Evoking H.M. Seervai:
Jurist and Authority on the Constitution of India.
THE book has been compiled and published by eminent jurist Homi Seervai’s wife Feroza for his birth centenary. Seervai was born on December 5, 1906.
The book is in four parts: recollection by lawyer friends, family friends and family members; Seervai’s articles, papers and memoranda; tributes by Seervai; and letters written to and by Seervai.
In the introduction, Feroza takes up a rather onerous task - "the aim of my endeavours has been in going through the pages; the reader must almost feel Seervai’s breath." Whether she succeeds or not will vary from reader to reader.
The book brings back a bygone era of the Bombay High Court - when it was a gentler court and giants like Jamshedji Kanga, Motilal Setalvad and C.K. Daphtary strode its corridors and luminaries like the Chief Justices M. C. Chagla and P. B. Gajendragadkar presided. They were men of stature as Seervai was.
Much of the book centres on Chamber No.1 of the Bombay High Court, i.e. the chamber of the legendary lawyer, Sir Jamshedji Kanga. Seervai was his junior. Many stalwarts, including Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabjee, started practice in this chamber and have paid fulsome tributes to Seervai.
Perhaps the most important case in Seervai’s life, and that of the country too, is the case of Swami Keshavananda Bharati vs the State of Kerala. The case, in my view, saved democracy in India by preserving the concept of the supremacy of the Constitution and putting to rest the British concept of parliamentary supremacy.
In this landmark case, Seervai and Nani Palkhiwala, another legendary lawyer from Jamshedji Kanga’s Chambers, appeared before a high-powered 13-judge bench of the Supreme Court. Tehmtan Andhyarujina, who was a junior, admits that it was not one of Seervai’s best performances. He was hobbled by a dispute with the Attorney-General Niren De as to who should start first and also because the entire focus of the issue unexpectedly shifted from express restraints in the Constitution to implied
limitations therein on the amending power. Seervai was not properly organised in his preparation for a case of that magnitude. Providentially, the petitioners ended up winning the matter. Subsequently, in his magnum opus Constitutional Law of India, Seervai came to the conclusion that the Supreme Court was right in upholding the concept of basic structure of the Constitution. Much praise has been also bestowed on the book Constitutional Law of India, which is a brilliant, if opinionated, commentary on the Indian Constitution and its judicial interpretation. It was Seervai’s life’s work, and for which he gave up the position of Attorney-General of India.
Former Chief Justice R. S. Pathak gives his impressions of Seervai, and of the latter arguing before him, the only judge to do so. He talks of his meticulous preparation and his logical presentation. Justice C R Das of the Supreme Court has this to say in a letter: "I can distinctly see you before my mental eyes addressing me and my learned colleagues. Your eyes shining with lustrous keenness and your lanky fingers emphasising your points". I wish there had been more on Seervai from the bench.
This is more than a book merely about the law. Besides a number of references to the Keshavananda Bharati case, there is also a reference to Seervai’s famous bird whistle with which he used to entertain children. Lord Mackay of Clashfern, former Lord Chancellor of England, has this to say: " Our children were young and he amused them greatly by making the calls of a number of different birds most realistically to them without using any aids but his fingers. They were mystified but tried to copy his feat. Although he gave patient tuition, they did not succeed in matching his skill."
The book is also about Seervai, the family man, the loving husband, the doting father, the true friend and the lover of Shakespeare, Milton, Conan Doyle and Wodehouse. He could be relied upon to recite an appropriate bit of poetry when the occasion demanded it.