Legal Luminaries


He made his mark in 1972 with Sakharam Binder. No, Ashok Desai did not act in Vijay Tendulkar’s contentious social commentary but his advocacy was responsible for the striking down of censorship laws in Maharashtra that were seeking a ban on the play. The dramatist was being harassed by the establishment, the Bombay Police, on grounds of obscenity as it showed illicit (sexual) relationship. “The Sakharam Binder case was a landmark case for me. Its outcome served public interest,” says Desai of his success in this case, gender and marriage. In fact, so popular was the case that two years later a Marathi play, Sex Morality and Sakharam Binder was staged, which had a character modeled on Ashok Desai!

And since Sakharam Binder, Desai, who himself is known for being soft spoken, is often talked about much for his steely reserve but winning ways. Other famous cases that have witnessed Desai’s court-craft and strategies are Piloo Modi, Antulay, Ramanna Shetty, Narasimha Rao, Vineet Narain and Narmada Dam cases – each having impacted the country involving issues of Administrative Law and Constitutional Law. Made Solicitor General in 1989 by V.P. Singh, and then Attorney General from July 1996 to 1998 during the United Front days, Desai believes that if a law officer has a reputation that he takes independent views, he gains much greater freedom as he is not approached for any “convenient advice”.

It is due to this sense of professional propriety that he is unable to appreciate the present collegium system for the appointment of judges for its lack of “transparency and accountability”. Citing lack of backing by an independent Secretariat as another reason for the failure of the collegium system, he says, “any changes made now must involve a participatory process where all the stakeholders, namely, the judiciary, the government and the Bar and even the civil society are involved.”

His views, albeit candid, have found him fame and fortune and, in 2001, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan and the Law Luminary Award. Prior to earning these awards, he had been the Chairman of the Committee on Administrative Law of the International Bar Association in 1986-88, and Consultant to the Commonwealth Workshop on Administrative Law at Lusaka, Zambia, in 1990. In 1997, he presented India’s Report to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights in Geneva. In 1998, he led the Indian delegation to the United Nations Preparatory Committee on the Money Laundering Bill in Vienna. Son of a top criminal lawyer, Haribhai Desai, Ashok Desai is an alumnus of the Scindia School, Gwalior. After graduating from Pune’s Fergusson College, he moved to Bombay to join the Government Law College in the summer of 1950. Interestingly, during his years there, he had for company Fali Nariman, Anil Divan, Murlidhar Bhandare and Soli Sorabjee. “Sixty years on, today all the five of us find ourselves practicing in Delhi and all of us good friends seem to be doing rather well!” chuckles Desai.

College, however, was not limited to studies for Ashok and his friends. Students held mock Parliaments wherein Nariman and then Divan used to be the Speaker and Sorabjee the Prime Minister and Desai the Leader of the Opposition. And as should be expected of the lawyers in the making, trial scenes from works of literature also were of interest. “We played out Shakespeare as well. The trial scene of ‘Merchant of Venice’ was enacted and I played the role of Antonio,” remembers Desai of those fun-filled days. His eyes twinkling with laughter he adds, “I had just a few lines but had to stand virtually like an exhibit waiting to yield the pound of flesh! I was rather thin those days!”

Law College also introduced him to the likes of Nani Palkhivala and Y.V. Chandrachud. Feeling rather lucky to have been taught by these future stalwarts, he says, “Nani was very enthusiastic about sharing his experiences with us and he had a superb memory. Chandrachud shared his interest in literature.” After completion of his degree at Law College, Bombay, he attended the London School of Economics and Political Science and was thereafter called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. However, his role models were S.V. Gupte and H.M. Seervai. “They were my role models for not earning the most but because they were those who could study their case and argue it,” he says. It was their deep sense of professionalism without compromises which drew Desai to learn from them.

Married to Suverna Jhaveri of the famed Jhaveri sisters, prominent exponents of Manipuri dance, in 1961, Desai has been blessed with three children. While his eldest son, Harish, is a Bombay-based lawyer, Ami holds a Doctorate in Immunology, and Jay in an Engineer in Denver. The reclusive lawyer’s favourite past time is, of course, reading. Says wife Suverna, “His first love is books and he knows each and every book in our library. “ Other than law, topics close to Desai’s heart are philosophy, religion and politics. Buddhism is also one of his favourite topics for reading. The other enchantress is music. A lover of both Indian and Western classical music, he is partial towards opera by the renowned Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.

Striking the perfect balance between art and logic, Ashok Haribhai Desai has never failed to drive others to see reason. “Succeeding is important but succeeding within the law is more important,” says this luminary who has always valued moral principles more than monetary gains.

We acknowledge “100 Legal Luminaries of India” by Lalit Bhasin (Lexis). The multicolour coffee table book printed on art paper in Hardbound is priced at ` 5995/- and is available at Universal Book Traders, C-27, Connaught Place, New Delhi – 110001.

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