The absence of a rigorous empirical sociology of Indian law has meant that the academic, student and practitioner of Indian law must look to two other sources of information about the nature of Indian law practice: journalistic accounts and biographies. This book is a significant and important contribution to biographies of eminent Indian legal practitioners. Shanti Bhushan’s account of his legal and political career offers us a historically nuanced and legally rich account of the making of one of India’s foremost advocates who came to this position from a very different background and provenance from most others who have enjoyed such success.
Courting Destiny follows a chronological narrative style where various professional and personal vignettes are woven together in simple and unembellished prose.
Anyone familiar with Indian constitutional history would be keen to assess the role of Shanti Bhushan in the Indira Gandhi election disqualification case. He discusses this matter in a careful manner and one is struck by the fairness and candour of his account and the lack of adversarial or political bitterness. In spite of his best efforts he could not persuade the petitioner, the idiosyncratic Raj Narrain, to drop the ground that the ballot papers were chemically treated. Despite including this legally unsustainable ground of challenge, he succeeded in the case by persuading the judge to construe Gandhi as a candidate on the date on which she announced her candidature rather than the date on which she filed her nomination. By advancing the relevant date on which a person may be considered to be a candidate by a couple of months he was able to convince the Allahabad High Court that the Prime Minister had used state machinery in support of her election campaign. This case subsequently went up to the Supreme Court and had a significant impact on the development of Indian constitutional law and politics. His role in ensuring that the rule of law applied to the highest political office in the country is a significant contribution to the development of our constitutional democracy. His detailed narration of the legal circumstances surrounding this case reveals a sophisticated legal mind and a keen eye on practical means by which he could ensure success in the court — both traditional attributes of an accomplished litigator.
The title of this biography is explained early in the preface to the book where the author suggests that: “One’s destiny is ordained by the Almighty, but in order to attain it, one has to painstakingly court it.” At several points in the book the author returns to this motif to emphasise the role of elements of chance and luck in the evolution of his legal career. Two such instances deserve special mention.
He decided to take up a legal career only because he was disenchanted with his experience assisting his brother complete an engineering assignment at the Thomson College of Civil Engineering, Roorkee. Making detailed drawings with specifications for a water supply project in Kasganj convinced young Shanti Bhushan that engineering was far too tedious and difficult a profession for him. Instead he turned to his father’s profession and resolved to become a lawyer.
Another instance where ‘fate’ intervened to determine his career was with regard to being appointed a judge of the High Court. In 1963 during the expansion of the High Court Bench in Allahabad to accommodate 12 more judges in three batches of four judges each Shanti Bhushan’s name was included in the third batch of judges to be appointed. This list was approved by the Chief Justice of India B.P. Sinha, but when it was time for the appointment of the third batch Justice Gajendragadkar had taken charge as Chief Justice and he introduced a new rule that judges should be appointed only after they turned 45 years old, and in exceptional cases this could be reduced to 40. As he was seven months short of 39 at that point, it was suggested to him that he wait till he reached his 40th year. In the light of the second postponement of his appointment, he withdrew his consent to the appointment and resolved not to take up a judgeship thereafter. Legal biography offers lawyers and laypersons a keen insight into the cloistered and intricate social world inhabited by the legal profession in India. Moreover, as several lawyers have played an important role in public life beyond the courts these biographies enhance our understanding of contemporary India. Hopefully, this should encourage others to seriously consider the life and contribution of some of the architects of the modern Indian legal system.
This article was originally published in The Hindu on March 17th, 2009