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Full Court reference in memory of Senior Advocates Ashok H. Desai and Soli Sorabjee

At the full court reference on Friday, Chief Justice of India Justice N.V. Ramana said the gathering had assembled to express profound grief on the passing away of two legends of the Bar. It would be difficult to describe the work and achievements of these two legends, the CJI said.

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A full court reference was held in the Supreme Court today in the memory of Senior Advocates Ashok H. Desai and Soli Sorabjee, both former Attorney Generals of India. Desai died on April 13, 2020 and Sorabjee passed away on April 30, 2021.

At the full court reference on Friday, Chief Justice of India Justice N.V. Ramana said the gathering had assembled to express profound grief on the passing away of two legends of the Bar. It would be difficult to describe the work and achievements of these two legends, the CJI said.

“Ashok Desai, former Attorney General of India, graduated with law in 1952 from the Government Law College. Mr. Desai started his practise in Bombay High Court in 1956. He was designated as a Senior Advocate in 1977. As an advocate, he appeared in many cases before the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court, particularly those involving issues of public importance. He was a champion of civil liberties and was a part of several notable cases such as the case of A.R. Antulay, Narmada Dam case, Navtej Singh Johar case and much more,” the CJI said.

“I had the opportunity to brief Sh. Desai during my days as a young lawyer. I will always remember him as one of the greatest lawyers I have had the opportunity to work with. He will always be remembered for his contribution to the legal profession and the society at large. He is survived by his wife and three children. My brother and sister judges join me in conveying our heartfelt condolences to the grieved family,”

-said Justice Ramana.

On Soli J. Sorabjee, CJI Ramana said Sorabjee was born in March 1930 in Bombay. He started his practise in 1953 in the Bombay High Court. He was designated as a Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court in 1971. He served as the Office of Attorney General of India twice. His faith in constitutional ideas was unshakable. His defence of civil liberties during Emergency, his outspoken views are all well-known.

“He was a part of some of the most iconic cases of the country. As a junior, he assisted Nani Palkhivala in Keshavananda Bharti.
It was in recognition of his work in India, the President of India conferred upon him the Padma Bhushan for his contribution in defending freedom of speech. He was renowned internationally and was closely associated with the United Nations.”

“I briefed him a few times as an advocate and saw him in action many times. The very first time I briefed him was 1988. He had read the entire file before I even reached and knew every detail. The briefing lasted for just 5 minutes. He lived his life on his own terms and pursued his diverse passions with great energy. His death due to Covid was shocking.”

Soli Sorabjee will always be remembered as a legend who had extended the pillars of democracy. His words, actions and principles should serve as a guide to everyone in the profession. My brother and sister judges join me in paying our deepest condolence to the grieving family. Soli Sorabjee touched so many lives. May his spirit continue to live forever, the CJI said.

In his message on the two stalwarts of the Bar, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal recalled Ashok Desai’s efforts that led to the striking down of censorship laws in Maharashtra. Some of his other landmark cases include the Vineet Narain judgment, alienating the powers of the CBI, and the Narmada Dam case.

One of the landmark cases that he appeared in before the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court was the Navtej Singh Johar case challenging the criminalization of homosexuality.

Ashok Desai was highly spiritual and practised Buddhism. He took a keen interest in reading books on religion. He was a kind man and a gentle soul.

His passing in April 2020 left a void. I convey my deepest condolences to his wife, children.

Ashok Desai was a celebrated figure and our cherished memories of him give us strength and comfort to accept his departure.

Soli Sorabjee was undoubtedly one of the greats. It is impossible to encapsulate in a short time, the vast expanse of Soli’s life and his personality.

Soli and I became friends in 1979 when he was the Solicitor General of India and I was appointed the Additional Solicitor General. When I came to Delhi in 1979, I was staying alone in Tamil Nadu Bhawan. Soli and his wife would frequently invite me over to their house for elaborate dinners. Their jovial nature and warm disposition, which I find as a quintessential Parsi trait, always made me feel at home.

Soli had an incisive intellect. He was among the most gifted Advocates that I have seen. His oratorical skills, charisma often left judges with no option but to accept the force of his arguments in courts. One of the first cases we worked together was Minerva Mills case.

Soli was a great lawyer, no doubt; but was also a prolific writer and a profound thinker. A two-time Attorney General and a Padma Vibhushan awardee, his body of work in the field of human right carried him the recognition that he enjoyed till the very last breath.

A champion of human rights and liberty, Soli offered the services pro bono in Emergency days. After the 1984 Sikh riots, he again provided free services to members of the Sikh community who were affected by the riots.

Soli had strong convictions about tolerance in a multi-religious and multi-cultural nation. His ideas on dissent and intolerance have been wonderfully captured in an article he had written titled “Freedom from Intolerance”.

Always encouraging to the junior members at the Bar, his own chamber has produced many eminent lawyers. No tribute to Soli would be complete without mentioning his love for Jazz. He was introduced to it before he was introduced to law.

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His passing in April this year is highly unfortunate. He was just a few month from celebrating his 91st birthday in true Soli style. I offer my deepest condolences to his wife, children and grandchildren.

Supreme Court Bar Association President Senior Advocate Vikas Singh said:

“My role in the SCBA brings with itself a substantive set of challenges, none more so than the task which has been set out today of paying tribute to men as multi-faceted as Mr Ashok H. Desai and Mr Soli Sorabjee, who touched the lives of so many and inspired countless others.

Mr Ashok Desai was known as Ashok Bhai amongst his friends and colleagues; and he left for his heavenly abode in April 2020. Ashok Bhai did his schooling in Bombay. He graduated with his law degree in 1952 from Government Law College, Bombay.

He appeared in a large number of cases in the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court, particularly those involving issues of accountability in public life and transparency in governance. He agitated the courts against the evils of pre-censorship in the famous Sakharam Binder case.

It is common these days to have powerful politicians resign from office due to allegations of corruption, but we cannot forget that it was thanks to his efforts through a PIL that the once mighty A.R. Antulay had to resign when credible allegations of corruption surfaced against him. The case played an important part in animating the debate around political accountability both within legal sector and beyond.

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Ashok Bhai moved from Bombay to Delhi in 1989 when he was appointed the Solicitor General. He held the post from 1989 to 1990. Although the stint lasted only for a year, he left a lasting impression as a Law Officer.

His doors were always open for common man for whom he fought with great passion and regard.

Ashok Bhai demonstrated the significance of being a good human being in order to become a good lawyer. He was one of the lawyers who fiercely defended the rights of the LGBTQ community in the challenge to Section 377.

Innumerable awards and felicitations were showered upon him. In 2001, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan and the Law Luminary Award.

He exhorted his fellow lawyers and would say, “If you over-celebrate the wins, you will have to over-born the losses.”

We have lost Ashok bhai’s presence among us, but let us pledge to keep the great amount of good he has done alive through our actions.

Mr Soli Sorabjee, a man who lived a truly remarkable life and whose commitment towards human rights inspired and guided many great legal luminaries to join this profession. A stalwart warrior of humanity, he showered immense compassion towards others.

We lost Soli Sorabjee to Covid-19 on 30th April, 2021. He indeed practised till the very end and in his demise, the country has lost one of the greatest legal minds in India.

Mr Sorabjee was born on 9th March, 1930, to a Parsi family. In 1953, he commenced his legal practice in the Bombay High Court. He was designated as a Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court in 1971. Following the footsteps of his mentor Nani Palkhivala, he greatly contributed to the development and interpretation of country’s constitutional jurisprudence. He was part of several landmark cases. One being the Keshavananda Bharti case, which protected the rights of an individual against the State.

As a senior counsel, he generously mentored many of his juniors such as Harish Salve, Abhishek Manu Singh, Hon’ble Justice U.U Lalit, who all rose to key positions later in life.

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He took up many matters probono throughout his seven decades long glorious career.

He became the Solicitor General of India and held the post from 1977 to 1980. As Solicitor General, he was involved in cases that shaped the fundamental rights available to the citizens at large and made the judiciary a stronger third pillar of democracy.

His zealous participation towards the furtherance of fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression earned him the title of “Crusader of Free Speech” in the legal fraternity. He defended the Freedom of Press in many landmark cases in the Supreme Court of India. He was instrumental in revoking censorship orders and bans on publication.

He served as the Office of Attorney General of India twice.

He was a prolific writer and authored many books on law of censorship in India. He tirelessly defended Freedom of Speech and was honored with the Padma Vibhushan in March 2002.

Mr. Soli Sorabjee was a man of varied interests. He had a passion for Jazz, poetry and literature. He was a collector of vinyl records of Jazz and was known as a Jazz aficionado.

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His arguments in the court were often accompanied by verses from great English poets.

His life mirrors out his ambition to guard the fortress of fundamental rights in India. He has an unblemished career wherein he treated his juniors with respect and is remembered by all with admiration.

I, on behalf of members of the Bar, offer my heartfelt condolences to the grieved families. May their souls rest in peace!

Read CJI Ramana’s full reference below

FCR-sorabjee-desai-10122021

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