Palkhivala as India's
Ambassador to the USA, presenting his credentials to President
"Son, remember the poor orphan next door?",
the father reminded the two-year-old who was about to help himself to a
bowl of almonds. That day, a man of charity took birth in the babe. He
immediately handed over the entire bowl to the orphan.
The babe turned boy. "Become a lawyer, my
son, you are cut out for law", his father told him repeatedly, noticing
his amazingly clear thinking and his incredible debating power. But after
his B.A., the lover of literature desired to be a college lecturer. He
lost the post to a lady because he did not have her teaching experience.
"Become a lawyer, my son." But after his
M.A., led by the woman he loved, he aspired for the I.C.S., then the
highest and toughest examination. The final was to be held in Delhi. An
epidemic broke out there. His dear ones dissuaded him from filing the
application form for which a time had been set. After the period expired,
the government announced the shifting of the venue, because of the
epidemic, from Delhi to Bombay (his home town).
Palkhivala, the young lawyer
"Become a lawyer, my son." He had always
remembered the advice. Now he respected it. And stood First Class First
in both First LL.B. and Second LL.B. (bagging almost all possible prizes
and medals), and first in every individual paper in the Advocate (O.S.)
examination. On one of his answer papers in LL.B. the examiner wrote,
"Frankly, this candidate knows much more than I do." He was a meteor at
the Bar and soon left his seniors way behind.
He was offered a seat on the Supreme Court
Bench, more than once -- probably the youngest to receive the offer, the
first to be chosen straight from the Bar (selection is made from High
Court Judges), and with the prospect of the longest tenure ever, both as a
Judge and as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Obeying his inner
voice, he declined. Later, he became the most outspoken critic, both in
his writings and in his public speeches, of the government's unwise fiscal
and economic policies -- what he could not have done as a Supreme Court
He was offered the office of the Attorney
General of India, again more than once and probably the youngest to get
the offer. Last time, he was pressed hard by the Law Minister to accept
it. After a great deal of hesitation, he agreed. At three o'clock in the
morning of the day the announcement was to be made in Parliament, the
voice within told him that his decision was wrong and he should reverse
it. Early in the morning he apologized to the Law Minister for changing
his mind. In the years immediately following, he, as the citizen's
advocate, successfully fought several historical cases against the
government's unconstitutional measures which, as the Attorney General, it
would have been his duty to defend.
Once he was engaged to argue a Special Leave
Petition in the Supreme Court, and his two-way air ticket
Bombay-Delhi-Bombay was booked. Three days before the hearing, he
developed a bad cold and fever and returned the brief. The next day he
felt better, and decided to do the case since it meant a lot to a poor and
deserving litigant. The day thereafter his temperature rose higher and he
was forced to return the brief again. The plane by which he was to come
back took off from Delhi and crashed. There were no survivors.
Nani as India's
Ambassador to the USA, with Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
Nani as India's
Ambassador to the USA, with the Minister for External Affairs A. B.
Vajpayee (India's present Prime Minister).
Nani as India's
Ambassador to the USA, with Prime Minister Morarji Desai and the
Minister for External Affairs A. B. Vajpayee.
Nani as India's
Ambassador to the USA, with the Finance Minister H. M. Patel.
A man of these experiences could not but
believe in the existence of God, at least as much as in his own. "I have
deep faith in the existence of a Force that works in the affairs of men
and nations. You may call it chance or accident, destiny or God, Higher
Intelligence or the Immanent Principle. Each will speak in his own
January 16, 1920. Nani Ardeshir Palkhivala
was born in a middle class family where love ruled. Let him speak: "To my
parents, to their love and care and guidance, I owe a debt which could
never be repaid. From them I learnt that all the loveliness in the world
can be reduced to its first syllable. My father inculcated in me a
passion for literature, which has remained an abiding joy throughout my
life.... My mother was a woman of exceptionally strong character who
could meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat the two imposters just the
same...." A parental pair, ever so rare. Two self-effacing souls, in all
matters of family life they placed themselves last. From them Nani and
his siblings learnt lessons which no school, no college, no university
could impart. The children studied in school. They were educated at
From his early years Nani was conscious that
he was born with a mission. Before marrying Nargesh he had told her that
if they were to have children it would be his duty to give them all his
time needed for their upbringing; but that was not feasible since he had a
lot to do for his motherland and for mankind, and to that end he would
devote all his time and all his breath. Nargesh, who on her own could see
that Nani was marked out for much, readily agreed. A loving and caring
wife, she single-mindedly helped him achieve his aim.
Even as a schoolboy Nani never wasted time,
the stuff life is made of. Forgoing food and other necessities of life,
he would save every bit of money to buy secondhand books. Pleasures did
not please him. He found his rest in work. His "relaxations" were
violin, fretwork, palmistry, sketching and painting, and photography. Of
course, he had humor abundant, and enjoyed practical jokes, for which he
spared time even in his later days. But that was the outer self. Back
must the spirit return to the task for which he had come. His ready wit
regaled his hearers -- in private conversations, in courtrooms, in his law
college lectures and public speeches.
Nani fought for his countrymen in Indian
courts, and for his country in international forums, most often without
charging fees. To recall but a few instances, he successfully challenged
the legislative or governmental action in the Bank Nationalization
case when fourteen largest banks in India were nationalized without
provision for adequate compensation, the Privy Purse case in which
the Indian Princes were deprived of their constitutionally guaranteed
Privy Purses by an executive fiat, the Times of India case in which
the newsprint order placed a ten-page ceiling and other arbitrary
restrictions on newspapers, and St. Xavier's College Society case
and other cases in which government interfered with the rights of
minorities to establish and administer educational and religious
institutions of their choice and to choose the language in which education
should be imparted.
The famous Fundamental Rights case
(1972-73) challenged Parliament's power to amend the Constitution so as to
take away the citizen's Fundamental Rights. It went on for five months.
The courtroom and the corridors overflowed with members of the Bar and
outsiders who had come from far away places just to hear him argue. The
Court held that Parliament could not, in exercise of its amending power,
so amend the Constitution as to destroy or alter its basic structure. A
top-ranking journalist congratulated Nani: "You have salvaged something
precious from the wreck of the constitutional structure which politicians
have razed to the ground." How that "something precious" saved India's
democracy, time was to show.
In 1975 came the "Emergency", the darkest
chapter in the history of India. The judiciary was terrorized, the press
strangled, the voice of the common man muffled, and the dissenters jailed
without trial. In such an atmosphere the then government tried to have
the Supreme Court overrule its earlier judgment in the Fundamental
Rights case, to pave the way for a totalitarian rule. But Nani was
there. And not so easily could the nation's onward march be stayed. Not
so readily would the lights of freedom die. His impassioned appeal so
moved all the twelve Judges on the Bench that the Chief Justice, reduced
to a minority of one, had to take a step perhaps never done before or
since: he unceremoniously dissolved the Bench and the matter ended there.
One of the Judges, referring to Nani's address, observed, "Never before in
the history of the Court has there been a performance like that." Justice
H. R. Khanna said, "It was not Nani who spoke. It was Divinity speaking
through him." The other Judges concurred. "Such arguments will not be
heard in this Court for centuries to come"; "a forensic feat that will
perhaps never be equaled"; "advocacy and eloquence of unparalleled merit
in the entire history of the world" -- were the views of some senior
lawyers present in the Court.
He presented India's case in two disputes with
Pakistan -- first before the Special Tribunal in Geneva appointed by the
U.N. to adjudicate upon Pakistan's claim to certain territories in Kutch,
and next before the International Civil Aviation Organization at Montreal
and later in appeal before the World Court at the Hague when Pakistan
claimed the facility of overflying India.
Nani had an unconquerable mind. As a child he
suffered from a dreadful stammer. "It seemed that I had as much chance of
becoming an advocate or a public speaker as a victim of multiple sclerosis
has of becoming an Olympic athlete." The little Demosthenes overcame the
handicap. Modestly, also justly, he attributed it to "Providential
grace". As a schoolboy and as a collegian, he took part in elocution
competitions at state and interstate levels. And went on to become one of
the world's greatest orators.
His annual Budget speech initially drew an
audience of about four hundred which gradually swelled to about one
hundred thousand. Nothing less than Bombay's largest cricket ground, the
Brabourne Stadium, could hold the number. Lord Roll of Ipsden, who
presided over one of the meetings, observed in his presidential address
that nowhere in the world ("I repeat, nowhere in the world") would a
Budget speech attract such an audience. A Hungarian lady from London,
when introduced to Nani after one such speech, said to him, "It was worth
coming all the way from England to hear you speak." Another time, an
Australian expressed the same sentiment, and added, "Never before in my
life have I heard a lecture like this." "When Nani spoke, the venue
itself became the parliament of the people", states a recent article in a
newspaper. The yearly meeting became a national event, and began to be
held in different states in India, and abroad.
His oratorical talents were not confined to
legal and fiscal matters only. He addressed meetings of all sorts, of
medical practitioners and journalists, of corporate managers, maritime
engineers and trade union functionaries, of planters and farmers, the
police and the armed forces. His subjects ranged sweepingly from the
spiritual to the temporal, from yoga, religion and destiny to the stock
exchange and road transport. Prominent among the personalities on whom he
spoke were Sri Aurobindo and Adi Sankara whose philosophies greatly
During his 21-month tenure as India's
Ambassador in the U.S.A. he delivered more than 170 speeches in different
states, which included speeches at over fifty universities, sometimes
giving three or four speeches a day at different places; and he had about
eighty meetings with the media of different states, once giving seven
interviews in a day.
Nani was a journalist before he was an
author. His first article appeared in a newspaper when he was thirteen;
his first book was published when he was thirty. It was The Law and
Practice of Income Tax, greeted as "a monumental work" and "an
incredible performance". Chief Justice Chagla referred to it in open
Court as "THE book". He co-authored Taxation in India, published
by the Harvard University in the World Tax Series. The Highest Taxed
Nation compelled the government to bring down the tax rates from their
vertiginous heights. Our Constitution Defaced and Defiled had the
spirit of liberty -- the Eternal Flame -- as its theme. We, the People
and We, the Nation, which are collected extracts from his speeches
and writings, bear testimony to his life-work and his passionate
commitment to public causes. "My quest for memorable quotes by an Indian
has been fruitful", wrote Kushwant Singh. India's Priceless Heritage
and Essential Unity of All Religions show how deeply he had delved
into the spiritual treasure of India.
Nani's interest in the economic growth of his
country led him into the corporate field. He was the Chairman of The
Associated Cement Companies Ltd., Voltas Ltd., Tata Exports Ltd. (now
Tata International), Tata Consultancy Services, and Tata Infosys (now Tata
Infotech); the Deputy Chairman of Tata Iron and Steel Co. Ltd.; and the
Vice Chairman of Tata Engineering and Locomotive Co. Ltd. and SKF Bearings
India Ltd. He was on the Board of Directors of the Reserve Bank of India,
the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India Ltd., Tata Sons
Ltd., Tata Energy Research Institute, National Organic Chemical Industries
Ltd., Indian Hotels Co. Ltd., Press Trust of India Ltd., and several
He had many activities outside the immediate
sphere of his work. When he was India's Ambassador to the United States
he concurrently held the post of High Commissioner to the Bahamas. He was
a member of the First and Second Law Commissions; a member of the Senate
of the University of Bombay; President of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce
and Industry, and the Forum of Free Enterprise; Founder of the Jayaprakash
Institute of Human Freedoms; Vice Chairman of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
worldwide; and Chairman of the Maharashtra Economic Development Council,
the Federation of Blood Banks' Association, the Leslie Sawhny Programme of
Training for Democracy, the A. D. Shroff Memorial Trust, the Lotus Trust,
the Income-tax Appellate Tribunal Bar Association, the Auroville Committee
of the Maharashtra State, the Sarva Dharma Maitri Prathistan founded by
the Bhavan, and the Veda Rakshana Nidhi Trust founded by Paramacharya
Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi of Kanchi -- to cite some of
the areas in which he gave his best to the nation.
Encomiums greeted him both in and outside the
legal field. Many ranked him among the greatest lawyers of all time.
Justice Khanna said in a public lecture, "If a count were to be made of
the ten topmost lawyers of the world, I have no doubt that Nani's name
would find a prominent mention therein." Earlier, Chief Justice Chagla
had stated in his autobiography, "Today, he is undoubtedly the most
brilliant advocate we have in India." The public hailed him as "the
Keeper of the Nation's Conscience" and "the Tribune of the People of
India". Prime Minister Morarji Desai described him as "the country's
finest intellectual". C. Rajagopalachari called him "God's gift to
India". One of his clients, who walked with kings, said, "Nani's
brilliance is unbelievable. And I know only one man who surpasses him
-Winston Churchill." That was around 1950. Nani was four years at the
Bar. Churchill had won the war.
A number of honors came his way. To mention a
handful: Padma Vibhushan; the Honorary Membership of the Academy of
Political Science, New York; the First National Amity Award; the Dadabhai
Naoroji Memorial Award; the Living Legend of the Law Award by the
International Bar Association; a Certificate of Honour and Award by the
Bar Association of India; the first Indo-American Society Award; and
"Citizen of Bombay", "Person of the Year", "Man of the Year" and "Lifetime
Achievement" Awards by various public institutions. The honorary degree
of Doctor of Laws was conferred on him by:
Nani with the family
members at his nephew Aadil's marriage.
Nani with the family
members at his nephew Jehangir's Navjote.
Princeton University, New Jersey ("Defender of
constitutional liberties, champion of human rights.... Lawyer, teacher,
author, and economic developer, he brings to us as Ambassador of India
intelligent good humour, experience, and vision for international
Lawrence University, Wisconsin ("India's
leading author, scholar, teacher and practitioner of constitutional
law.... Never more did you live your principles than during the recent
nineteen-month ordeal which India went through in what was called 'The
Emergency'.... Under the shadow of near tyranny, at great risk and some
cost, you raised the torch of freedom.");
Mumbai University, Maharashtra ("You have ....
through myriad essays, articles and speeches .... succeeded in educating
the people and making them realize and appreciate their unique legacy ....
All through your remarkable achievements and works runs the silver thread
of patriotic, dedicated service to the people, their betterment, their
spiritual and economic growth and advancement. You have lived and worked
by the creed that the highest life is the life of service to one's fellow
Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu ("....the
rare combination of a legal practitioner, an academic, a critical thinker,
an upholder of human rights, a crusader against authoritarianism, and an
expounder of India's cultural heritage.")
"His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man!' "
The man was greater than any of his
achievements. Uncompromising integrity and strict discipline were the
hallmarks of his character, even the most vocal opponents to his ideology
had to concede. He loved his family, his friends, his country, and
humanity, as few would do. His was an influence which you would not avoid
if you could and you could not avoid if you would. From the days he made
fifteen rupees a month as a journalist to the days he made charity by
millions his hat size remained the same. His innate humility, unfailing
courtesy and disarming simplicity endeared him to all. The instances are
On Nani's first intended visit to the States,
an American attorney who had met the young Nani in Bombay, gave him a
letter of introduction to a Judge of the U.S. Supreme Court, in which it
was stated, "He is a taxation lawyer. But do not bother. He can speak on
any subject." The attorney was wrong. There was one subject on which
Nani could not speak - himself. His admirers entreated him in vain for
Most of those who came in contact with him,
even once, have happy tales to tell. A recent one was in a letter to the
press a few weeks ago. The writer as a young law student "with great
trepidation" walked into Nani's office to get his signature on one of his
books "expecting to be booted out for such a frivolous request".
Surprisingly for him, the secretary just called on the intercom, and
"within a minute I was in front of Mr. Palkhivala! He asked me a few
personal questions as he was signing it. As I stepped out of Bombay House
I could not believe it and neither did my other fellow students of the
Government Law College."
"My father taught me compassion and kindness
for the less privileged", he had said while recalling the 'almonds'
incident sixty years later. "That incident has made a deep impression on
me ever since... I have always treasured that lesson. It has proved far
more important than any legacy of land or wealth he may have left me."
His deep concern for the poor did not permit him to use his wealth and
earnings on himself and his family alone. He felt that out of what he
earned he was entitled to keep only what was reasonably needed for his
requirements, and the rest he had to hold as a trustee for "the man with
too weighty a burden, too weary a load". So he created various charitable
trusts, gave donations to charitable institutions, and financially helped
those who approached him directly. No one who came to him with empty
hands went back empty-handed. The recipients ranged from his poor
relatives to the needy in remote places in India and abroad. Amongst his
last donations was one of Rs. 2,50,00,000 to Sankara Nethralaya, a
hospital in Chennai.
"I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight
The best and the last!"
Nani's last fight, also his best, which began
in 1996, was with himself. His seventy-six-year-old frame, which had
already felt the surgeon's knife six times in the past was now battered by
paralytic strokes, three major and many minor, year after year. But he
worked on. In the hospital, at home, in his office, and outside.
For the first four years he fought, in vain,
with his gradually weakening body, trying to bring it back to health. In
the latter two, after losing Nargesh in 2000, he fought with his
rebellious spirit, forcing it to accept the ordained. Loss of speech,
inability to swallow food, loss of the use of his fingers and legs, a big
tumour near the neck which made it difficult for him to look straight,
urinary infection, prostate pain, failing heart -- he bore them all,
without complaint, without demur, as if he had made friends with his fate.
Palkhivala's memorial stamp
In 1987 he had written, "I believe that the
journey will be over at the predestined hour, irrespective of the medical
care which money can buy." The journey was over on 11th December 2002.
The predestined hour was 5.15 p.m.
The last word must lie with Justice Kuldip
Singh of the Supreme Court of India who presented Nani a citation on
behalf of the various Rotary Clubs of Bombay in 1997: "One feels that he
is not a man of this world but someone from outside. I have many times
tried to explain him as a man. But it is very difficult. One can only
feel his essence and enjoy, as one enjoys the fragrance of a flower or the
smile of a child. He is like cool breeze on a warm sunny day. That is
Nani, the gentleman."
The help of Mr. Aadil Pakhlivala of Washington State, the nephew of the late
Mr. Nani Pakhlivala in facilitating the compilation of this biographical
information of his uncle is acknowledged.