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On 19 March 2019, after battling illness for a brief period, Justice SB Sinha, former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, breathed his last. He was 74. He was cremated in New Delhi the next day. Leading legal luminaries from various parts of India came to mourn the passing away of a man who was widely respected for his legal acumen, scholarly bent of mind, and his affable and humble persona.
Justice SB Sinha was born on August 8, 1944, in Dhanbad, Jharkhand. After having received his Bachelor of Laws (B.L) Degree from Chota Nagpur Law College in 1967, he joined the Dhanbad District Court in 1968 after which he shifted his practice to Ranchi upon the constitution of the Permanent Bench of the Patna High Court in 1976. He was designated as Senior Advocate by the Patna High Court.
Subsequently, he was elevated to the Bench of Patna High Court in 1987. He was transferred to the Calcutta High Court in 1994. He then served as the Acting Chief Justice of the High Court of Calcutta and Chief Justice of the High Courts of Andhra Pradesh and Delhi before being elevated as a Judge of the Supreme Court of India in 2002.
After retirement from the Supreme Court in 2009, he was appointed as the Chairman of the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) and served for three years until the end of 2012. Post-retirement from TDSAT, he became a much sought after arbitrator in several commercial matters involving high stakes.
With his passing away, the legal fraternity has lost a stellar jurist who has contributed immensely to the development of law in India.
Justice SB Sinha is in a happy place now. And it is only right that I fondly reminisce of the time I spent with him as his junior assisting him on various arbitration matters and legal opinions and the values I imbibed under his tutelage.
Justice SB Sinha was a man of very few words. But the great man spoke verbosely through his judgments, arbitration awards, and legal opinions. I know I am speaking for all my peers when I say that I consider myself incredibly lucky when, in the course of legal research, I find a judgment of his because it always comprehensively encapsulated the existing legal position with remarkable clarity of thought. His judgments and awards are as informative in their scope and decisive in their outcome.
Justice SB Sinha had a very profound sense of work ethic and was a workaholic to his very last. During his tenure at the Supreme Court from October 3, 2002, to August 8, 2009, he delivered a mammoth 2202 judgments. Post-retirement from TDSAT, he adjudicated and passed awards in over 60 arbitration matters. Even at the time of his untimely demise, there were nearly 40 matters pending at various stages of the arbitration proceedings!
I always used to marvel at the fact that despite attending multiple arbitration hearings in a day and doing some further reading and dictation back in the office, his reserves of energy never seemed to exhaust. At the end of a really long and tiring day, before leaving, he would always ask us to hand over our research, drafts and case files so as to keep himself engaged at night!
Work seemed to drive him like nothing else. His irritation was palpable when on any particular day, there wasn’t much work to be done. On Sundays and public holidays, when no arbitration hearings were scheduled, I remember distinctly how sweetly he used to ask us if we planned on coming to the office for work. It was never an order, and rarely a request.
Now, here was a septuagenarian, a man who has already accomplished what only a few of us could dare to dream, willing to work not really out of necessity but simply because of his love for it. I would be lying if I said that his passion for work was not infectious.
Being a great movie buff myself, on one particular Sunday evening, while coming back from a productive hearing, I asked if he liked watching movies in the theatre. He replied,
“I have never got the time to see a movie in a theatre since the day I joined the Bar.”
He had this habit of what he termed as “thinking loudly”, both in office and during the arbitration hearings. Justice SB Sinha, being the voracious reader that he was, would keep abreast of interesting legal developments both in India and across various foreign jurisdictions. He loved sharing these insights as also his preliminary views on the submissions of the counsel on the issues involved in the disputes. In light of the discussion, he always encouraged counsel to make their submissions thereon. And he made it a point to include these discussions in his awards.
For me, these sessions of “thinking loudly” were particularly instructive in that we got to see at play his incisive approach to the resolution of knotty legal issues. It seldom had a finality to it. He always loved exploring the possibility of an alternative approach.
Perhaps that is the reason why, with 19 dissents to his credit, he is one of the top dissenters in the history of the Supreme Court. Granted that “a dissent in a court of last resort is an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting Judge believes the court to have been betrayed” as Justice HR Khanna presciently said in his famous dissent in ADM Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla.
But Justice SB Sinha took his dissents really seriously even in private commercial arbitration matters. He always used to say, “Dissent means the existence of democracy.” He subscribed to the “free market place of ideas” philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century political economist, that for good ideas to be continually tested and reaffirmed, it is imperative that all ideas, especially the contrarian ones, should be aired.
Probably that is why Justice SB Sinha never rebuked us for thinking wrongly. He was always eager to guide us. But he minced no words on those occasions when we absolutely failed to apply our minds to the facts and issues before us and simply looked to him for easy answers.
Justice SB Sinha’s attention) or that we simply have to keep digging deeper and deeper in obscure places. We often used to end up with nothing after days of search. If Justice Sinha still insisted that he was quite positive that there was a case law on this somewhere, we would realise immediately that he must have himself used this in some of his previous judgments and awards.
Justice SB Sinha was a bibliophile as well. He had an amazing collection of legal books and journals in his library. He always saw to it that he acquired the latest editions of leading textbooks in his collections. He knew exactly where any particular book was placed on the shelf and immediately noticed if it was off the shelf.
Justice SB Sinha was the living embodiment of the motto, ‘Vidya Dadaati Vinayam’ (Knowledge leads to humility). At 74 years of age, despite having been at the pinnacle of the legal profession, he often said to those around him,
“I still consider myself to be a student of law. The more I learn, the more I realise that there is so much more still to learn.”
He had a child-like curiosity to know things. The source of his humility probably emanates from his belief that nobody has a monopoly on truth and that we can only attempt to better understand it with time if only we are open to various influences.
Justice SB Sinha may not be with us anymore. But the bar that he has set for us in professional and ethical terms is so high that it will be a Herculean task for us to aspire to it. But I am sure that the values that he has imparted to us will serve as a lighthouse that guides many a wandering ship to the safety of the shore.
As for his enduring legacy and the impact of his far-reaching judgments, I leave it to the senior members of the Bar and his peers to enlighten us with their observations.
Read the interview with Justice SB Sinha