CLA News / Tribute to Soli Sorabjee


The CLA has been saddened to learn of the death of our respected life president Soli Sorabjee, a great jurist and upholder of the rule of law and a much revered former attorney general of India. He was generous in sharing his wisdom and experience amongst the family of Commonwealth Lawyers and will be sadly missed. A tribute was held via Zoom on 1st July 2021 in honour of Mr Sorabjee.

You can watch the recording of Mr Sorabjee’s tribute assembly here

Mr R Venkataramani, a senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India, reflects on the life and career of Mr Sorabjee in his article “The Perennial need of architects of liberty”:

While liberty may lie in the hearts of all humans, it must also be secured to all, and at all times in the social sphere. Resilient social norms and constitutional orders must also remain intact in the midst of waves of ill arising political misadventures. Constitutional architects who can dig deep and wide enough, and who can transcend partisan ideological demands or political party affiliations occupy that sphere of liberty architects. Mr. Sorabjee was one such architect. His demise is a great social and constitutional loss.

What can one write about immeasurable losses? Epitaphs are small carvings on the lives of women and men who have lived lives beyond personal boundaries, visible only for the discerning and the curious.

Post-independence, the Indian Bar has grown tall and wide, breathing life and vitality to Rule of Law. Its contributions to administration of justice – creative, courageous, and progressive – has acquired impressive prominence across the globe. If the Indian Constitution has become a vibrant living document and continues to be so, it owes it in deep measure to the visionaries at the Bar and on the Bench. We will be failing in our common calling at the Bar, if we do not pay in big measure our tributes to Soli Sorabjee. Thomas Cooley is credited to be a great name in US Constitutional law. His book ‘Constitutional Limitations’ has enormously influenced the course of US Constitutional history. I cite Cooley who was a teacher and a judge, keeping in mind the remarkably similar contributions made by Soli J. Sorabjee, as a lawyer, to Indian Constitutional Law.

Sorabjee’s moving to Supreme Court practice in the Seventies, was a great historical coincidence. That was a time when the Indian State and the democratic buoyance of the Indian people, post emergency, were looking forward to new horizons of political and legal thoughts, to add vigour to its polity and faith in the Constitution. The demand and need was Constitutional supremacy and the new paths to be explored to hasten the fulfilment of the great egalitarian promises of the Constitution. As we now perceive with clarity and conviction, the wise and mature act and comprehension of balancing intense conflicts through sagacious law was an urgent persuasion. The Supreme Court, then, needed lawyers who could offer them this balancing insight in good measure. Many of these venerable names from Nani Palkiwala, M. K. Nambiar, H.M. Seervai, and grand patriarchs such as Fali Nariman, are the indomitable pillars and roofs of our Constitutional architecture. Indian Constitutional chronicles will be incomplete without their names and others from the academia such as Upendra Baxi and Prof. Madhava Menon. Understanding the balancing of rights and State power and their articulation remains one of the most challenging tasks of the day, as every nation is moving into twilight zones of disquieting governance failures.

The insights into balancing rights and State power came to Mr. Sorabjee so elegantly just as Cooley captured in his impressive treatise – “[t]he State has the authority to make extensive and varied regulations as to time, mode and circumstances, in and under which parties shall assert, enjoy, or exercise their rights, without coming into conflict with any of the constitutional principles for the protection of private rights…

His submissions in all cases which involved this balancing exercise, from Maneka Gandhi (Article 21), to S.R. Bommai (judicial review), bear singular testimony to the above and his conviction that Constitutional changes from within its strong foundations can blossom into a fair and just social order. Fidelity to federalism, the pervasive importance of freedom of expression, and the wisdom of blending fundamental rights and directive principles occupied his dialogues. Ethics, humane values, fairness, courtesies, eclectic reading, and on top of it, ever emphasising the importance of the role of the Bar in its commitment to advancing justice without partisanship, were all written on his forehead for everyone to gather. Justice Krishna Iyer’s encomiums to Sorabjee are, thus, well earned. Newspaper columns can only be glimpses of his manifold personhood. When we pay our fitting tributes to him, we are indeed celebrating all those respectful members of the Bar who are wedded to being constitutional architects.

Many will write sooner or later, about Mr. Sorabjee and the immense values added by him to vast domains of law and justice, within India and outside. Fond personal reminiscences will be shared. The sad and disquieting element is that his death has arrived at a time when the nation and the Bar is disabled from giving him a fitting farewell, a grand remembrance and tribute.

Two weeks before he laid his body, the United Lawyers Association felicitated him on his 91st  year. Mr. Sorabjee was, for long two decades, the President of the Association, a brain child of another great name in the Bar, Late Shri Padma Bhushan P.P. Rao, Senior Advocate. While addressing the small gathering, the writer said it is too tall an order for a squirrel to talk about an elephant. Having worked with Mr. Sorabjee on many issues and subjects, I wish the Bar and the nation raise the banner of his life to the heights which are due.

R. Ventkataramani
Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India
Former Member, Law Commission of India