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A hot cup of filter coffee greets me, as I begin the interview with one of the legends of the Bar, K Parasaran. Moving from Chennai to Delhi to take up the post of Solicitor General, he was made the country’s Attorney General in 1983. Turning eighty-seven this October, the senior counsel speaks about his early years in the profession, his role as a law officer, and the various changes that sculpted the Bar and Bench over the years.
A legal colossus Parasaran very well is, but his early days were anything but grand. He started his legal practice in the chambers of his father, R. Kesava Aiyangar. “I used to do some typing work in my father’s chamber whenever the typist was not available. My father used to insist that a lawyer should know the job of a clerk. He used to make me tie the bundles and the books that he had to carry to the court.”
“He was a great jurist and I received good training under him. Other lawyers of the Madras High Court had great respect for him. I trained under him for six years. He was not only my father but also my Guru.”
“My father came from a small hamlet, with a population of roughly four hundred.” The man who helmed the honing of his legal skills was the only person from the village to acquire a degree.
Decision to take up law
As most good stories go, there was no rigid plan to begin with. “I had no particular plans and after completing B.A, I wasted about ten months, even working as a clerk. After ten months, I resigned and decided to do law.”
He started his practice in a small garage. “I used to get some briefs directly from my own district, Ram Nagar. Later, seniors started giving small cases to me and, gradually my practice picked up.”
Although he does not recollect any particular turning point, Parasaran does say that his father’s expertise in land tenure matters played a crucial part in his growth. It was around that time that the Zamindari Abolition Act had been implemented, so those landowners approached the father-son duo.
“Then I came in contact with Mohan Kumarmangalam and though our philosophies were different we became very thick friends. He used to give me important cases and apart from that, a number of seniors, if they were busy, would pass on small matters to me. We would get some forty-fifty rupees for one case. Gradually my practice picked up and subsequently, when Kumarmangalam became minister, I was offered the post of Standing Counsel for Central Government. That gave me an opportunity to experience government work.”
This was a great learning experience for Parasaran, an experience that allowed him to learn the “the maneuvers on both sides”, the government as well as the private parties.
He was subsequently appointed the Advocate General of Madras when President’s rule was imposed. A year later, a government was formed at the State and he resigned.
Chennai to Delhi
In 1980, he was invited to be the Solicitor General. He remembers telling the then Law Secretary that,
“I would not come unless the post was that of Solicitor General or above as I had built a very good practice in Madras. I had trained 60 or 70 juniors and when I left Madras to take up the post of Solicitor General, 39 of them came with me. We used to work in a big hall so that everybody could learn.”
In 1983, he was appointed Attorney General, succeeding LN Sinha, and resigned when the VP Singh-led government was formed.
“When I was the Solicitor General, Sinha was the Attorney General and Milon Kumar Banerjee was an ASG. We worked as a team and had an absolute understanding, which was our strength. In several important cases, all of us appeared together. As the Solicitor General and the Attorney General, I bore the brunt in many matters.”
“One thing we followed strictly was to never send any panel lawyers before the Constitution Bench. Only the Attorney General and I as Solicitor General, used to argue before the Constitution Bench, and when I became Attorney General, I always appeared before the Constitution Bench. After I resigned, Narasimha Rao invited me to be Attorney General but I didn’t accept the offer.”
Law Officers under Indira Gandhi/Rajiv Gandhi government
“One thing (to the credit of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao) was that they always deferred to the views of the law officer. Indira Gandhi would not thrust anything on you. There were several occasions when I had given a perspective against the government. We were not bending for them and the government did not insist on getting a favorable opinion. They wanted to take correct advice and act based on it.”
Being a judge
He was offered Office of Judge in the Madras High Court and even in the Supreme Court.
“I declined the offers as I knew that I was not fit to be a judge. I felt that I was destined only to be a lawyer.”
“Personally speaking, I won’t support it, because that judgment was a terrible interpretation of the Constitution. Justice Ruma Pal, one of the eminent judges of our Supreme Court has criticized the collegium system. I am not one who would say that power must be with the executive, but if it has to work effectively the executive must act on the advice of the CJI and such judges in the Supreme Court and the High Court as the President may think fit. They can then make good selections.
In fact, Justice GP Singh once told me that, as long as he was Chief Justice, no appointment was made which he did not clear. In fact, when I was arguing the ‘Second judges’ case, I got instructions from the government to tell the court that the government will not appoint anyone as a judge whom the Chief Justice does not want.”
“In the open court, I conceded that the government undertakes that it would not appoint anyone whom the Chief Justice does not want. These are the safe guards. A strong Chief Justice can ensure that proper judges are appointed because consultation process is not mere advice, it’s something more than that.”
“People may say just to please the judges that this system is good. But, when I go to the Bar here, in the Supreme Court and in the High Courts, the general feeling is that the system has not worked well.”
He says he is not quite happy with the system. It is not as if seniority is inflexible.
“This is not the way to go to the Supreme Court. There have been judges who were not seniors. Krishna Iyer was not a senior, and he came to Supreme Court. He proved to be an outstanding judge. If they had gone by seniority, he would’ve never been in the Supreme Court.”
“Palekar was junior to Chandrachud but, he was brought to the Supreme Court earlier, because otherwise, he would be retiring, and then, Chandrachud was brought forth. There can be good reasons to bring juniors earlier and then seniors later, however, in recent times, largely seniors are brought in later, and juniors earlier, but I don’t see any reason why that is being done.”
“I am not one who advocates that seniority should always be the criteria. That is why the role of the Chief Justice is important.”
The offence of Bigamy
On July 24 of this year, he will have committed this crime for 64 years.
“In 1949-50, I committed the offence of bigamy. I married my wife Saroja and then, I was wedded to this jealous mistress – law. As it happens in life, there is greater attraction to the second wife than the first. I spent lot of time with law. Now I feel I should have spent more time with my wife. She is a noble lady who was large hearted and generous. She took care of everything else and that is why I was able to concentrate on my work.”
Changes at the Bar and the Bench
At 86, he feels walking along the Supreme Court corridors is not quite the same.
“I nearly fell down two or three times. Entering the courtroom and coming out it is an ordeal and the court is always terribly crowded.”
“I don’t personally believe in a lawyer taking up several SLPs and running around. You should take only as many that you can manage and are able to appear.”
“Also, I always believe in taking instructions from the juniors as well, with the senior contributing. Juniors must be given opportunities. A lawyer must train the bar and build it.”
“One change I have found is that the Constitution Bench rarely sits. Supreme Court is a Constitutional court. In those days, there would never be a day where 5 judges were not sitting. That was a tradition. There are a number of Constitutional cases that are pending and until they regularly sit, our court will be out of touch with the Constitution. Constitution is developed by debate. It is a living organ. These are some of the changes I am not happy with. A Constitution Bench must sit on a daily basis.”
Quality of the Bar and the Bench
“If judges are effective, the Bar will be effective”, he concluded at the very onset.
“Lawyers must go to the court after fully preparing the case. If the Bar prepares well, the judge will also prepare, therefore, it’s mutual – efficient judges means efficient Bar.”
“We should not waste the court’s time. After all, judges are struggling with arrears. Bar also has a duty to cooperate, by not taking up unnecessary time.”
“What is the point of citing 15-20 cases with the same proposition? Cite the earliest decision and if the law has developed, cite those 4-5 judgments to show how it has developed. This way, we can save time.”
“Also, lawyers should not ask for unnecessary adjournments. I always tell whomsoever engages me, to have an alternative senior but he [the other Senior] should not have any objection to me appearing. But if I am not free, he must be ready to argue the case.”
Exorbitant fee charged by Senior Counsels
“I don’t say that lawyers charge a low fee, as the expenditure is also high, but it should not be exorbitant. It should be reasonable. The impression that has been created is that you (Senior Counsel) are available only for rich clients. You should also do some ordinary cases for ordinary clients.
I had several cases like that in Madras and even here, I have done several cases in which fee was nominal. In the Supreme Court, I am probably one of the cheapest Seniors though I have been in demand. I have also charged high fees. It is not that I am that virtuous as to not have plundered in some cases. But I was never very particular about the fees.”
“Particularly for final hearings, why should a lawyer go to two courts on a day, when we charge by the day, so that means you are mortgaged for that case that day? Why should I earn fees for two cases on that day?”
Allegations of sexual harassment against the Supreme Court judges
“It saddens me, because without knowing the truth, how can anyone comment? It affects the image of the judiciary.”
“Even if one judge misbehaves, it affects the entire judiciary. It is like a drop of poison in a pot of milk. One should not come to a hasty conclusion, unless there is proof. It is a statement of one against another.”
“One of the greatest satisfactions has been the appreciation from the legend Nani Palkivala. He treated me with great affection and complemented me several times. I feel proud of that”
He pulls out a letter written by Palkhivala. The letter states,
“You are the undisputed leader of the Bar, not only as the Attorney General, but in the ethical values which you adhere to do so conspicuously. I always like to have you as the opponent because you will state the case as high as it can possibly be put but at the same time, never try to take an unfair or unjust advantage of the opposing side. I wish other Government Counsel would follow your laudable example.”
“Can there be greater reward than this?” asks Parasaran.
Lal Narayan Sinha and Mohan Kumarmangalam are people he holds in esteem.
“Lal Narayan Sinha was an outstanding lawyer. The way Mohan Kumarmangalam used to address the court was fantastic. So, there is no ‘one role model’. I guess different lawyers have different great qualities, like diction and delivery of Setalvad and court craft of Daphtary. We have to learn from everyone.”