In memoriam

Ashok Desai 1932-2020

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IT was Madhu Dandavate, Minister of Finance in the Janata government, who, in December 1989, brought Ashok Desai from Bombay to Delhi. Ashokbhai came to the capital as the Solicitor General of India, in what was part of Soli Sorabjee’s (the then Attorney General) team in the V.P. Singh government. Once here, he never went back.

Ashokbhai’s shift to Delhi left behind a void in the Bombay Bar, which was never quite filled. To fully understand his place in the pantheon, a little digression is required. The Bombay Bar (to the unfamiliar) was the premier Bar of India from the 1950s all the way till the mid-80s. It gave to independent India its first Attorney General, Motilal Setalvad, and its first Chief Justice, Justice Harilal Kania. In the fifties, its unquestioned leader was Sir Jamshedji Kanga, who in turn made way for his two Chamber Juniors – Nani Palkhivala and H.M. Seervai.

Active private practice, however, soon eluded both of them, as Seervai went on to become Advocate General of Maharashtra, and thereafter, spent many years as A.G., away from his practice, writing his magnum opus, Constitutional Law of India. Nani too, soon left active practice and settled down in the comfort of the fourth floor (management) of Bombay House. He would occasionally leave the Tata boardrooms to argue important constitutional cases: R.C. Cooper (the bank nationalization challenge), Madhav Rao Scindia (the privy purses case) and, of course, Kesavananda Bharti (the fundamental rights case). He also would step out once a year to address a large crowd, in one of Bombay’s maidans, to speak on the Union Budget.

So, with the partial exit of these stalwarts, the baton was handed over to two other chamber mates from Kanga’s stable – Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabjee. Theirs was a fierce rivalry that lasted through a large part of their lives, and propelled both to the pinnacle of not only the Bombay Bar, but also the Supreme Court Bar. However, Fali left Bombay for Delhi in 1972, and Soli in 1977. The void post Soli’s exit, left the Bombay Bar without any one undisputed leader. Anil Divan in the Writ Court, along with young Atul Setalvad, a brilliant K.S. Cooper, a successful Ashok Desai, and a very young Iqbal Chagla, all made their mark, but none quite dominated the scene.

All this prevailed till the middle of April 1982. The date is clearly etched in my memory because my friend Navroz Seervai could not come to Delhi on the 17th of April 1982, to attend my wedding with Manik. He was instructing Ashok Desai in the Antulay case. Ashokbhai, despite a large commercial practice, had been no stranger to fighting for public causes. He had fought the case against the banning of Vijay Tendulkar’s play Sakharam Binder; appeared for Piloo Mody in the Backbay Reclamation case; and during the Emergency had appeared for the Bombay Law Reporter. But, the Antulay case was to define Ashokbhai more than any other. Justice Lentin’s judgement not only unseated a Chief Minister, it also coronated Ashokbhai as the undisputed leader of the Bombay Bar.

Those in the know inform me that after the Antulay case, Ashokbhai, with his shrewd eye for the big chance, increased his fee fourfold and, despite that, doubled his practice. He would charge 100 GMs (gold mohors) before the Antulay case; post that, he increased his fee to 400 GMs and never looked back. From 1982 till 1989, he remained the unquestioned king of the Bombay Bar. His affable nature and acute advocacy made him the darling of both the Bar and the Bench. Legend has it that when he shifted to Delhi, it took five Senior Counsel to come forward and absorb his practice.

On a personal note, though I had worked with Ashokbhai in the Swadeshi Polytex matter quite closely, in the year 1983 in the Supreme Court (the matter had gone on for months), it was not till the early ’90s, when he began private practice in the Supreme Court, that he and I became really good friends. It was from ’91 onwards that Ashokbhai and I began a regular, and later, a constant interaction, both on professional and personal fronts. The two cases that I personally remember interacting with him on extensively, were the Simbhaoli Sugar Mills case in the Delhi High Court and the Sharad Pawar election case in the Supreme Court.

Ashokbhai’s style of advocacy was quite unique. He was pleasantly pushy and quietly persistent. If the judge did not bite on a particular point, he adroitly sidestepped to another one, in order to pierce the judge’s defences. He rarely got flustered, no matter how hostile the judge was to the arguments advanced and would always keep the atmosphere in court pleasant. As he once said to me, ‘Raian, I never like to be told that a judge is against me, because I don’t want it to subconsciously make me more defensive or aggressive when I address him.’ Like all great advocates, he was able to ensure, many more times than not, that his client came out of court better off than when he went in.

Getting to know him at the personal level, as well as I did, I realized that Ashokbhai was a man of many parts and varied interests. His love for music encompassed both western and Indian classical. He was fond of literature. He married Suvarna, who, along with her sister, was one of the most famous Manipuri dancers of her time. Socialist in his political ideology and tending towards Buddhism in matters of religion, Ashokbhai was also a practitioner of Vipassana meditation. His simplicity and austerity encompassed a modern mind. Popular with all, he was admired, respected and loved by those who worked with him, especially his juniors. He was a very kind and caring friend, offering help when needed in the most unobtrusive and gentle kind of way. His friendship was rock solid.

Ashokbhai was a man of quiet principle, setting for himself very high standards of probity. I was particularly pleased that when the United Front government came to the fore in 1996, Vinod Pande, former Cabinet Secretary, and I, in some small measure, were able to persuade V.P. to speak to the then PM, Deve Gowda, to make Ashokbhai the Attorney General. Both Vinod and I felt it would be a fitting culmination to a glorious career. The Prime Minister agreed on one precondition, that he would first offer it to Fali Nariman, and only if Fali declined, would he appoint Ashokbhai. Factually, the then PM offered Fali both the position of Attorney General and also the post of Law Minister. It was only when Fali declined that Ashokbhai became Attorney General.

On the point I raised earlier, of Ashokbhai holding himself quietly to the highest standards, I remember years later Arun Jaitley, as Law Minister in Atalji’s government, telling me that he had personally examined the records and found Ashokbhai was the only AG who had never once asked for special exemption as AG to appear for a private party.

Before I end this tribute, I want to allude particularly to one aspect of Ashokbhai’s personality, and that was his ability to get along and be at ease with any kind of person, rich or poor, important or inconsequential. I mentioned this to him once and the explanation he gave me was fascinating. He pointed out to me that despite being the son of Haribhai Desai, one of Bombay’s leading criminal lawyers, he had studied till class 6 or 7 in a municipal school, which was called Bai Kabibai. ‘You see Raian,’ he said to me, ‘I am, therefore, equally at home with a managing director of a large company as I am with the tonga boy’s son.’ With his passing away, the Bar has lost one of its true stalwarts, and both Manik and I have lost a true and good friend.

Here, I owe the reader an explanation, and the family an apology. This remembrance is a couple of months late. I had agreed to write for another paper a few months ago, but kept procrastinating. I am glad that Mala cajoled and bullied me to put pen to paper. More so because Seminar is a magazine that was close to Ashokbhai’s heart, and he would have been glad to find himself being celebrated and remembered for posterity in its pages.

Raian Karanjawala

Founder and Managing Partner, Karanjawala and Co, Delhi


Vijaya Ramaswamy 1953-2020

THE academic world in Delhi was an exciting and challenging one in the 1970s. Amongst those who lived and breathed that excitement, and carried it with her to the very end, was Vijaya Ramaswamy.

Born in Delhi in 1953, Vijaya graduated in History from the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, before joining the very first batch of MA students enrolled at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This was a time when new courses were being introduced, marking a shift away from programmes dominated by political/dynastic histories to ones which were oriented towards asking fresh questions, primarily from the point of view of economic history, but also opening up possibilities of fresh investigations in social and cultural history. Vijaya absorbed everything that was on offer, and more, with a zeal and enthusiasm that enabled her to make the most of interdisciplinary approaches and adopt and adapt these in her future work.

Vijaya went on to do her PhD, subsequently published as Textiles and Weavers in Medieval South India (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1985; second revised edition, 2006). This work was remarkable for a variety of reasons. It cut across the conventional chronological divides, tracing developments over a long period, from the early historic to the colonial context. Also, the engagement with crafts and craftspersons would become a lifelong interest, bringing ordinary people and their lives centre stage. These investigations were based on the use of a wide variety of sources – textual, inscriptional and ethnographic. Vijaya’s ability to empathize with crafts workers allowed her to reach out to them. These bonds proved to be enriching and enduring. They found expression in The Song of the Loom (Primus,New Delhi, 2013), and In Search of Vishwakarma: Mapping Indian Craft Histories (Primus, New Delhi, 2019).

Almost simultaneously, in the 1980s, Vijaya developed a deep and abiding interest in feminism and women’s studies, inflected by her own quests. These led her in a variety of directions, and, typically, she pursued them with enthusiasm, returning to them time and again, in the decades that followed. One of the most sustained of these, and perhaps closest to her heart, was the attempt to recover and share the experiences of women in search of enlightenment, spiritual, mystical pursuits that often eluded cut and dried categories of analysis. The insights she obtained culminated in Walking Naked: Women, Society and Spirituality in South India (Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1997). This, like Textiles and Weavers, worked with a long chronology, beginning with Sangam texts, engaging with Buddhist and Jaina traditions in South India, as well as the many strands of Bhakti, both Vaishnava and Shaiva, including the Virashaiva movement. The last was something that she found compelling, devoting a separate monograph to it, Divinity and Deviance (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996). Several years later, when she joined the faculty of the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, she returned to the broad contours of these investigations, and introduced a course on devotion and dissent, which familiarized students with a range of traditions that were not part of mainstream histories.

Vijaya also succeeded in combining her diverse interests. This is perhaps best exemplified in the anthology that she edited, Women and Work in Precolonial India (Sage, New Delhi, 2016), documenting the evidence for the participation of women in a range of economic activities in different regions of the subcontinent through the centuries. The anthology showcased the work of both young and established scholars, drawing attention to an area that was relatively neglected. Another edited anthology, Migrations in Medieval and Early Colonial India (Routledge, Oxon, 2016), also opened up fresh areas of investigation.

In both her work on weavers, as well as on devotional traditions, Vijaya drew on the resources of Tamil. Her deep and abiding engagement with the language enabled her to produce the Historical Dictionary of the Tamils (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 2007/2017), at once lucid and wide-ranging.

A prolific scholar, Vijaya contributed papers and made presentations at seminars and conferences throughout the country and across the globe. She was the recipient of several awards and fellowships. These included the Fulbright Fellowship, the Commonwealth Fellowship, fellowships at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, where she was Tagore Fellow till the end, and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Fellowship. She used each of these opportunities fruitfully, and productively, as occasions to explore, work on cross-cultural comparisons, and expand her academic horizons in a variety of directions. The Indian History Congress recognized her as the best woman historian in 2001.

As, if not more remarkable, was the fact that Vijaya combined this prolific academic output with a deep commitment to teaching. She began teaching undergraduate classes in Gargi College, Delhi University, where she taught for several years. She adapted to the bilingual teaching modes that were often in demand, switching from English to Hindi and back as and when required. Vijaya also learnt Sanskrit diligently, and could use Malayalam and other languages as and when required.

Vijaya taught postgraduate classes in Delhi University, before returning to the Centre for Historical Studies as a faculty member, where she served till her retirement in 2018. In all these institutions, she endeared herself to her students by her almost contagious excitement about what she was teaching and what they were doing. Her affection, warmth and concern for students was palpable, and was more often than not reciprocated. She also shouldered administrative responsibilities, often onerous, in these institutions.

Vijaya’s relationships with her colleagues were more complex. She could be determined, if not stubborn, transparent, where people may have preferred tact; but what shone through, at the end of the day, was her compassion. She extended herself, effortlessly, to people in distress. She also had an immense ability to laugh at herself and others.

Vijaya’s sudden and untimely passing has left us all impoverished. We will miss her laughter, warmth, zeal, passion, and her commitment to research, publication and dissemination. But her legacy will remain, sustained by enthusiastic young students and researchers whom she nurtured with affection and encouragement.

Kumkum Roy

Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi


Ajay Singh 1950-2020

BAPTISM by fire is an irresistible temptation on the brink of a second life. On a wintry morning in 1989, a few minutes before 11, Ajay Singh and I, very conscious of new beginnings, entered Parliament as newly elected members of the ninth Lok Sabha. We drove up in the same vehicle and stepped through those dream-gates together, quite determined to make a point that might seem minor in the larger scheme of things, but which mattered to the two of us. We were headed for opposite sides of the House: he towards the fragile Treasury benches, and I towards a badly mauled opposition. Our assertion was uncomplicated. A political divide, in the parlance of common sense, did not mean a fractured friendship.

We knew that yet another season of fireworks was upon us, for the intense friction of power had already lit flames, fanned by electoral rhetoric, which threatened to go out of control. What neither of us expected was the astonishing conflagration that consumed the House and ravaged India’s political environment.

The difference between amused and bemused seems clear enough in a dictionary. In Ajay’s continual rather than continuous engagement with public life over the following three decades, an overlap prevailed. He seemed more amused than angry at the mercurial behaviour of leaders without a cause, who banded and re-branded at the whiff of self-interest. He was bemused at the consequent havoc upon his personal trajectory across the political horizon, which got trapped due to circumstances beyond his control. It was a slow seepage of opportunity that could have made far better use of his deep commitment and considerable talent. He was too soft-spoken to be rancorous, too gentle to be angry. His regret would, at worst, turn into melancholy during an evening’s attempt to ameliorate the injustices of the day.

But he had the grit to rise above the mishaps of an erratic destiny. He created a constituency much larger than the sometimes claustrophobic limits of a Parliament seat, a socio-economic expanse which he nursed with a soft touch and hard resolve. His singular asset was a caring smile which spoke eloquently to the thousands of mainly villagers who came to seek his help through the association he chaired.

Two national leaders truly understood his values and value: George Fernandes and Kunwar Natwar Singh. The latter gave Ajay the three best years of his career, when he became India’s High Commissioner in Fiji. His father Bhagwan Singh had once served there as well, but there was a better reason. Fiji was also his sasural, where he met and married his beautiful and vivacious wife, Shiromani. Ajay’s greatest shock was the catastrophic loss of Shiru three years ago. That scar never could heal.

Ajay, a brilliant swimmer, once mentioned to me how he and Shiru would swim far out into the ocean around Fiji to measure their youthful prowess. Hindsight, always convenient during consideration, now seems to suggest that behind the gentle demeanor of Ajay hid a man constantly in search of some shore on the opposite side of convention. He was never a radical or an extremist, and had abandoned the siren symphonies of maverick ideology even during the persistent call of a Delhi college campus. But he was an activist with a conscience. He did not believe he could change the world but he did want to melt the iron cuffs of casteism and communalism that had fettered so many Indians.

All lives end. That is an unsentimental truth. But for friends every funeral is a journey into the past on the rollercoaster of might-have-beens; every tinge of sorrow is leavened by the memory of evenings resplendent with sensible and senseless laughter. We first got to know each other in that informal club which met in the heady ebullience of March 1977, when the Indian voter humbled an empress who had imprisoned democracy. For us, despite the turbulent aftermath, the 1980s were prime time.

Now, as dusk deadens the evening with obituaries, there is but one prayer. Friends should not leave without saying goodbye.

It strikes me, as memory skips through innumerable conversations, with the difficult balance sheet of religion in politics a regular point of debate, that I never asked Ajay if he believed in God.

No matter. Ajay Singh believed in himself. It is a sound maxim for this life. We can leave the next life to God.

M.J. Akbar

Author and BJP MP, Rajya Sabha