Among the well known lawyers of our times, Fali S Nariman is one of those who have always represented the propertied classes in court. There is hardly an instance when he took up the cause of the poor. In this sense he belongs to a league that sought to turn the Constitution on its head. But Nariman is also among those to whom democracy is merely a political concept and concerns the rights of the individual. He asserts his right to dissent as non-negotiable. He had the courage to resign as Additional Solicitor General immediately after the Emergency was declared, in June 1975.
His memory is intact at 80, and there is a certain honesty when he informs the reader about the context in which he was appointed Additional Solicitor General. Nariman was H R Gokhale’s counsel in an election petition. And when Gokhale became law minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, Nariman became one of the Union government’s law officers.
Those were times when Indira’s establishment loved socialism in the same manner a teenager now likes to wear a T-shirt with Che’s face on it. Nariman was among the lawyers who appeared against the State in the Golaknath case and others of its kind and argued against socialistic laws! Yet the establishment did not hesitate to appoint him. Nor did Nariman think twice before accepting. His distaste for socialism is pronounced. He holds K Subba Rao among the greatest judges of his time. Justice Subba Rao wrote the judgment in the Golaknath case and he set the clock back by holding fundamental rights sacrosanct and un-amendable. Directive Principles, for him, were mere principles to decorate the Constitution!
It is this simple approach to the law and the Constitution that guided Nariman as a lawyer. And the lawyer who asserted his right to dissent when the Emergency was imposed had no hesitation in taking up the brief for Union Carbide Corporation. Those who died and those who suffered the effect of toxic gases did not, after all, belong to the class Nariman represented in Golaknath. The senior counsel may not have taken the brief had the victims been of the landed aristocracy.
Nariman’s defence is different from the usual one that lawyers peddle: that professional ethics demand that he does not refuse a brief. His argument is that he could not have held UCC guilty beforehand and hence he agreed, with an open mind, to defend the corporation which caused the death of so many poor people. And he endorses Chief Justice Pathak’s lament (while approving the paltry $470 million as full and final settlement) that the welfare state had failed to generate a fund to succour the victims. It is sad that he argues in this way. He is forthright in his arguments against the principle of polluter-pays, and says the welfare state ought to bear the cost of relief, at least in the interim stages between an industrial disaster and the final judicial settlement.
The autobiography contains a lot of interesting things about Nariman’s early days in the Bar. There are interesting narratives from his early days and also about the manners of some of the leading names in the profession. The autobiography also reveals his relationship with Bapsi; those who know Nariman well also know that he and his wife are the best of friends too.
Nariman will be remembered for his decision to return the brief to the State of Gujarat (in the dispute on the Narmada Sarovar project where he argued against the rights of Adivasis to live in their own land) after the unabated
attacks against the church and Christians in the Dangs region. But this, as well as his fierce commitment to individual freedom in the wake of the Emergency will fade into the background. The book came out just weeks after memories of Bhopal were revived with the verdict on June 7.
Even if he had chosen another time for the release, the story of his role in the Bhopal case could not have escaped attention. For Nariman is an honest man. He devotes several pages to reproducing the texts of some of the most trenchant criticisms against him for having taken the brief for UCC, his own responses to those in those times; and does convey that even if he does not regret his acts, he may not take up a similar brief another time. It is abundantly clear that Nariman is honest to the hilt and that makes the autobiography what it is. A must-read for every lawyer and anyone who thinks of writing an autobiography. But some would say that honesty is not a virtue. I would insist that it is in these bad times.