Inns of Court (India) Society Dinner
Inns of Court (India) Society Dinner

Sad Loss - Mr. Ashok H Desai

Remembrance on behalf of the Inns of Court (India) Society

Gourab Banerji

I write to you with a heavy heart. Yesterday morning, the President of our Society, Shri Ashok H. Desai, passed away peacefully in his hometown, Mumbai. He was eighty-six years.

Ashokbhai had a glittering and storied career. After finishing his schooling in Bombay, he studied at Fergusson College, Pune and then at the Government Law College, Bombay, from where he graduated in 1952. He went to England and studied at the London School of Economics. In 1956, he was called to the Bar from Lincoln’s Inn and started his practice in Bombay.

Ashokbhai was designated as Senior Advocate in August 1977. He moved to Delhi in 1989 when he was appointed Solicitor General of India, a post he held from 18th December 1989 till 2nd December 1990. He was appointed Attorney General for India on 9th July 1996 and continued to hold office till he resigned in May 1998.

He appeared in numerous cases of public importance, including Ramanna Shetty (scope of Article 14), Narasimha Rao (Parliamentary privileges), Vineet Narain (power of court to monitor investigation against political leaders), Narmada Dam, Nandini Sundar (Salwa Judum), Navtej Singh Johar (decriminalisation of Section 377 IPC).

In addition, he had a stint in academia to his credit, as a lecturer in Mumbai. The number of books and articles he has authored are too numerous to mention.

Ashokbhai was the recipient of a number of awards. The two that stand out are the Padma Bhushan (awarded in 2001) and National Law Day Award (2000). Recently, he was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award (2018-2019) by Legal Era.

Ashokbhai was the Chairman of the Committee on Administrative Law of International Bar Association in 1986-88 and Consultant to the Commonwealth Workshop on Administrative Law at Lusaka, Zambia in 1990. In 1997, he presented India’s Report to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights in Geneva. In the same year, he represented India at W.T.O. Appellate Body in a Patent litigation filed by United States against India. In 1998, he led the Indian delegation to the United Nations Preparatory Committee on Money Laundering Bill in Vienna. He was also the Vice President of the Bar Association of India.

All these achievements do not even begin to reflect the person that he was. We, as fellow barristers, knew him as part of the Society. After taking over as President, he was at the helm of the Society and took meticulous care in planning its activities. All of us had the pleasure of meeting him at our society dinners and events over the past few years and in the corridors of the Supreme Court. In all our events, he always ensured that each and every person in the room was engaged and taken care of. He made it a point to introduce himself to all the young barristers. At the dinners, he ensured that all the members and guests had eaten and drunk well!

Ashokbhai left no stone unturned as a senior colleague. He was always available to support and help, guide and nurture. He led by example - hard working, well prepared and always courteous. In this world, where many are accused of browbeating, Ashokbhai remained supportive, amicable and patient. Most conversations ended with him offering help and support in every way possible.

What stood out the most about him was his disarming humility. He was always soft spoken and a patient listener. He was a man of culture and interests much beyond law, particularly in journalism, a subject which he taught as a lecturer in the Bombay College of Journalism between 1967 and 1972.

We, at the society, shall always remember him as a distinguished gentleman, immaculately dressed in his tweed suit. He truly did justice to Kipling’s injunction:

‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch…..’

The world today and all of us have lost a brilliant lawyer, and above all, a fine and kind human being. He will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.

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