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Journey through the seven seas

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As the first Asian to set up a solicitor’s firm in London, Sarosh Zaiwalla’s clients included Indian prime ministers, bollywood actors, and large firms in Iran and China.

Alam Srinivas

The year was 1982. After he finished his solicitor’s program, it took Sarosh Zaiwalla seven days to decide that he should set up his own firm in London. It was destiny combined with instinct that made him the first Asian to do so. His mentor advised him against joining an law firm, as London was wracked with racial discrimination and he would have found it difficult to grow.

Zaiwalla’s gut told him that he should listen to his guru and venture out on his own. The coincidence was that the maritime law solicitor did not anglicize his name, as most Asians did, and used his Parsi surname. This led to his first break. It opened up opportunities over the next three decades.

In an interview with India Legal, Zaiwalla says that the then Indian High Commi-ssioner to London, Seyed Mohammed, heard that he had set up the first Asian solicitor’s firm. “He gave me an entry into the international shipping arbitration work,” he explains. Mohammed, who was India’s law minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, appoin-ted Zaiwalla as the sole lawyer to handle the High Commission’s cases.

LEGAL EAGLES: Zaiwalla with his team in London.

India was then one of the largest recipients of food aid under America’s PL 480, which was initiated by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. While the US would sell wheat free of cost, India had to charter ships to transport it. “The charter of 200-300 ships led to the arbitration cases that I handled in those years,” says Zaiwalla.

This helped Zaiwalla to meet powerful Indians and non-resident Indians, who wanted to choose an Indian as their solicitor in London. He met the Hindu-jas, who migrated from Iraq to England during the period, and got close to Rajiv Gandhi and his family, Amitabh Bachchan and Narasimha Rao. With success came other clients, including Chinese and Iranian firms.

When Metco, a Dubai-based firm, sued the Special Organizing Committee (SOC) of Asian Games, which were held in India in 1982, for breach of a $5 million advertising contract, the case was handled by the Lon-don High Commission and, hence, Zaiwalla. A member of the SOC was Rajiv Gandhi, who was a member of parliament then and was impressed by the solicitor’s work. “I met Rajiv Gandhi much later, and only a few times,” says the lawyer.

Even after Rajiv Gandhi became India’s prime minister in 1984, he referred his friends, who needed legal help in London, to Zaiwalla. That’s how Amitabh Bachchan, the renowned Bollywood star, got in touch with the lawyer. In the second half of 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi and others were accused of taking bribes in the Bofors gun case, a Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter, named Amitabh as one of the recipients. The actor sued the paper and extracted an apology. Years later, in 2012, Sten Lindstrom, the Swedish whistleblower in the Bofors case, confirmed that Amitabh’s name was dragged in to malign Rajiv Gandhi. “They (Indian investigators) gave me a list of names to pursue, including that of Amitabh Bachchan. Indian investigators planted the Bachchan angle.”

After Rajiv Gandhi’s death in 1991, Zaiwalla met his wife, Sonia, often. “She told me that Rajiv had high regard for my work. I met her every time I was in Delhi,” says Zaiwalla. In 1997-98, it resulted in him acting on behalf of Sonia to initiate action against a documentary biopic on her life. “We argued that the Italian producer’s effort was a breach of privacy, since she did not hold any public posts at that time. The European Union laws on privacy are strict, and we
settled out-of-court with the producer. The documentary was never made.”

In between, Zaiwalla worked for another Indian prime minister, Narasimha Rao who, as per CBI’s charges, aided Godman Chandraswami and his aide KN Agarwal to cheat UK’s pickle king, Lakhubhai Pathak. Maneka Gandhi, the Gandhi family’s daughter-in-law, sought Zaiwalla’s help to initiate libel action against Catherine Frank’s biography on Indira Gandhi, which was published by Harper Collins. When the Hindujas shifted to England, Zaiwalla became their legal advisor and informal interpreter.

Zaiwalla is a Parsi from Mumbai, who lived in Kemp’s Corner near Chow-patty and studied at St Xavier’s and HR Government College. He left for London in 1978 to finish his law, and never looked or came back. But he maintains that there are huge differences between Bombay (as it was called then) and Mumbai (new name). The first is that the city, as well as the country, has become more communal. “In school, we never talked religion.”

The second problem with Mumbai is the lack of trees; the older city had huge mangroves, which were cut down as the city expanded its tentacles northwards towards Navi Mumbai. “I agree that cities have to change over time, but the transformation needs to be positive. I am not sure if this is indeed the case with Mumbai,” he feels.

The third problem with his birth city is something that plagues the entire nation, and is connected with the 2014 national elections. “I followed the election campaigns on Aaj Tak, NDTV and CNN-IBN. These elections were not fought on parties’ programs, but on personalities. But I believe in the saying that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Therefore, elections in a mature democracy should be fought only on merits,” he explains.

However, the big positive is the changing demographics in India. It is a given that younger people will enter politics, he says. In England, the prime ministers are under 40 years; the same may happen in India. In England, MPs travel by buses and other public transport; India needs to acquire a similar mindset. “But I am confident that India will change,” says Zaiwalla.

It is in the area of global finance that Zaiwalla’s work has had tremendous impact. One of his famous cases was the Shah versus HSBC, which involved money laundering issues. The Shah couple, with business interests in central Africa, instructed HSBC to transfer money from their account in the UK on four occasions, but the bank did not do so. HSBC became suspicious about the source of the money, reported it to UK’s Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), and waited for the agency’s consent. The Shahs filed a case against HSBC and claimed $300 million in damages.

After 54 months and seven court judgments, the High Court dismissed Shahs’ claim and ruled that the bank was entitled to delay the payments. But the orders established a procedure that banks had to follow in such cases. While they could initiate action if they had “genuine and honest” suspicions, the same would not be true if the decision was taken in “bad faith”.

But it was the case that involved Bank Mellat, Iran’s largest private bank, which has had larger ramifications. Zaiwalla argued that the sanctions against the bank, allegedly because of links to Iran’s nuclear program, could not be imposed without evidence or hearing from the aggrieved party. “The favorable order we got, I am told, was carefully studied by the US State Department,” he says. The order may lead to a $4 billion penalty, which will come out of the pockets of UK’s tax payers.

In the past three decades, Zaiwalla emerged as an influential player in global politics and diplomacy. As a lawyer, he was involved in China-related issues, which revolved around Tibet policies, the nation’s relationship with Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibet leader, and the takeover of Hong Kong from Britain.

This is not surprising. Tony Blair, former prime minister of Britain, trained at Zaiwalla & Co, decades ago. His name first appeared in reported court document (Lloyd’s Report 28, 1983) in a case he fought for the firm on India’s behalf. In the La Pintada case, the issue involved was whether India was liable to pay compound interest as penalty on late payment to owners of the ocean-going vessel, La Pintada. The case went to the House of Lords, the highest court in England, which decided in India’s favor. It was Indian government’s first victory in the apex court. It opened more doors for Zaiwalla.

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