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The launch of the George H Gadbois book, The Supreme Court of India: The Beginnings, edited by Vikram Raghavan and Vasujith Ram, offered an occasion for the Madras High Court to remember the contributions of the celebrated American Scholar in chronicling Indian Legal History.
Gadbois has already received wide acclaim for his seminal work in the book Judges of the Supreme Court of India: 1950-1989, a compilation of exclusive interviews with the 93 judges part of the Indian Supreme Court from its inception till 1989.
During the launch event held at the Madras High Court premises yesterday, Vikram Raghavan remarked that Gadbois was such a perfectionist that he only produced one book after a lifetime of work, after reviewing over 300 drafts or so.
Gadbois also found time to publish a number of essays and articles tracking developments and trends in the working of the Indian Judiciary. Topics that piqued his interest included commentary on the manner in which judges are appointed to the Bench, patterns in dissent by judges, the general profile of members who are appointed to the Bench, among others.
While his articles contained valuable data on judicial patterns at the time, the same did not find as wide a readership. A number of speakers at yesterday’s event noted these contributions did not receive the recognition it deserved. On this aspect, Raghavan said that while a lot of these articles are now out of print, efforts are being made to bring them back online.
However, Gadbois’ doctoral thesis on the inception and early years of the Indian Supreme Court is now available, thanks in part to a personal visit made by Raghavan to Gadbois. During that visit, Gadbois agreed to have his doctoral work published.
The efforts undertaken accordingly have now culminated in the book, The Supreme Court of India: The Beginnings, which, according to Raghavan, comprises Gadbois’ doctoral work with minor structural modifications.
Speaking at the event yesterday, President of the Madras Bar Association and Advocate General for Tamil Nadu, Vijay Narayan observed that the book offers insight into the foundations of the Indian Supreme Court. Narayan also noted Raghavan’s efforts in the eventual publication of the book.
Raghavan also spoke extensively on Gadbois’ personal history as well as the circumstances that facilitated and shaped his work. It was noted that Gadbois was driven to academics, particularly after he discovered that it was easier to advance in the military with greater educational qualification. This led Gadbois to pursue a Political Science degree.
While pursuing his Master’s at Duke, Gadbois chose to specialise in Indian law. To his benefit, the Public Law 480 or the Food for Peace programme was also being implemented at the time. This programme allowed USA to trade wheat to India in exchange for Indian books to various US libraries, in lieu of foreign currency to cover the wheat purchase.
As a result, Gadbois found access to valuable research material including Indian law reports and legislative debates, all of which went into his ML thesis. Raghavan remarked that even Fali S Nariman had observed this work shows clairvoyance which is hard to find even today.
While his ML thesis was written entirely in Duke, Gadbois came down to India in the 1960s to complete his now published doctoral thesis. Sitting at the Indian Law Institute that was housed at the basement of the Indian Supreme Court, Gadbois had access to research material in the judge’s library. This included legal material predating Indian Independence.
The doctoral work compiled by the 28-year-old Gadbois in turn has now become one of the best treatments in the Court’s legal history, said Raghavan. The book also contains chapters on the inception and working of the Federal Courts, which preceded the Supreme Court of India.
Raghavan noted that Gadbois ought to be commended, among other reasons, for being the first to shine a light on how judicial appointments were made prior to the Collegium system. His work is also noted for recognising the importance of High Courts in the shaping of the Indian Supreme Court and the Constitutional scheme.
Justice TS Sivagnanam, Chairman of the High Court’s Heritage Committee, commented on the general utility of data analysing the working of the judiciary. He admired the contemporary relevance of Gadbois’ masterpiece, years after its publication. For instance, he noted that Gadbois had found that the largest litigant before Constitutional courts was the government. This, he remarked, has not changed even today.
He concluded his special address by remarking that there was one aspect propounded by Gadbois in his book that is not applicable to the contemporary scenario. Gadbois had observed that the ease with which the Indian government was able to amend the Constitution effectively nullified Court decisions. This meant that the power of judicial review did not necessarily mean that the Court was supreme. Justice Sivagnanam, however, disagreed, remarking that today, the judiciary is supreme.
Senior Advocate NL Rajah, Chronicler of the Madras High Court, spoke in detail about the Madras High Court’s association and contributions to the Supreme Court of India, in its early days.
He noted that when the time came to establish an Indian Supreme Court, two out of the five members tasked with framing the proposal for the structure and functions of the Court were from the Madras High Court. The report submitted by this committee was accepted almost in toto, save for the proposal regarding the system of appointing judges.
Advocate Suhrith Parthasarathy brought out the contemporary significance of Federal Courts, noting that they functioned at a time when there was no specific law or bill or rights to protect civil liberties. The law was sovereign and the cases primarily dealt with executive excesses beyond legislation. However, there were still cases that espoused larger guarantees of equality or which tested legislation on the touchstone of arbitrariness. Many issues which the courts dealt with at the time, including freedom of speech and expression, special courts etc., are similar to those being grappled with today.
As he concluded, Parthsarathy recounted words spoken by India’s first Attorney General, MC Setalvad at the inaugural sitting of the Indian Supreme Court on January 28, 1950. Analysing the task before the Judiciary, Setalvad is known to have said,
“Your foremost task will be to interpret the Constitution, which is but a means of ordering the life of a progressive people. The Federal Court has already laid down that a Constitution is to be interpreted in no narrow spirit…“
Advocate S Manuraj spoke on the Federal Courts, with detailed references to notable cases delivered during its tenure. He lauded the institution of the Federal Court for being the first indigenous court of appeal in the country. He also remarked that the march towards Indian Independence had been aimed, not only at political independence, but also at legal autonomy and judicial independence.
As the ceremony came to a close, Secretary of the Madras Bar Association, VR Kamalanathan thanked the gathering for its presence.