Soli J Sorabjee: A man of law and all things jazz


Senior advocate at 41, twice attorney general, and a dedicated defender of freedom of expression and the protection of human rights, Padma Vibhushan Soli Sorabjee died of Covid-19-related complications at 91. He committed his life to the service of law — and jazz, a genre of music he loved with a ardour.

Sorabjee (March 9, 1930 – April 30, 2021) worked with valid luminaries like Nani Palkhivala (as his junior). Of Palkhivala, he said: “I vividly take into accout the early morning conferences the two of us had those days in his room at the Oberoi Hotel. Either one of us were in our pyjamas. At one such convention, I nervously suggested the argument approximately inherent limitations on the amending power based on sure articles in america law journals. He grasped the point, but was once not slightly convinced. A couple of hours later in the Supreme Court, he expounded the doctrine brilliantly.”

The same could be said of Sorabjee (though pyjamas might not have figured). In a tribute, his junior, Abhi­s­hek Manu Singhvi, said that before Special Leave Peti­tion (SLP) hearings, juniors would be asked to brief him for a maximum of 10 minutes, “most often dissatisfied with his degree of underst­anding and absorption and alarmed at the last-minute convention a couple of minutes before court started. And then he would astonish us with his dexterity within the court, his nimbleness with the point at issue, repeatedly hitting the nail on the head when questioned by the court and most often carrying the day”.

Sorabjee was once one of the vital lawyers who argued and won the Kesavananda Bharati as opposed to State of Kerala case that had a profound have an effect on on Indian cons­t­itutional law. Many argue that the judgement saved democracy in India by preserving the concept that of the supremacy of the Charter and putting to rest the British concept of parliamentary supremacy. In one of his newspaper columns, Sorabjee reminisce about how he clashed with another brilliant constitutional lawyer but respected colleague H M Seervai (he paper money that all through his life, Seervai never called him Soli but Sorab, for reasons he didn’t entirely understand).

“Appreciable heat was once generated in the Supreme Court when Seervai derided our arguments approximately the basic constitution of the Charter,” he wrote, but added that Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the Emergency was once later criticised by Seervai in unambiguous terms. Another landmark case a few of the many he fought was once the SR Bommai case that laid down the template that in a dispute, a decision on a majority of a government in power had to be tested on the floor of the House, not in the Raj Bhavan.

More recently, he made it lucid that he stood with the judgment decriminalising Article 377. He wrote: “In essence homosexuality has not been legalised, much less advocated or championed. It has been decriminalised with the salutary consequence that the police won’t be able to barge into a person’s bedroom and terrorise her or him with arrest and crook prosecution with the entire attendant trauma and stigma unless the extortionate demands of the police are met. It is polite known that Section 377 had change into an instrument for harassment and blackmail. The judgment rightly removes the stigma that a homosexual person is a crook or an immoral person. The real merit of the judgment lies in its recognition that intimacies, privacies and autonomies of human life and the correct of an individual to make choices, which does not harm or infringe the rights of other persons, cannot be criminalized.”

Another landmark case was once the 2012 Sup­r­eme Court petition of law student Shreya Singhal, asking for Section 66A in the Information Tech­no­logy (IT) Act, 2000 to be taken off the statute books that Sorabjee fou­ght when Mukul Rohatgi became attorney general. “Despite possessing a different political persuasion, Soli ste­a­d­fastly believed in Voltaire’s famed dictum that he would disagree violently with anyone but defend to death that person’s correct to disagree with him,” said Singhvi.

He could be seen at the India Int­e­r­national Centre (IIC) incessantly, where he was once president twice, and used the IIC lawns to organise, at the side of other jazz lovers, the Jazz Yatra (1978-2003), an international festival of jazz. His affection for jazz began in college when he floated his own band, the SS (Soli Sorabjee) Quartet. He explored the genre further and records that he fell in love with it nearly by chance — when, instead of a recording of (Joh­a­n­nes) Brahms, a shopkeeper sold him a Benny Goodman album. Moonglow, the American clarinetist’s famed tune, was once one of his favourites. He also loved literature: Shakespeare’s sonnets and the Victorian poets.

Singhvi says he was once a brilliant imitate, and on occasion depraved with the gift — something tough to consider from someone as courtly as Sorabjee. Above all, he was once a believer in humanism, civil liberties and all things of beauty.

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