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The Legendary Lawyer Of India: Nani Palkhivala

"If a count were to be made of the ten topmost lawyers of the world, I have no doubt that Mr. Palkhivala's name would find a prominent place therein"- Justice H.R.Khanna

Nanabhoy 'Nani' Ardeshir Palkhiwala was a well-known lawyer who, among other things, fought some of the most important conflicts in Indian constitutional history, protecting people's fundamental rights. Nani Palkhivala was a multi-faceted figure who was a skilled judge, an economist, and a protector of constitutional liberties. Palkhiwala's trip is not just a legend who rescued the Constitution, but also an inspirational tale of a remarkable guy who defied all difficulties.

One of the greatest intellectuals of modern India, Palkhiwala was born in Bombay on 16th of January,1920 and graduated from St. Xaviers College with a Master's degree in English literature. After that, he went to Government Law College to study law. He didn't come into this world with a silver spoon in his mouth. Rather, he was born and raised in a Parsi middle-class household.

Nani was offered the Chief Judgeship of the Supreme Court in the 1960s which he declined. If he had accepted the proposal, he would have become the longest serving CJI till date. He joined the Tata Group in 1961 and became a director of Tata Sons at a young age.

What are the Cases which Shaped Palkhivala's Career?

The Fundamental Rights case, i.e. Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973), is regarded the pinnacle of Palkhiwala's popularity and accomplishment. The central question in this important decision was whether the Constitution can be revised or altered in such a way that citizens' fundamental rights are protected. Palkhiwala, arguing on behalf of the petitioner, persuaded the Supreme Court to embrace the basic structure doctrine, and the decision was seen as a watershed moment in the development of the Basic Structure Doctrine.

Palkhiwala saw this matter as an opportunity to challenge a series of constitutional reforms enacted by the Indira Gandhi government, which gave Parliament unrestricted power to amend the Indian Constitution. "His advocacy in the case can be best summarized in the words of Justice HR Khanna, who remarked: It was not Nani who spoke. It was divinity speaking through him." Palkhiwala's argument of an unalterable and unamendable "fundamental structure" of the Constitution was dismissed by legal professionals at the time.

They questioned how a sovereign Parliament's capacity to change the Constitution (Article 368) could be limited or susceptible to judicial review by judges nominated by the Executive. Only seven of the 13 judges on the Bench bought Palkhivala's then-novel reasoning at the end of the day. Today, we can thank our lucky stars that they bought the reasoning. In Palkhiwala's illustrious career, this one case will stand the test of time forever.

Palkhivala's Significant Constitutional Contribution:

  • Palkhiwala contested his first case before the Bombay High Court in May 1954, after just ten years of practise, concerning the interpretation of Articles 29(2) and 30 of the Indian Constitution. The lawsuit concerned the right of Anglo-Indian schools to admit pupils to schools that teach English as a second language. In this instance, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court.
  • He also played a pivotal part in the well-known Bank Nationalization case, in which he presented compelling legal reasons for the petitioner contesting the constitutionality of the Banking Companies Act of 1969.
  • Palkhiwala challenged the government's midnight executive order derecognizing the Privy Purse because he was outraged by the government's betrayal.
  • In 1975, he agreed to represent then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when her election to the Lok Sabha was annulled by the Allahabad High Court. However, after she announced a state of emergency, he withdrew his support as her counsel. During the Emergency, Palkhiwala and a group of civil liberties lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court in November 1975, challenging the suspension of all fundamental rights. Palkhivala made it clear that he was not afraid to take on the authorities.

Nani Palkhiwala played a key role in influencing the court and preserving the Basic Structure Doctrine, from the Privy Purse case to Kesavananda Bharati. 'Political freedom and civic liberty are the cornerstones of the Indian Constitution,' Palkhiwala believed. Our constitution, he added, is essentially formed and moulded for the common man.

He was also recognised as the Nation's Keeper of the Conscience. Palkhiwala was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1998 for his contributions to the legal community and the development of India's democratic system.

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