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Muzaffar Hussain Baig is a Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha and a part of the top brass of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Kashmir that was recently in the news. He has served as Advocate General, Law Minister and Deputy Chief Minister for the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
In the first of this two-part interview, we take a look at Muzaffar Hussain Baig the lawyer, as he takes us through his early days, his career as a lawyer, and more.
There are many things that set Muzaffar Hussain Baig apart from your average lawyer-politician. For one, he has never cared for toeing the line, a rare quality to have for someone of his position. He has always been outspoken, a trait that has held him in good stead and landed him in trouble all the same.
This quality would even earn him a stint in jail at a young age. That was before his foray into politics, before becoming of one of the most revered lawyers to ever come out from the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Hailing from an impoverished family, a young Baig would walk to school barefoot every day for 20 kilometres.
“I would feel so hungry and so thirsty”, he recalls.
In 1964, an eighteen-year-old Baig, whose talent for oratory was spotted at a young age, was called upon to deliver a speech in honour of then Chief Minister Ghulam Mohammed Sadiq at an inauguration of a college building. Baig refused to do so, saying, ‘They are thieves’. He was unfazed under threats of action by the authorities. On the same day, a hand grenade was thrown at Sadiq, resulting in the arrest of 86 people. Baig was one of them.
After being subjected to police brutality, Baig escaped and roamed around in the forests for a month. After considering moving to Pakistan, he turned himself in, after which he was subject to interrogation for several weeks. He was not released until an MLA raised the issue in the J&K Legislative Assembly. After being released, Baig decided to pursue his education, and had a choice to make.
“I was torn between two impulses – Economics and Law. I joined the Delhi School of Economics when Amartya Sen was the head.”
However, his education was shortlived, as he could not afford the fees. His scholarship was turned down on account of the fact that he was detained by the police in the past. Even at Amartya Sen’s request, the University Grants Commission would not grant Baig a scholarship. And so, a dejected Baig returned to Kashmir.
Back home, he would work for a year as a contractor for a power project. Having made enough money to fund his education, he decided to go back to Delhi. This time, he would pursue law.
“When I came back, I joined law. I was interested in law because of its association with speaking and debating. Law provides you an avenue to stand up and speak for the rights of people; at least that was my idea when I joined it.
I joined the Law Faculty at Delhi University; those days it had a very high standard, I don’t what the situation is today.”
After completing his undergraduate course and topping his class, he got the opportunity to study abroad. And thus, in 1974, the boy from Baramulla found himself at Harvard University.
“I got scholarships from all seven Ivy League Schools, but one tends to go to Harvard. At Harvard, you had the opportunity of doing law even if you had graduated in Chemistry. Harvard was a place that allowed tremendous liberty of thought. There are many universities in the United States that encourage a particular kind of thinking.”
Baig’s astuteness as a lawyer shone at Harvard, and having gained an expertise in competition law, he was offered a job at a San Francisco law firm. Later, his professors would recommend his name to six or seven bigger law firms.
“I accepted the offer from what was then the largest corporate litigation law firm in the US – Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine. I worked there for four years.”
Despite raking in the big bucks in the States, a return home was always on Baig’s mind.
“The desire to go back was always inside me. In 1978, I came on a holiday to Kashmir and went to my village. I spent 6-7 years abroad in an affluent society, and when back home to find that there was no electricity, people had to get water from a naala, no hospital, no school. On seeing this, I decided to stay back and contest the election. I thought that even if the villagers’ grievances were not acted upon, it would at least give vent to the silent majority, to the people who did not even have basic amenities.
And I didn’t go back. I left everything – my books, my clothes, my car. I went back after about twenty years, just to visit.”
Thus began Baig’s foray into politics. After a reasonably good showing in the political arena, he decided to return to practicing law in 1984.
“I had retired from politics from after ‘84, because both the elections in Kashmir were rigged. I produced the affidavit of the officer who was caught tampering with the ballot boxes and submitted the same to the then Chief Election Commissioner. He called me and said, ‘Beta, Kashmir is a very difficult region’. I replied, ‘You’re telling me. I was born there!’ He then said, ‘Wahaan aise jhagde mat karo, Pakistan majboot ho jaayega’ (Don’t fight like this, Pakistan will become stronger as a result).”
He turned heads with his appearances at the Jammu & Kashmir High Court. And in 1985, he was appointed Advocate General for the state, on the insistence of then Chief Justice AS Anand.
“I did not accept the position of Advocate General till the Governor of the state and the Chief Justice of the High Court requested me to do so. As soon as the government changed, I handed in my resignation despite being asked to continue. So, I said, ‘Even if I give you partial advice, you will think it is motivated by political considerations’.”
This system of appointing Advocates General and Attorneys General on the basis of party loyalty is, according to him, “a stupid thing”.
“We should have a system like the United States, where Parliament should have a counsel independent of the Law Minister. No matter how good and honest you are, when you belong to a party, you do not have total freedom and cannot express an unbiased view. People are not chosen on the basis of merit.”
Having appeared extensively before the Supreme Court and a number of high courts, Baig has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of India’s legal system. His experience shows that Executive’s perceived interference with the Judiciary is not just the sign of the present times.
“Some judges have a weakness for the government because the government knows their weaknesses. In one such instance, a lawyer who had a good case was arguing, and the judge was refusing to agree. I was the Advocate General at the time, waiting for another case. I got up and said, ‘My lord, I am really disappointed. This person has a fool-proof case, and I am willing to concede it. I think you should dispose of it’. And the judge still disagreed. This judge went on to become Chief Justice of India!”
He goes on to say,
“Our legal system is lagging far behind. Not in terms of quality, because we have some of the brightest intellectuals as lawyers and judges. This SLP system does not work. Most of the time, grant of a stay order depends on the name or the face of the lawyer.”
After his stint as AG, Baig forged an alliance with the Shardul and Pallavi Shroff of Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas. He was the Shroffs’ preferred counsel in the Supreme Court between 1987 and 1993. He would shoot into the limelight in the case of Reliance Petrochemicals v. Proprietors of Indian Express Newspapers, for which he was briefed by the Shroffs.
He had only appeared in the case because Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabjee were not available for arguing the matter on a particular day. Appearing for Reliance Petrochemicals, Baig had argued for seeking an injunction of an article by Indian Express on a matter that was sub-judice. Justice Sabyasachi Mukharji, who would go on to become Chief Justice of India, lauded Baig’s efforts. The following comment is part of the record of the judgment:
“The point at issue has been canvassed very ably and vehemently on behalf of the petitioner by Sh. M.H. Baig, assisted as he was by Sh. S.S. Shroff and Smt. P.S. Shroff.”
Senior lawyers in the Court took objection to this show of appreciation and wrote a letter to then CJI RS Pathak to have it struck down from the record. However, Justice Mukharji refused to do so.
As he continued arguing important matters, Baig’s stock as a lawyer grew in the eyes of the Bar and the Bench alike. But as he gained popularity, lawyers back home began to tarnish his image. He was falsely accused of being a sympathiser of militants, rumours of which spread within the legal fraternity. The judges who were so fond of Baig shunned him as a result, and firms in his home state would not engage him.
Eventually, he would plunge wholeheartedly into politics. In 1998, he would help set up the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Kashmir along with Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba. He would go on to become Law Minister, and later Deputy Chief Minister for the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Looking back at his legal career and how it helped him in the political scenario, Baig says,
“Some people get elected to Parliament without even going to high school. So, I am not here because of law, but despite it! Of course, it has taught me how to make a point more lucidly and coherently.”
With excerpts from ‘Courting Politics’ by Shweta Bansal