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M C Setalvad

Motilal Chimanlal Setalvad was a true giant, acknowledged as such by his peers, whose exploits in the court are still recounted with much zest in bar rooms and law colleges across the country.

The eldest son of the renowned advocate, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, MC Setalvad quickly distinguished himself at the bar and gave unequivocal promise of greatness. He had a stentorian voice, but never used it to cow down an opposing counsel. He placed great emphasis on the ethics in the profession but and was merciless against violations, regardless of the stature of the individual. He didn’t tweak his tactics or principles for the forum but strictly adhered to exacting standards. A constitutionalist who was also a pragmatist, his skill in the court is best summarized in Justice Gajendragadkar’s, the then Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court, pithy praise, “Mr. Setalvad who appeared for the Judges of the Allahabad High Court addressed to us a very able argument with his characteristic brevity and lucidity.”

As the first and longest serving attorney general of India, MC Setalvad was in the thick of resolving the nation’s constitutional dilemmas. He appeared for the government in a host of important and, at times, controversial cases. He was also involved with the Radcliffe Tribunal for demarcation of the Indo-Pak border and several UN proceedings on Kashmir, assignments that required the deft touch of a legal eagle and the principles of a man of conviction. He chaired the first Law Commission of independent India, in which capacity he not just advised the government on crucial reforms and legislation but also created a framework for the Commissions’ future functioning.

It is quite telling that anyone familiar with Indian legal profession starting with the Chief Justices of India have, described MC Setalvad only in superlatives with “tallest” and “grand” being particular favorites. For a man whose autobiography reads like the history of modern India and whose name is synonymous with ethics in the profession, the following praise by Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer is but a statement of fact, “… Shri M.C. Setalvad was not merely a great jurist and persuasive advocate of international renown but, most importantly, was one of the tallest figures who set high standards for the Bench and the Bar and, by the very power of his presence, made high professional values operational.  Today, when the decline and fall have become deleteriously visible in the two sister professions, the memory of Setalvad will be a necessary admonition.”

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