Updated February 21st, 2024 at 19:47 IST

7 Decades, 11 Landmark Cases: Remembering Fali Nariman - Bombay Boy Who Championed Civil Liberties

Nariman, whose career as an advocate spanned over 7 decades, left an imprint on a vast array of the legal profession by being part of several landmark cases.

Reported by: Abhishek Tiwari
Fali Nariman was part of several landmark legal proceedings during his career as an advocate spanning over 7 decades | Image:File Photo

New Delhi: Eminent jurist and distinguished Advocate Fali S Nariman, who was often referred to as the ‘Bhishma Pitamah’ of the Indian judiciary, on Wednesday passed away in the wee hours at the age of 95. Nariman, who was also referred to as a doyen of the Indian judiciary, was reportedly suffering from various ailments including heart disease. Fali S Nariman, whose career as an advocate spanned over 7 decades, left an imprint on a vast array of the legal profession by being part of several landmark cases which helped in shaping up the Indian judiciary.

During his half a century stint as a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India, Nariman firmly marked his contribution in several historic and path-breaking judgements and the list consists of cases like the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy case, disproportionate assets case against J Jayalalithaa, the Cauvery water dispute case and the COVID-19 case.


Nariman is known for the fact that he fought for the collegium system

The country still remembers the Kesavanand Bharati case in which the Supreme Court in order to protect the rights of citizens and prevent Indian democracy from going to grift, had laid down the basic structure doctrine.


Surprisingly, the Supreme Court came into existence in 1950, the same year, when Nariman had joined the Bombay Bar Association as a lawyer.

People close to Fali S Nariman say that he was the man who witnessed the making and unmaking of the constitution and was acutely conscious of an attack on secular values. He was a liberal in the constitutional sense of the word, defending the fundamental rights of citizens against an overbearing state.


It was his commitment to democracy which led him to resign as the Solicitor General of India in the year 1975, when the emergency was declared in the country during the Congress rule.

The legal profession owes him primarily for the fact that he fought for and sought the collegium system of appointing judges.


11 Landmark Cases That Fali S Nariman Was Part Of

1. The Golak Nath case

In the historic judgement, the Supreme Court held that the Parliament cannot make a law which is capable of infringing the fundamental rights of citizens. It came up after two brothers in Punjab challenged the Constitution (17) Amendment Act, 1964, which came into effect by amending Article 31A of the constitution. This article deals with the acquisition of estates.

Nariman, not only supported the petitioners but also appeared to argue on the issue representing the intervenors in the case. They argued that Parliament’s power to amend the constitution under Article 368 did not include articles contained in Part III of the Constitution dealing with fundamental rights.


Following the hearing of the case submitted in 1967, an eleven-judge bench agreed with the petitioner’s submissions pointing out that Article 13(2) states that Parliament cannot make a law which infringe fundamental rights.

2. The Kesavananda Bharati case

The Kesavananda Bharati case is known for setting a benchmark in the Indian judiciary, and had Nariman’s prompt representation in the SC. He assisted noted Advocate Nanabhoy Palkhivala in the famous case that led to the path-breaking judgement laying down the basic structure doctrine of the Constitution, clipping Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution.

The 1973 verdict simultaneously gave the judiciary the authority to review any constitutional amendment on grounds of violation of the basic structure of the Constitution.

3. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy case

In 1984, the Bhopal gas tragedy where 42 tons of toxic chemicals leaked from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide India Limited, resulting in thousands of deaths and environmental damage in the following years. The Supreme Court began hearing the case for compensation to the victims in 1988.

Senior Advocate Nariman appeared, representing Union Carbide, and offered to pay a sum of 426 million dollars as compensation to the victims of the tragedy. In 1989, Union Carbide reached a settlement with the central government and agreed to pay 470 million dollars as compensation.


4. The Cauvery Water Dispute case

Nariman represented Karnataka for over 30 years in the water-sharing dispute with Tamil Nadu. In 2016, the Supreme Court ordered the Karnataka government to release 6,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from September 21 to September 27.


The Karnataka legislative assembly, however, passed a resolution stating that they did not have water to spare and chose to defy the courts orders. Due to this non-compliance, Nariman refused to argue the case on behalf of the Karnataka government any further.

On February 16, 2018, the court in its final judgment took note of Nariman’s stance on the issue and necessarily mentioned that Nariman had courageously lived upto the highest tradition of the Bar. The court then proceeded to reduce Karnataka’s annual water releases to 177.25 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) from 192 TMC.


5. Disproportionate assets case against former-Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa

AIADMK leader and former- Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha had been accused of misappropriating funds during her tenure between 1991 and 1995. A Sessions Court in Bangalore in September 2014 found that she had acquired property disproportionate to her known income and imposed a Rs 100 crore fine on her. This sentence was upheld by the Karnataka High Court a month later leading to appeal at the Supreme Court.


Nariman appeared on behalf of Jayalalitha in October 2014 and convinced the court to grant bail against executing the fine and suspend the sentence passed by the Sessions judge in Bangalore.

6. The 1981 Second Judges case

The Supreme Court held that the primacy of the Chief Justice of India’s recommendation in judicial appointment and transfer can be turned down on cogent grounds by the government.

However, the judicial discussions finally led to creation of the collegium system of appointment of judges to constitutional courts in 1993, when the top court came out with its judgement in the second judges case.


Nariman had stated that the advice given through consultation with the CJI must be seen as binding in order to protect the independence of the judiciary, as judges would be in a better position to determine the suitability and competence of candidates. In 1993, the nine-judge bench agreed with Nariman’s arguments and established the Supreme Court Collegium.

7. The TMA Pai Foundation case

The top court recognised the autonomy of private educational institutions under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, and allowed them to operate without excessive governmental interference. Nariman was one of the leading lawyers in the case.

8. The NJAC case of 2014

A constitution bench in 2015 struck down the National Judicial Appointment Commission which was tasked with the responsibility of making judicial appointments.

The top court considered the submissions of Nariman, appearing for the Supreme Court Advocates on Record Association, and quashed the NJAC on grounds that it violated the freedom of judiciary, a basic structure of the Constitution.


9. The Narmada Rehabilitation case

Nariman represented the Gujarat government in the case, but quit following news reports of attacks on Christians and burning of copies of the Bible.


10. The Nabam Rebia judgement of 2016

The SC ruled the governor of a state can act only on the aid and advice of the council of ministers and the chief minister. Nariman appeared for House whip Bamang Felix. He submitted that the governor did not have the power to advance the assembly session as this could only be done on the aid and advice of the council of ministers.


11. The COVID-19 case

Nariman represented the Parsi community in its dispute over the protocol and standard operating procedure for handling of dead bodies of Parsi Zoroastrian COVID-19 victims under which metallic nets were to be installed above ‘Tower of Silence’ so that birds did not feed on the corpses and carry the killer virus elsewhere.


Published February 21st, 2024 at 19:47 IST