Fali S Nariman – One of a kind

Fali S. Nariman, one of India’s most eminent constitutional lawyers and a champion of civil liberties, passed away today at the age of 96. Known for his unparalleled knowledge of constitutional law and renown as an advocate, Nariman had a legal career spanning over six decades.

Born on August 10, 1929 in a Parsi family in Yangon, Myanmar which later settled in Mumbai, young Nariman studied at Cathedral & John Connon School. He went on to graduate in Arts from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai before moving to Government Law College. After acquiring his LLB degree in 1951, he started out under eminent lawyer Sir Jamshed B Kanga before joining the chambers of the renowned lawyer CK Daphtary.

In 1967, Nariman began his own independent practice in the Bombay High Court. He swiftly rose through the ranks of legal luminaries owing to his razor-sharp legal acumen and articulateness. Over the years he gained repute for his unwavering commitment to upholding constitutional values and safeguarding civil liberties. His unflinching dedication to protecting and promoting fundamental rights saw him spearhead and win various landmark cases that strengthened civil rights jurisprudence in India.

Through the Emergency years from 1975-1977, Nariman was vocal in his criticism of the suspension of people’s rights. In 1979, he was elected as a member of the Bar Council of Maharashtra. He served two consecutive terms as Vice Chairman of the iconic Bar Association of India spread over four years. Owing to his towering stature and legal prowess, Nariman was appointed Additional Solicitor General of India in March 1989. The same year, he resigned from the post owing to differences with the government, demonstrating his fierce independence.

In 1993, Nariman took on the role of the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association amidst significant challenges. Under his leadership, the bar transformed on efficiency and accessibility parameters through various procedural changes. He also led a march to oppose the passage of controversial bills aimed at amending the Constitution. His presidency bolstered the Bar’s tradition of safeguarding interests of legal practitioners while holding on to its progressive values and independence.

Beyond practicing law and training a generation of constitutional lawyers, Nariman left an indelible mark on the country’s legal landscape through his academic contributions. He authored several prolific books on constitutional law that became integral texts for students of law. Some of his important literary works include the single-volume Constitution of India – Select Legal Perspectives, Before Memory Fades an Autobiography, and The State of the Nation.

Through his writings, Nariman also shaped popular understanding of key constitutional principles and significant legal developments in the country. Widely published in prominent dailies and magazines as a columnist, he often penned columns addressing complex legal issues making them accessible and understood by laypersons. He was actively involved with Indian Law Institute as a member and later President of its Governing Council for advancing legal education.

In his illustrious career, Nariman was counsel on numerous landmark cases that championed civil liberties and established key constitutional principles. Some of these milestone verdicts included Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India (1978), Indian Express Newspapers vs Union of India (1985), S.R Bommai vs Union of India (1994), Indra Sawhney vs Union of India (2000) and Lily Thomas vs Union of India (2013). Each case helmed by Nariman enriched the constitutional discourse and resulted in expansion of fundamental rights.

For his contribution as a constitutional legal luminary and for strengthening personal liberty jurisprudence, Nariman was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1991 and Padma Vibhushan in 2007 alongside winning several global accolades. Through the 2000s, he also served as a nominated Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha underscoring his commitment to public service.

Even in his late years, Nariman continued his legal practice with vigour in the Supreme Court where he was among the most sought-after figures. He inspired generations of lawyers to dedicate themselves to became worthy officers of the court while upholding interests of justice. His legacy will endure as one of the brightest lights that kept the flame of constitutionalism, liberty and freedom of expression burning bright in the world’s largest democracy.

In personal life, Nariman remained devoted to his wife Bapsi and their two children – a son, Viren, and daughter, Laila. The family nurtured his commitment to excellence in law in letter and spirit. On the passing away of his wife in February 2022, with whom Nariman shared over half a century of marital companionship, the usually eloquent lawyer was moved to brief silence and said – “I have no words to express what I feel today.”

In Nariman’s death, India has lost a constitutional torchbearer whose decades of stewardship helped entrench civil liberties and the rule of law. The void left by him is unlikely to ever be filled. His life journey mirrored the long march to protect freedom and rights enshrined in India’s Constitution. Till his last days, Nariman remained invested in strengthening access to justice and firmly establishing democratic values in the daily functioning of Indian polity. Even as he departs, his legacy remains immortal touching the lives of citizens and precedent-setting verdicts scripted by him shall continue to sustain constitutionalism for posterity. Truly, Fali S Nariman’s life was ‘constitution exemplified.’