“We are all in the God’s departure lounge, waiting for our flights to be called,” said Soli Sorabjee in one of his innumerable articles and columns. “His flight was called off, but he had a very full life even while waiting,” wrote Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde.
Soli Sorabjee, 91, the former attorney general of India, a staunch proponent of freedom of speech, and an eminent lawyer associated with a series of landmark judgments, died on Friday at a hospital in New Delhi.
Soli Jehangir Sorabjee was born in Mumbai in 1930.
He showed ancient promise as a student at the prestigious Government Law College in Mumbai, the alma mater of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the constitution. Mr. second-highest Sorabjee won a gold medal in Roman law and jurisprudence.
He started his law practice in 1953 and rose metamorphically through the ranks of the Bombay High Court. In 1971, the Supreme Court designated him senior counsel.
The legal titan was involved in many landmark Supreme Court cases and argued for free speech and press freedom, limiting the police power of the state and a vibrant democracy protected from overreach by the Prime Minister and Governors.
Soli appeared with Nani Palkhivala in the Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973 at the Supreme Court which eventually gifted this country with the legal doctrine of the basic structure of the Constitution. It was the only time a bench of 13 judges, the full strength of the apex court sat to decide a case.
Sorabjee was the petitioner’s lawyer in the landmark SR Bommai case, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s 1994 verdict that held the power of the President to dismiss a state government is not absolute and subject to judicial review.
During the Emergency of 1975 imposed by Indira Gandhi’s Congress government, Mr. Sorabjee emerged as a fierce defender of human rights and media freedoms.
Mr Sorabjee became Attorney General first in 1989 to 1990 and then from 1998 to 2004.
A passionate human rights lawyer, Mr. Sorabjee was appointed a UN Special Rapporteur for Nigeria in 1997. He later became a member of the United Nations Sub Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights at 68-years and chaired the commission from 1998 to 2004. Since 1998, he was a member of the United Nations Sub Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Sorabjee also served from 2000 to 2006 as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.
Jazz, his first love. Sorabjee believed jazz deeply influenced the way he practiced law. He would say it helped him improvise as the situation demanded in court.
Soli Sorabjee was decorated with India’s second-highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan in 2002.
Tributes started pouring in as the news of Sorabjee’s death broke.
The Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana penned down a heartfelt message for Soli Sorajbee:
“In his nearly 68 year-long association with the judicial world, he made an immeasurable contribution in enriching the global jurisprudence of Human Rights and Fundamental Rights.”
“The books, essays, papers of international repute and the newspaper articles that he had authored; the independent opinions he could tender to the Government in his capacity as the Attorney General – they all stand testimony to his deep commitment to democratic values”.
“Being a champion of ‘Freedom of Press’, he effectively used the media as a platform to elucidate the nuances of complicated legal issues on almost daily basis till recently, literally giving lessons of law to millions of common people who otherwise could not have followed what was happening in the judicial world. His ability to adapt to the new trends in media was remarkable.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Mr. Sorabjee as an outstanding lawyer and intellectual.
Attorney general KK Venugopal told, “He was one of the best constitutional lawyers. He was a strong defender of fundamental rights. His parting is a significant loss to the entire legal community and a big personal loss to me.”
“Soli Sorabjee has passed on to a better world and has joined a pantheon of giants whose legacy will endure amongst all those who value our Republic and its constitutional mores. Every lawyer will feel his loss, for none of us have known of the Bar without Soli Sorabjee as its grandee, or of a world without him. For the many who loved him, and who will miss him, he has left behind a lifetime’s worth of memories to warm us so that we say to him in our hearts:”
“Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake. For Death, he taketh all away, but then he cannot take.”
– Ashmi Sood, Advocate and member of Mr. Sorabjee’s Chambers.
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