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H M Seervai

Homi Seervai was a hard working lawyer. He loved his mother, his wife, his juniors, his professor and his children. He would seldom travel, primarily to be near those he loved. He read and widely quoted from the classics and philosophy. He was nontheatrical in the court. He would learn graduate school physics topics to ensure a win in a long legal battle where he was pitted against MC Setalvad and Nani Palkhivala. He knew his law well and the ensuing confidence would be to his undoing in Keshavanda Bharati. He made enemies. He made mistakes. He admitted to his mistakes. He wore bow ties. His apologists offer no unqualified praise.

He researched, wrote and proofed the four editions of the three-volume Constitutional Law of India.

The Indian bar has produced many a fine constitutionalist since 1950. But the tag of “bulldog of Constitution” can never be applied to anyone but Hormasji “Homi” Maneckji Seervai. Nobody else’s nihil obstat matter more in even contemporary constitutional proceedings.

His magnum opus was in the best traditions of Dicey and Beard, but would go on to surpass all of them in scope, clarity and sheer erudition. Every new edition contained his dissection of the latest pronouncements on the matter. He didn’t shy away from criticizing the judges by name, severely but never with malice, for their “incorrect” decisions. His passion led him to commit various mistakes of style and content but he was quick to make amends once he realised it. During the sometimes bitter proceedings of Keshavanda Bharati, a case with no clear winners or losers, he would come around to a profound appreciation for the basic structure doctrine. As the long-serving first lawyer to the government of the state of Maharashtra, he never capitulated to political pressure, his loyalty firmly towards the law and the people it served. When pressurised to be more “accommodating”, he threw away the post without another thought.

Seervai stuck to his principles regardless of occasion, person or any contingency. Nothing was ever handed on a platter to him. The exceptional woman who was his mother reared him to be an idealist and he met pragmatism at the cost of (his) immutable values with derision. Despite strongly held convictions, he never much cared to impose it on others except in matters of public probity and professional ethics. On those counts he would take even the bench. His long-standing feud with a later Supreme Court judge is well known. While the whole hearted support he received from the bar on this issue, triggered by a perceived slight to his junior and apparent nepotism, is a mark of respect he commanded while the fact that it didn’t professionally affect the judge was a sad commentary on the dilution of stakeholders’ interests in judiciary. His commitment to individual rights led him to be the main driving force of the Bombay chapter of Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties.

It is customary to conclude anything on Homi Seervai with the epitaph of Christopher Wren, quoted by his son in an evocative piece, “Reader, if you seek his memorial – look around you.” What better memorial for this man than the living, breathing and vibrant Constitution of India, the cumulative wisdom of which he continues to substantially influence through a book that never saw revision after his death.

Lector, Si Monumentum Requiris, Circumspice. And you will see what could be the greatest scholastic contribution to the idea of India.

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