Soli Sorabjee, Padma Vibhushan, and legal luminary, who served India and the cause of human rights in a way, perhaps, no one else has done, was one of the most illustrious alumni of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. We mourn his loss at the age of 91 to Covid-19, knowing that the pandemic has claimed one of its most well-known victims among the lakhs in India.
Mr. Sorabjee studied at St. Xavier’s College Mumbai in the late 1940s and later enrolled at the bar in 1953. He specialized in Constitutional law and was internationally acclaimed. In 1997 he was appointed by the UN as a Special Rapporteur for Nigeria to report on the condition of human rights in that country. He was then appointed as Chairman of the UN sub-committee on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights from 1998-2004. He served his country, first as the Solicitor General of India from 1977-80 and then as Attorney General for India from 1989-90 (under the first non-Congress Government) and again from 1998-2004 (under the first NDA Government). He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2002 for “his defence of the freedom of expression and the protection of human rights.” On the 3 January 2010, St. Xavier’s College was privileged to have him on campus, to receive a felicitation as an illustrious alumnus, which he received most gracefully with a small speech of gratitude to the College for its contribution to his early formation.
Soli had a soft corner for St. Xavier’s. His memories of his time in College were not just pleasant but ones that brought up feelings of gratitude to his professors and the Jesuit management. He was always available to help St. Xavier’s in any legal matter. I remember that as Principal I once rang him up in Delhi and told him that we had an adverse order from the Bombay High Court on Minority Rights. His reply was, “What nonsense! Send the brief over to me”. He proceeded to file an SLP in the Supreme Court and the College promptly got relief, so much so that the Bombay High Court reversed its order. Earlier Soli had appeared in the Supreme Court, along with his mentor Nani Palkhivala (also an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College Mumbai) before a 9-Judge Bench in the landmark St. Xavier’s College Ahmedabad case on Minority Rights, which, “made a substantial contribution to our constitutional jurisprudence” in Soli Sorabjee’s own words.
Mr. Sorabjee, while in Delhi, was still very interested in local affairs in Mumbai. On a visit to him in Delhi, he told me that he missed reading a local magazine, “The Examiner”. I asked whether he would still like to receive it and he said, “Of course.” So for several years, “The Examiner” was sent to his address in Delhi and he gratefully acknowledged receipt.
The legal luminary often transformed into the lover of culture and for Soli, Jazz was his great love. He was President of the Jazz Yatra and helped to organize Jazz concerts in Delhi.
A man of sharp intellect and solid integrity, Soli Sorabjee will be considered one of the great men St. Xavier’s has produced and India will remember him for his contribution to keeping the rule of law in the best democratic traditions of respecting the human rights of all, especially the weakest. It is ironic that we need Soli more than ever in our present situation in India. May he inspire a commitment to human rights in each of us!
Written by Dr. Frazer Mascarenhas S.J.
Former Principal, St. Xavier’s College Mumbai