Fali Nariman lets memory strike its own patchwork path, and presents his final case on the Bhopal tragedy
By Mani Shankar Aiyar / Outlook India
This is of a piece with what this community, given refuge in India when they fled the Muslim invasion of Persia (and guaranteed through 700 years of Muslim rule here), has given to this country for this one act of generosity: Dadabhai Naoroji started our freedom movement; Jamshedji Tata launched us on the path to industrialisation; Homi Bhaba gave us Atoms for Peace; and Sam Manekshaw the liberation of Bangladesh. What an enormous return for a small investment in good sense and kindness.
Fali Nariman ends his book with a passionate plea for secularism. If such a tiny community can give back so much, imagine the returns that await us if we were to be as kind to our largest minority, the Muslims. Tragically, the likes of Narendra Modi ensure that the demons of narrow-mindedness, bigotry and genocide continue to have to be fought.
Billed as “An Autobiography”, Nariman’s book is less a continuous narrative than a collection of reminiscences, anecdotes and reflections on the events and people that have filled his very full life—recounted with that ineffable charm, gentle persuasiveness and quiet humour that so characterise the man.
Born in Rangoon to a well-off business executive, the Nariman family fled to India in the face of the Japanese invasion in 1942 when Fali was 12. It was an age at which he would have vivid memories of the great trek that took them through the wild jungles and perilous mountain tracks that lay between Rangoon and Imphal—but apart from a gripping tale about how they escaped being trampled to death by a rogue elephant, other adventures are quickly passed over.
Of his schooldays, he tells stories with impish fun: an old English teacher who invariably answered the query “How are you?” with a giggle, “Hee-hee, like the British Empire, I am slowly disintegrating!”
Then the morbid tale of a distant relative, Bakhtyar Rustomji Hakim, who was hanged in England in 1936 for, allegedly, strangling his wife and maid in a fit of jealous rage. For this horrific murder, his waxwork was included in Madam Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors—but later removed, leading Fali to remark, “It may be macabre in me but, quite frankly, I do miss having to tell friend and foe that there is a distant relative of mine in the Chamber of Horrors!”
I could go on, but what I suppose readers would be most interested in now is what defence Fali Nariman can muster for having been Union Carbide’s principal lawyer on the Bhopal tragedy. I would urge that instead of being consumed by media-induced hysteria, Nariman be allowed his sober summing up of the maze through which the case has meandered, for what is now being angrily denounced was upheld at every stage by a galaxy of high court luminaries and a phalanx of Supreme Court chief justices. The facts are not as simple as ranting commentators make out, nor the law as self-evident as some pretend. It was not the venality of one judge or the other, or the callousness of one politician or the other. It involved a gigantic systemic failure of justice (as against mere rule of law) and administrative incompetence in the face of demands for compensation from 3,500 dead, as initially estimated, to 25,000 as later claimed and several thousand injured, which formed the basis of the settlement. Claims for compensation were filed by 10 lakh persons, of which 5 lakh were admitted.
With scrupulous fairness, Nariman allows learned opponents like the eminent jurist, Upendra Baxi, and activists Nagaraj and Raman, their full say in his book. Before expressing remorse that he took up a brief the full consequences of which revealed themselves only decades after he had concluded arguments, Nariman gently hints that it was open to any of the eleven governments that ruled India from 1989 to 2010 to make their supplementary contribution. At last, the present government has released Rs 1,500 crore (less than has been advanced to the organising committee for the 10-day Commonwealth Games), which, in real terms, is just about equal to, or perhaps a shade lower than, the Rs 615 crore advanced twenty years ago by the ucc at Nariman’s instance.
There is much else—on the Emergency and its judges, on fellow-lawyers and court anecdotes, a brilliant chapter on river water disputes and engaging reflections on his tenure as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. I commend this easy and profitable read.