At a time when Indian democracy is in the doldrums let me take some time to introduce you to someone who took it upon himself to fight some of the most crucial battles in Indian constitutional history by defending the Fundamental Rights of the citizens. Nanabhoy /“Nani” Ardeshir Palkhivala was a legendary 20th-century jurist and economist who upheld the central tenets of the Indian Constitution through his numerous judgements in different aspects of lawmaking.
Born on 16 January, 1920, Nani Palkhivala grew up in a middle-class Parsi household. After graduating from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, he excelled in academics although he struggled with a speech impediment. As he was even unable to find work as a lecturer in Bombay University after his Master’s in English literature, he enrolled at the Government Law College, Bombay, where he found his true calling in life.
Thereafter, he fought numerous significant cases in his life as a lawyer. In May 1954, Nani Palkhivala fought his first case of serious constitutional significance in the Bombay High Court concerning the interpretation of Article 29(2) and Article 30. Article 29(2) prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, race, religion, or language, while Article 30 upholds the right of the minorities ‘to establish and administer educational institutions.’
In 1975, Palkhivala agreed to defend the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, when the Allahabad High Court overturned her election to the Lok Sabha, on grounds of corruption. However, when Mrs. Gandhi declared a state of Emergency the very same year, he withdrew his support as her lawyer, even though the decision posed him a great personal risk.
Palkhivala’s intellectual integrity was prominent even in his legendary budget speeches, as well as in corporate board meetings.
According to Major General Nilendra Kumar, author of ‘Nani Palkhivala: A Role Model’, even though through the course of his career, he fought 140 prominent cases, the one which will forever stand the test of time is the famous Kesavananda Bharati vs. The State of Kerala case in the Supreme Court. It is his judgement on this case that gave birth to the “the basic structure” doctrine, under which, “basic features,” are the fundamental rights granted to Indian citizens, among other provisions.
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