Author: Vanisha Mishra, Institute of law
Chief Justice N V Ramana condoled the passing away of eminent jurist and former attorney general Soli Sorabjee saying he had “deep commitment to democratic values” and was a champion of “freedom of press”.
Soli Sorabjee, an eminent jurist and legal luminary was born in a Parsi family on 9th March, 1930. He pursued law from the Mumbai government college and was known for his term as Attorney General of India from 1989 to 1990, and again from 1998 to 2004. But sadly, his demise took place on 30th April, 2021. He was a constitutional expert and an ardent advocate of free speech.
He spent the seven decades of his life advocating for the plight of minorities, human rights and free speech for all. At a very young age, Soli got recognition and appreciation in the legal community by working in Bombay High Court. And during the 1950s, Bombay High Court he worked extensively for civil liberties under Chief Justice, M.C. Chagla, Soli and got ample opportunities and excelled in the cause of minorities and civil liberties of common man.
The constitutional expert started his work in the Supreme Court in 1967, when he got the first opportunity to preside over a case relating to the validity of the Old Passports Act, 1920, under a constitutional bench laid down by Justice K Subba Rao. After success in this case, he fought several constitutional cases before the Supreme Court.
In the landmark cases of Golak Nath and Keshavananda Bharati, he became a significant member of Nani Palkhivala's legal team. In the case of Keshavananda Bharati, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of basic structure. The 13-judge Supreme Court bench ruled that the Legislature lacked the power to change the Constitution's fundamental features. As a consequence, democratic institutions have been shielded from authoritarian regimes' possible assaults and thus, in independent India, he made an important contribution to the understanding of constitutional law.
Another notable case he represented was the landmark St. Xavier's College case, in which the State of Ahmedabad petitioned against the State of Gujarat, which affirmed minority groups' rights to establish and operate their own educational institutions.
When Sorabjee was the Additional Solicitor General, he argued the Maneka Gandhi passport case in 1979, in which the courts held that a person's constitutional right entails that he or she cannot be refused a passport without a justification. He also battled the dismissal of then-Chief Minister S R Bommai by Karnataka Governor Buta Singh, who was acting on orders from a hostile Central Government, in 1989. This decision has become the litmus test for determining if Article 356 is constitutional. The use of this article to discredit inconvenient state governments has decreased dramatically as a result of this single order.
Sorabjee, who was very optimistic and enthusiastic, frequently provided his services for free, working pro bono. During the Emergency, he assisted several political detainees who had been detained under the draconian MISA. It was a difficult time for him, and he was on the verge of being imprisoned. The unprecedented suspension of constitutional rights, including the right to life, by the Supreme Court during the Emergency, in a 4-1 order in the habeas corpus case, stunned Palkhivala and him. Therefore, he also actively volunteered in cases that affirmed the right of minorities to create their own schools and saved local elected officials from being fired by higher authorities. Following the 1984 riots, Sorabjee then offered his services to Sikhs in Delhi for free.
Sorabjee has also written two books on the topic: The Law of Press Censorship in India and The Emergency, Censorship, and the Press in India, 1975-77. On related topics, he also wrote newspaper columns and journal articles. He stressed the importance of openness and accountability in a democracy, as well as citizens', "right to know."
In his essay "Free Speech," published in V. Eshwar Anand and K. Jayanthi's A Handbook of Journalism: Media in the Information Age (2018), Sorabjee writes that, in order to be successful and actual, freedom of speech must have a wide range of content. It cannot be limited to the expression of agreed and permissible thoughts and ideas, but must include those that "offend, shock, or upset" the state or any segment of the population.
Soli Sorabjee was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the country's second highest civilian honor, in 2002, for their work on behalf of the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and his contribution to the continued service of justice including his vociferous defence of the freedom of expression and protection of human rights. He was also a member of the Citizens' Justice Committee, which offered pro bono legal representation to victims of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination.
Sorabjee's achievements were not limited to India. In 1997, the United Nations named him as a Special Rapporteur for Nigeria, tasked with reporting on the country's human rights situation. He joined the UN Sub Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities in 1998. He was also a member of the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and later became the chairman. He was a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague and served as a Special Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. He served on the India International Centre's board of trustees for the rest of his life.
Soli was also appointed Attorney General for the country twice, in 1989–1991 and 1998–2004, and while occupying the high constitutional office he has always upheld its dignity by standing up to the powers that be.
Sorajbjee’s passion for justice and prolific writings on jurisprudential issues would always remain a guide for our democratic institutions and future generations, and will always inspire and encourage free thinking individuals to freedom of speech and expression. Soli has left us with priceless treasures to commemorate his life.