Ashok Desai
Ashok Desai
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A Tribute to Ashok Desai – An Artist in the Legal Profession

Navroz Seervai

“Yet meet we shall, and part, and meet again,

Where dead men meet, on lips of living men.”

“ The Life After Death “

- Samuel Butler

I first encountered Ashok Desai as an 18 year old, way back in 1975-76, when during the dark days of the Emergency, he used to meet and consult with my father. In fact, he was instrumental in persuading my father to appear in some of the preventive detention cases being fought in the Bombay High Court, as also for The Indian Express and Ramnath Goenka, who were under merciless attack. I was in Elphinstone College and had absolutely no plans of joining the legal profession.

Little did I dream that barely seven years later I would encounter Ashok as one of my benefactors at the Bar; and that from 1981 – November 1989, when Ashok moved to Delhi as Solicitor General, I would be his junior more frequently than with anyone else. It was Ashok who recommended me for drafting the writ petition against AR Antulay in the “cement scandal” case, a matter which culminated in the resignation of Antulay, the day Justice Lentin delivered his scathing judgment in January 1982.

If I had to describe Ashok in a sentence, I would say that Ashok was the lawyer’s lawyer: learned, forceful, an absolutely brilliant tactician and a superb reader of the matter, the judge and his opponent. He turned argument in Court into a fine art.

Between 1981 and 1989, I was privileged as a junior briefed with him to see at close quarters some of his most brilliant performances. Often he pulled off the impossible. When I look back at those appearances, I can’t help thinking of “Ashok and the art of the impossible!“

Apart from his consummate performance , amongst others, in the Antulay case, I must recount one incident of his pulling off the impossible at the admission of a writ. Even today I remember it vividly. Rousell Pharmaceuticals had received a huge demand from government for alleged over charging of a drug. The demand was both illegal and unsustainable. However, as we all knew, the drug industry was no favourite of governments and judges alike. Having drafted the petition, I was asked to urgently circulate it. The matter was before one of our best and most lovable of Judges, Justice R. A. Jahagirdar. I applied for circulation, only for the Judge to inquire what the matter was about. On hearing the challenge, in open Court, to my shock and dismay, Justice Jahagirdar said; “Alright tomorrow. But Mr. Seervai, you tell your client that if I possibly can, I will dismiss this petition.” At the conference that evening, greatly agitated, I told Ashok that we must move a recusal application; that there was no question of going on before Justice Jahagirdar! Ashok, cool and calm as always, smiled, calmed me down, and proceeded with the conference. The matter was argued over two days. The lawyer representing government was hostile and tenacious. The judge at first was equally hostile. Ashok never to be flustered, argued brilliantly. Hostility turned to skepticism and skepticism to a favourable disposition. When the matter ended, Justice Jahagirdar not only admitted the petition, but granted unconditional stay of the demand notice. It was Ashok and the art of the impossible at its best.

But there was so much more to Ashok than the great lawyer that he undoubtedly was. To think of Ashok merely as a great lawyer is to do him the greatest injustice. For, Ashok personified that very rare breed—the Renaissance man. He typified the variant of Kipling’s famous lines: “And what doth he know of the law, who only knows the law? “

Ashok’s interests were wide, varied and eclectic. A student of politics, he was an avid reader of history, literature, economics, sociology, philosophy, art, music. He lived his life according to his philosophic beliefs, including Budhist philosophy, and the practice of vipasana. He was fond of sports, and was a life long swimmer. The Lodi gardens were his haunt for walking during his 30 years in Delhi. He was a practisioner of yoga.

A conversation with Ashok was an intellectual delight. His opening gambit with me, invariably was, “ So Navroz, what are you reading these days? “ After I’d answered, he would rattle off the 3 or 4 books he’d just finished, or was in the midst of reading. The conversation would flow, with Ashok invariably at his scintillating best.

Ashok was an ardent champion of civil liberties and human rights. His landmark appearances against censorship, his stellar role during the emergency, his tireless battle for 10 long years in the Supreme Court against the pernicious salva judam, bear testimony to his commitment to that cause. When the Bombay unit of PUCL was formed in 1981, it was to him, amongst others, that I turned for advise and financial support. Ashok was an active member, and despite his busy work schedule, made it a point to attend most of the public meetings organized by PUCL. Equally memorable was his commitment to probity in public life. His resounding success in the Backbay case, appearing for Piloo Mody, and in the Antulay case, appearing for P B Samant and Mrinal Gore, are too well known to bear elaboration.

Soft music, be it Indian or western classical, suffused his study even during conferences. It added to the sense of calm and tranquility that Ashok exuded even in the most hotly contested of commercial matters. That calm and unflappable temperament was one of Ashok’s greatest strengths in Court, for it allowed him to focus on the matter and the Judge ,whilst often all around him was “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Meticulously prepared and armed with his list of dates and his famous register in which he made his notes, he would craft his arguments ,but ready in a trice to change tack if needed. Ashok never antagonized the judge or his opponent. On the contrary he would disarm them with some amusing anecdote, or often by using the “bon mot” at the right time.

Very early in my interactions with him, I realized that Ashok strategized a matter from inception, thinking three steps ahead of every one else. His insistence on a draft of a writ containing both a concise summary of the entire matter in para 3, and the important questions of law in para 4, exemplified this. We juniors, only half-jokingly, referred to it as “Ashok’s para 3” or “Ashok’s para 4.” But many a time he got a difficult writ admitted by drawing the Judge’s attention at the outset to those paras, merely suggesting that the Judge would find it worthwhile to decide the question of law.

I have often thought that if he had not been a great lawyer, Ashok would have made an outstanding and illuminating teacher. In fact even as he practiced law, he taught so much to so many. I for one am deeply indebted to Ashok for having taught me a myriad things over 30 years – both when he bestrode the Bombay Bar and then when he did likewise in the Supreme Court.

Ashok, you imparted your wisdom and your experience, not by preaching but by example. You radiated light, often amidst the encircling gloom. You were an exemplar of what Shakespeare put so well when he wrote:

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do.

Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues

Did not go forth of us ,‘twere all alike

As if we had them not.”

I will miss Ashok dearly. I will fondly remember my 40 year association and friendship with him. I will cherish his memory till my day is done.

The author is a senior lawyer based in Mumbai.

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