What makes Fali S. Nariman so very special? His prodigious skill at the bar, displayed to great effect in such storied cases as the Second Judges Case and Golak Nath? His eloquence and wit, experienced by the many, many readers of his autobiography Before Memory Fades… ? His keen insight into the state of India’s judiciary, and its very identity as a nation? All of the above?
In this new book, the eminent advocate and noted author delves into the question of where India is going as a nation, looking at the history of the Indian subcontinent, the creation of India after a hard won struggle for Independence, and the Indian nation as it stands today, battling corruption endemic in the system. But this he does with a legal perspective, looking at what it took to make the Indian Constitution unique and effective. This is what Mr Nariman does best, making history relevant to the worlds of law and politics as they evolve today.
The book is most informative and engaging when Mr Nariman skilfully balances two roles—that of a detached witness, simply observing the current Indian legal and political world; as well as that of a patriot, a great lover and champion not only of India but of the very idea of India, a country that cared for its citizens, run by people who put the larger interest ahead of their own. This stands in stark contrast to India today, mired in deep systemic rot, and run by a political ‘class’ that is desperate to cling to power.
Mr Nariman does not hesitate to shine a light into the world where he is so widely regarded and celebrated, and where he worked to legendary success—the Indian judiciary, and the legal structure itself. He seriously discusses the major issue of the perception of the judicial system as rotten, and the people who inhabit it as corrupt, saying clearly that dishonest persons must be identified and excised. He gives examples of when this was done with deftness and discretion. But he is also clear that in his opinion, the vast majority of judges are honest, hardworking and invested in their jobs, and for the most part, careful about avoiding even the perception of impropriety. He quotes with approval the famous statement made by Chief Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah: ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant and electric light is the best policeman’.
What a lay reader will be struck by, however, is that Mr Nariman never discusses how to make such hallowed halls of justice as the High Courts and the Supreme Court, or even any other legal institution, more approachable for ordinary citizens. Litigants who spend years of their lives and most of their money fighting in a framework that is overloaded with work (in the best case) and apathetic and crooked (in the worst case) while aided by avaricious lawyers, find no mention here. This is a glaring oversight in a book with a chapter titled “Have We Forgotten the Common Man?”
Mr Nariman’s vast scholarship and flair for the apt phrase are both on display here. The book is well researched, and for the most part moves at a brisk pace. But readers must be patient, the good parts seem to come after a little bit of the book plods along with a discussion of ancient Indian history.
This is a great book for those that seek to make sense of a country that seems to be hurtling down the highway to disaster. But take heart. Mr Nariman says that all is not lost. Yet.
The State of the Nation, by Fali S Nariman. Hay House 2013.