The Nation’s Consciencevala

Eminent jurist, outspoken critic, Nani A. Palkhivala devoted his life to upholding the Indian Constitution

By T.R. Andhyarujina

“God’s gift to India” is what C. Rajagopalachari called this extraordinary man. Nani A. Palkhivala’s versatility and extraordinary achievements have been recorded in innumerable books both by Palkhivala himself as well as by his many admirers. But until now there has been no attempt to present a comprehensive biography of the jurist’s entire life of 82 years.

No one but a genius could have achieved such eminence from the kind of disadvantages Palkhivala suffered. He did not have family wealth or connections in society. His grandfather ran a family business of building palanquins or palkhis (hence the family name). After that shut down, his father tried his hand at setting up another business which did not take the family too far. In childhood, young Nani suffered from an awkward stammer. Writer’s cramps forced him to take the help of a writer for his exam papers. He had no connections to enter the highly competitive Bombay bar. In the early days of his profession, he worked part-time at the Bombay Race Course as a totaliser.

A highly sensitive person, easily moved to tears. Close to his brother Behram, devoted to his family. That was Nani A. Palkhivala. A highly sensitive person, easily moved to tears. Close to his brother Behram, devoted to his family. That was Nani A. Palkhivala.

As Palkhivala said in later years, he had as much chance of becoming a successful advocate or public speaker as a victim of multiple sclerosis had of becoming an Olympic athlete.

Well-known journalist and writer M.V. Kamath’s biography of Palkhivala is built on first-hand accounts

of his life from acquaintances, associates, friends, admirers and family members. A major part of the book is a reproduction of Palkhivala’s speeches, writings, correspondence and written submissions in court in important cases argued by Palkhivala accessed from the Tata archives at Pune. The result is a connected, well-documented account of the life of a gifted individual with powerful mental faculties who by grit, determination and relentless ambition overcame adversity and rose to the heights of fame.

Palkhivala’s vehement criticism of the government’s economic and taxation policies during the days of socialism are reproduced here and vindicated today.

As are the great constitutional battles which he fought against the government in the privy purses case, the bank nationalisation case and the Kesavananda Bharati case (on whether the basic structure of the Constitution is open to amendment). Probably the most sensational revelation is Palkhivala’s letter to Indira Gandhi on December 9, ’75, beseeching her to intervene to prevent the hearing of the review of the 13-judge bench in the case by another bench of 13 judges headed by Chief Justice A.N. Ray commencing on December 10, ’75. We don’t know what part that letter played in the case but after Palkhivala’s passionate address in court on December 12, ’75, the chief justice dissolved the bench suddenly, and the Kesavananda case survived as a landmark in constitutional law.

The real value of the biography is the depiction of Palkhivala’s private life, not generally known even to his admirers. His love for his parents to whom he owed his upbringing, the encouragement and guidance given to him by his father who introduced him to literature and poetry and the close family bonds particularly with his brother Behram, his junior by seven years. With all his renown and public image, Palkhivala remained an intensely private and humble person. He is shown to be a highly sensitive person, easily moved to tears. Though outwardly not deeply religious, he cherished the noble ideals of his Zoroastrian creed and believed in a destiny which shaped the lives of men. He had a deep craving for spiritualism. He made large donations of his own wealth to needy individuals as well as to philanthropic institutions like the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and the Shankara Netralaya Eye Hospital.

The last years of Palkhivala’s life make tragic reading.His last budget speech was given in 1996. After that he gave up that annual performance which drew thousands of listeners. He suffered from small strokes which debilitated him and hospitalised him. In the last two years of his life, he lay in bed, unable to articulate his words though conscious of what was going on around him. It was an ironic end for India’s most eloquent speaker. He died on December 11, 2002.

(T.R. Andhyarujina is the former solicitor-general of India.)

Original article here

  • Jim Corley

    Dear Mr Andhyarujina,
    I am interested in Sir Peter John Grant who became a judge in the Supreme Court of Bombay in 1827 or’28. His portrait hangs, I believe, in the High Court Of Mumbai. If we can make contact I could give you more details about his life.
    Thank you & Regards,
    Jim Corley.