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Purushottam Sharma Tripathi
On September 13 2017, my former senior Shri PP Rao, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, departed from this mortal world after completing 50 years of a remarkable and distinguished law practice. An expert in Constitutional law, service law and election law, his outstanding contribution to the legal field was accepted and recognised by the Bench, the Bar, jurists, academicians and litigants, in acknowledgement of which he was bestowed the Padma Bhushan by the nation.
My association with Mr. Rao began in 2006 when I completed the LL.M course at the National Law School of India, Bangalore and sought assistance from my alma mater to join the chamber of a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court. Of the numerous chambers I approached, Mr. Rao’s chambers was the first to respond.
He personally spoke to me over the telephone and took an interview, wherein I was specifically asked about my academic and family background and seriousness in pursuing litigation as a career. He sought to test my resolve by warning me about the hard work, less remuneration and restricted social life in the formative years of this exacting profession. Once satisfied, he asked me to seek the blessings of my elders and join his chambers. This demonstrated his sensitivity to the needs of a fresher who was making a transition from academic scholarship to professional life.
My first meeting with Mr. Rao was eventful. I was to report directly to the Supreme Court where he was appearing in a matter listed before Court No. 2, then presided by former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan. Unfortunately for me, I failed to recognise him from the sea of unfamiliar humanity crowding the courtroom. I politely enquired of the Advocates seated inside the courtroom to be directed to him.
After meeting with no response from a few of them, I chanced upon an elderly gentleman deeply engrossed in his notes. Upon hearing my request to be guided to Mr. Rao, the senior pointed to a clerk standing in attendance behind him and in his deep voice said, ‘Young man! you should find the answer to your query from him’. The clerk was Mr. Rao’s clerk, who informed me that the elderly person who last spoke to me was Mr. Rao himself.
Upon my apologising, Sir had only this to say,
“Your senior is only as good or as famous as you know him to be.”
The dignity with which Sir put a lid on a rather embarrassing situation was his trademark. I remained a popular butt of his friendly jokes on subsequent occasions when we went to attend social engagements where he would, with a twinkle in his eyes ask,
“I hope you will not fail to locate me in the crowd which is much bigger than the courtroom where you got lost?”
During my formative years in the profession, I was witness to the foremost work ethic and tremendous sense of discipline of Mr. PP Rao. Then 72 years, he was known to wake up at 4:30 am and go for his morning walk, followed by a swim. As Junior associates, we would report to his residence-cum-office at 8:00 am, to find him already immersed in the cases listed for the day. The next hour and a half witnessed a bevy of activities, including finalising submissions, case law research, answering every correspondence (postal or electronic) and outlining the points to be incorporated in an article sought for by an illustrious publication or national daily.
Later, the scene of action shifted to the courtrooms wherein he was engaged in intense debates/arguments, or the court corridors interacting with members of the Bar. The evenings were spent in case briefings which came to an end late into the night. The weekends were equally busy with his socio-legal engagements and included participating in bar association meetings, seminars, lectures etc. To put it succinctly – There was never a dull moment. To quote him,
“Law is a jealous mistress but a faithful wife”.
In the year 2007-2008, I had the good fortune to assist him in the Ashoka Kumar Thakur’s case being argued before a 5-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. Although he did the matter pro bono on behalf of the clients, his commitment to the cause was such that he refused to accept any brief till his arguments were finished. The preparation saw innumerable conferences stretching until midnight. One night, after a particularly long session, Sir entered the junior associates’ room and asked us to leave and report back the next morning. When we crossed his room, we found him immersed in work. Upon our query, when would he be retiring for the night, he gave us a lesson of a lifetime with these words,
“The paying client is our Annadata (provider of food) but the non-paying client is our Bhagya-vidatha (maker of our destiny). I am just justifying the advent of my bhagya-vidatha.”
Another lesser known facet of Mr. Rao was his punctuality. He was always 3 minutes before time, but never late. First to arrive and the last to leave after meeting the host, was his motto. As a youngster in the profession, I learned it the hard way. One day, my chamber colleague Anshuman Ashok (now an Advocate on Record) and I were so engrossed in legal research assigned by Sir in the morning at the office, that we started off late for the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, on our way, Anshuman’s car broke down.
When the two of us reached the Courtroom, Sir had already finished his arguments and was proceeding for the next case listed in another courtroom. Guilty as we were, we apologised for the delay attributing the same to the mechanical indisposition of the old car – force majeure. With a grim countenance Sir replied,
“Mark my words – an old man and a young wife and a young man and an old car make a deadly combination. I cannot do anything about the former, but you jolly will change your car.”
Mr. Rao’s formative years as a school teacher in Chittor, Andhra Pradesh and Hyderabad, wherefrom he graduated in LL.M. while working part-time, and as a Lecturer of Law at Delhi University, shaped him to be an excellent academician, eminent jurist and a leading law practitioner and expert. Such was his command on the reported judgments of the Supreme Court, that he knew at least one leading judgment pertaining to a proposition related to any of the Constitutional, Election or Service law fields rendered in each decade since India’s independence. We referred to him as the “talking Supreme Court Cases search engine”.
There have been many occasions when we were directed by him to find case laws in support of a legal proposition, only to find that the cases researched by us were already perched atop his table and Sir’s common refrain, “Babu, please get me some case of which I do not know about.” We hapless Juniors had only one unuttered response, “Please tell us which cases you do not know of!”.
His habit of dictating notes in each briefing conference, refining the notes, and improving upon the notes before finalising the submissions ensured that he had a thorough command of the facts and the law pertaining to each case wherein he was engaged. This enabled him to “think out of the box” and come up with ingenious solutions which invariably found favour with the Judges.
This stands substantiated by his novel arguments before successive Constitutional Benches in AR Antulay’s case, wherein he successfully invoked writ jurisdiction under Article 32 to challenge a judgment rendered by a 5 Judge Bench; in SR Bommai’s case, wherein he propounded the doctrine of Common Thread which justified imposition of President’s Rule; PV Narasimha Rao’s Case, wherein he was able to successfully invoke the Parliamentary Privileges doctrine; Unnikrishnan’s case, wherein he argued against imposition of capitation fee; TMA Pai’s case (2002), wherein he argued for prevention of exploitation by private institutions in technical education; Ashoka Kumar Thakur’s case (2008), wherein of the bevy of Senior Advocates opposing reservation in technical education, his submissions alone were recorded in toto by the lone dissenting Judge; Best Bakery Case, wherein appearing for the NHRC, he persuaded the Supreme Court to intervene in exercise of power vested under Article 136 in the aftermath of the Trial Court acquitting the accused of Godhra riots; and the recent Entry Tax Case, wherein he defended the constitutionality of the taxing power of the States.The list could very well go on and on.
Once an interesting anecdote was narrated by Mr. Rao to me. As a fresher in the profession, Sir was actively associated with drafting cases referred by the charismatic Advocate-on-Record, Mr. Vasudev Pillai. One of the cases drafted by Sir pertained to a property dispute wherein concurrent findings of the Trial Court and the High Court was passed against the Petitioner. The client had great faith in his astrologer and accordingly requested Mr. Pillai to engage Mr. MC Setalvad to be briefed by Rao Sir.
When Mr. Setalvad perused the Petition, he categorically informed Mr. Pillai and Rao Sir, that they had a hopeless case and therefore, he would not appear and argue the case at the Supreme Court. When Mr. Setalvad’s decision was intimated to the client, he remained adamant that they convince the Senior Advocate to at least appear, if not argue the case as the astrologer was of the firm view that the senior’s presence would, by itself, guarantee admission of the case by the Court. The same was conveyed to Mr. Setalvad, who reluctantly agreed to come to the Court on the condition that he would not open his mouth in support of the petition.
The next day, when the case was taken up, the Senior Advocate attended court, but refused to argue the case, compelling Rao Sir to commence arguments. Former Chief Justice M Hidayatullah, upon seeing Mr. Setalvad, enquired if he had been engaged in the matter, to which Mr. Setalvad nodded his assent. The Judge, stated that though the case did not have any merit, the Court was of the opinion that one question of law merited adjudication and issued notice limited to the said question, granting interim relief in the meanwhile. This dramatic change of events left the usually reticent Setalvad dumbfounded. He said,
“Tell the client that the prophecy of the soothsayer about the outcome of his case was more accurate than the conviction of a Senior Advocate”.
Mr. Rao’s personal life was unconventional, yet inspiring. Coming from a traditional Brahmin family of rural Andhra Pradesh, he decided to be led by his heart in choosing to marry his wife Arnawaz – a Parsi colleague. Braving opposition from both families, they had a civil marriage in a vineyard belonging to a close friend near Hyderabad, on Christmas Day. They relocated to Delhi, where Sir took up the job of Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, Delhi University for 6 years, before taking up litigation as a career.
Mr. Rao’s chambers was the nurturing ground of advocates coming from diverse backgrounds, communities, gender, religions and ideologies. I took the place of a Keralite, while another colleague filled the vacancy left by a Muslim woman. I was mentored by a Sikh and a Bihari, both of whom were scions of leading law practitioners. In turn, I had occasion to witness the growth of three Muslim Women Advocates (a Marathi, Keralite and Delhiite in that order), two Punjabi Advocates, a Rajasthani, a Jharkhandi and an Assamese Advocate during my 5 year stint at Sir’s chamber.
Sir’s chambers has produced several illustrious advocates designated as Senior Advocates namely – Mr. R Venkataramani, Mr. AK Ganguly, Mr. Mariarputham, Mr. PS Narasimha, who have done his chamber proud. Sir considered us all as a part of his extended family and made it a point to host get-togethers at regular intervals each year, either at the India International Centre or the Noida club, celebrating some occasion or the other – a junior’s birthday, a newly-wed couple, senior designation or even the advent of the summer holidays. His warm hospitality towards all guests, including chamber Juniors, ensured the success of these get-togethers.
William Wordsworth had said,
“The best portion of a good man’s life are his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.”
This holds true for Mr. Rao’s life. His greatness lay in the dignity, grace, affection and compassion exhibited by him in day to day life. He would always rise from his seat to greet a woman who entered his office or chamber and expected us to emulate him. Each day, he would make it a point to share the fruits accompanying his lunch with his clerks, juniors, briefing advocates and clients who were present inside his chamber. He was known to respond to each invitation given by an advocate through his personal presence. Not a single correspondence received through email, fax or post, went unresponded.
Whenever he was engaged to appear before a state High Court, he made it a point to contact his Junior/former Junior, belonging to the said city and visited his family, if they were available. On his last visit to the Jharkhand High Court at Ranchi, Sir expressed his desire to meet my maternal uncle and his family. After finishing his conference with the local counsel in the evening, Sir joined them for dinner. He met my parents in my Delhi residence in November 2016.
He had been very attached to his parents, in whose memory he would organise yearly pujas and take that entire day off from work. Deeply rooted in Spiritualism, he would organise the Vishnu Sahastranamam Japam and Rudraabhishekam every year. He would also donate a sizeable portion of his yearly earnings to the Tirupati Balaji Temple.
He would never turn away a needy person from his chamber – especially advocates who fell on hard times. Although he portrayed a tough exterior, he was compassionate and humane. When I was mugged on the Delhi-Noida highway while going to Sir’s residence-cum-office one evening, both Sir and his wife were extremely concerned by the incident. So much so, that on my return to work in January next year, they insisted that I use one of Sir’s cars to commute from my house to the office in the evenings and on my polite refusal, complained about the same to my family! He knew the uniqueness of each of his Juniors and utilised their capabilities accordingly.
Mr. Rao was a voracious reader, maintaining a vast collection of books on philosophy, metaphysics and religion. This showed in his inclination to impart value-based legal education to students, advocates and judicial officers. Even though Sir had left formal teaching for practicing law, he continued imparting knowledge to the future generations not only through words, but also through his own actions and deeds – a true hallmark of an enlightened soul.
Mr. PP Rao will always be remembered as an outstanding legal luminary and stalwart in the history of independent India’s legal fraternity. He was at par with the remarkable Motilal C Setalvad and Nani A Palkiwala. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Sir as his chamber Junior, to have been guided and mentored by Sir at such close quarters, and offer my humble homage to the great departed soul.
Purushottam Sharma Tripathi is an Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court of India