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Soli SorabjeeHappy Birthday Soli Sorabjee, explains corporate lawyer Ashim Krishna Sood in this ode to his former senior Sorabjee. Sood is a graduate of NLSIU Bangalore and Harvard Law School's LLM programme. He is now living in Delhi, after a stint in the USA since 2006, where he was an associate at the Los Angeles office of a major US-international law firm.

What is the measure of a man? Is it laid out by his station, by his possessions, by high achievement or by the awards that bedeck him? Soli Sorabjee, India’s preeminent lawyer, who turns 82 today, has received all these in his long, wonderful life. But his true measure lies beyond.

Our news channels have ensured that Soli’s fame as a formidable advocate has spread beyond the bar. Civil society recognizes him as an articulate voice of reason and often turns to him as an arbiter on matters of moment. But not many in the lay public are aware of the true extent to which the nation’s fundamental liberties owe their continued existence and vigour to Soli’s tireless advocacy over the decades.

If Ambedkar was the progenitor of India’s Constitution, Soli, who entered legal practice shortly after the Constitution came into force, was one of its first lieutenants who very quickly came to be counted amongst its ablest generals. Through the years, Soli has appeared in almost every constitutionally significant case before our Supreme Court. Unlike commercial cases which are so lucrative for lawyers, these cases determine not the wealth of men but their freedom. And Soli has stood on liberty’s side in every cause: he has argued to protect and expand the scope of free speech and press freedom, to limit the police power of the state and defend the rights of the accused, and to keep alive the democratic ethic in the face of wrongful exercises of emergency powers by Prime Ministers and Governors.

Directly and indirectly, Soli has helped shape a rights regime that enables the fearless and outspoken press that we take for granted. Everyone who knows much of the 1975 emergency, knows that Soli is one of the brave ones at the bar who stared that gravest of threats to our young republic in the face and who did not back down, arguing in the shadow of intimidation against a government attempting to muzzle the press and detain political prisoners without cause.

He did not keep his courage or principles only for the times when he resisted the state. Appointed Attorney General twice (by different governments) Soli set the benchmark for that office in modern times. His arguments for the government always rose above the crudity of politics and were focused on the larger impact a judgement would have. His brilliant advocacy for his powerful client was always harmonized by fairness and reasonableness towards every stakeholder in cases of national importance.

His skills have earned him the success that is due any man at the pinnacle of his profession. But if you look for the material fruits of Soli’s accomplishments - for palatial houses, fancy cars or shiny baubles - they will be hard to find. For Soli spends his leisure in a world of dignified refinement far removed from ostentation: in poetry, in music, in literature, in scholarship and in the company of his fellows irrespective of their social status.

All who have known him intimately feel loyalty and affection for him. But within that tribe there is no band more cheerfully devoted than that of his juniors, who simply dote on him. And with cause: their leader treats them as equals and listens carefully to even the freshest voice. He considers his chamber his extended family, with whom he can work hard through late nights and early mornings, share a joke, banter or even be cross. To his juniors he is sometimes fallible in the gentlest ways but infallible in his gentleness.

He is generous to a fault with hard working junior counsel who exhibit potential, often complimenting them in open court even if they are opposing him. Top lawyers and judges in courts across the land have been pedigreed in his chambers where entry has never been restricted to those of privileged backgrounds. Many owe their success to his efforts at promoting them to solicitors and clients. It is a mark of Soli’s approach to his profession that the list of illustrious alumni from his chambers counts to him as one of his true achievements.

Soli Sorabjee is now the grand old man of the Indian bar - but he defies age. Sometimes, when he asks his juniors to find decades old cases (cited in law journals by litigants’ surnames) they are unable to locate them; until they discover that Soli himself argued the case and that it is still so fresh in his mind that instead of dissolving it into a mere citation, he still remembers it by his client’s first name!

So we wish this grand old man, who is still a very young man, a very happy birthday and many more to come.

Photo from The Social Blog

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