One of the recent Chief Justices of the Supreme Court had remarked that he would consider it an honour if he was able to match the work of Justice AM Ahmadi. Such was Justice Ahmadi’s influence over multiple generations of lawyers and judges.
Only a few in the legal fraternity can claim to achieve what Justice Ahmadi accomplished in his career. He donned many hats - from a lawyer to a civil and sessions judge, to the law secretary of the State of Gujarat, back to being a judge at Gujarat High Court, to a Supreme Court judge, and finally holding the highest office in the judiciary as the Chief Justice of India (CJI).
Even after his retirement as the CJI, he continued his service to people by giving back to society in various capacities including as the Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University.
Justice Ahmadi lent a seminal interpretation to the constitution that has helped shape the journey of the living document. He made dissenting opinions in judgments look normal, no matter how sensitive the matters were.
His cogent judgements and opinions are a lesson in the fine and simple articulation of complex legalese.
As for the larger justice system, Justice Ahmadi would often talk about preserving relationships in any dispute. He would, therefore, in his own words, follow the principle of 3 Cs before passing his judgment on adversarial matters.
The three Cs were: coax, cajole, and compel to the extent within the realms of law. He was that wise old judge who had an innate soothing effect on all who appeared before him.
Aside from being a judge par excellence, Justice Ahmadi was a hard taskmaster and an able administrator. Under his term as the CJI, the case pendency at the Supreme Court dipped to an all-time low.
He would recount how simple administrative measures were instrumental in tackling the pendency problem during his tenure.
At the time of his appointment as the CJI, the use of computers was largely limited to a word processor and he ensured that computers were extensively used to their optimum capacity for other functions.
The prominent examples were the classification and categorisation of cases and making the entire caseload available digitally. Digitisation of judgments and making them available in floppies and disks at a reasonable cost was instrumental in access to justice.
He was sensitive to the barriers to entry to Supreme Court practice, one of which included a lack of easy access to the large body of case laws. This was especially true for bar members who were unable to maintain libraries owing to a heavy financial burden.
Making judgments available digitally was transformative not only for the bar but also for other functionaries that aid in access to justice such as academia and media.
Justice Ahmadi firmly believed in and actively promoted young talent. He started the judicial clerkship program at the Supreme Court, a program that has grown to contribute immensely to the bar and the bench alike.
Similarly, he encouraged young advocates to appear before him and gave them a patient hearing and constructive feedback regularly.
Despite having held high offices, he would always treat his law clerks and legal assistants as equals. He would often introduce them as “my colleague” and “my associate”, a term not used as often by senior members of the legal fraternity.
Behind his strict demeanour was a gentle being, ever so understanding and empathetic.
He had a distinction in a dry sense of humour and had the uncanny ability to lighten any tense environment. He had a few favourite jokes that he would slip into conversations and lighten up with a childlike innocence each time.
Justice Ahmadi would pay great attention to written briefs and held written advocacy in high regard. As for his own writing style, unlike the prevalent norm that plagues the legal community, he was brutally direct and simple. He would often quip that one must never fall in love with their words.
One of his other notable qualities as a judge was his sharp memory. Even when seemingly inattentive, he would let the impression belie and ask the most point-blank question, to which there would be no escaping.
He would, therefore, not be impressed with under-prepared lawyers. He would often call their bluff and tell them not to attempt to confuse him if they were unable to convince him.
Justice Ahmadi loved shers and he would have at least one handy for any situation. One of his favourites was Dr Iqbal’s popular sher that he would fondly remind his law clerks. Perhaps it squarely applied to him given that he rose the ranks from the lower judiciary to become the CJI.
Khudi Ko Kar Buland Itna Ke Har Taqdeer Se Pehle, Khuda Bande Se Khud Pooche Bata Teri Raza Kya Hai (Elevate yourself to the extent, that before every destiny, God should himself ask you as to what you desire.)
It is not only the wisdom of law that one would learn in Justice Ahmadi’s company. If one was fortunate to spend time with him, one would benefit a great deal by observing how to conduct oneself in different life situations.
If Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son were enacted in a play, one would find Justice Ahmadi playing Lord Chesterfield.
He treated all who worked with him as his own and would ensure to periodically ask about their life situations and family members. Even after they had left the office, he would keep in touch with them, regularly calling them and enquiring about their well-being.
He was deeply in love with his wife, who he would say was his pillar. No wonder when she passed away barely six months ago, he missed her and joined her in a better place.
While we have lost a great legal statesman, the many lives that he touched would carry on the good that they learnt just by being around him.
Justice Ahmadi passed away on March 2. The writer was late Chief Justice of India AM Ahmadi's legal assistant around a decade back.
Read our interview with Justice Ahmadi here.