitor general in the case, and the ruling was seen as an inflection point in the court’s movement towards a broader interpretation of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights.
As a mentor himself, Mr. Sorabjee has shown great patience while working with young lawyers. “Soli was an exceptional senior who would guide the juniors on how to work, prepare notes and briefs,” said GV Rao, a senior attorney at the Supreme Court, who worked as a government attorney during the first tenure of Mr. Sorabjee as Attorney General.
“He was always generous with a foul and would continue despite the mistakes the junior made, teaching him not to repeat it,” said Rao. “He gave me many, many important cases and encouraged me enormously, and therefore played an important role in my transformation into a professional.”
When the Indian government imposed a state of emergency for a 21-month period between 1975 and 1977, Mr. Sorabjee was a vocal opponent of the government’s decision to suspend freedom of speech and many other rights, even in the great risk to himself.
“His contribution to the defense of the cause of freedom of expression is unique and incomparable,” said Bhasin. “He was responsible for obtaining a historic verdict from justice [Dinshah] Madon where it was ruled that although the right to freedom of speech and expression was suspended during the emergency, the rule of law continues to prevail.
Mr. Sorabjee later wrote two books, India’s press censorship laws (1976) and Urgency, censorship and the press in India, 1975-1977 (1977), exploring the role of the media and the subject of press censorship during the emergency.
Also in recent years, Mr. Sorabjee has regularly written articles supporting the right to dissent and criticizing the use of the sedition law against activists.
“Its contribution is essentially to establish the rules of a democracy that works through judicial declarations,” said Rao.
“The main judgments he will remember are constitutional cases, which are landmark judgments on legal principles relating to liberty, fundamental rights, human rights and freedom of speech and expression.”
Besides law, Mr. Sorabjee was extremely passionate about jazz music. He was the first president of Jazz India, an association dedicated to promoting the genre in India. He also inducted Rao as a member of the group. “My relationship with Soli was extremely personal as well as professional, as I loved jazz and Western classical music like him and attended music concerts with him at the India International Center and elsewhere in New Delhi.
Mr Sorabjee believed that lawyers should not limit themselves to their profession and cultivate interests in other fields such as literature, public affairs and human rights.
“He used to tell law students and young lawyers that you will always be a mason if you limit yourself only to law,” Bhasin said. “But you will be considered an architect if you study literature and history, develop a taste for music and the arts, and understand and implement the legacy we have inherited from the great leaders of the bar.”
Mr Sorabjee leaves behind his wife Zena, his daughter Zia Mody, founder and managing partner of the large law firm AZB & Partners, and his sons Hormazd Sorabjee, who publishes a popular automotive magazine, and Jehangir Sorabjee, who is a doctor.