Adieu to Dr.Rajeev Dhavan, The Advocate

Dr. Rajeev Dhavan appears to have taken an impulsive decision to quit the profession of advocacy. Those who watched him argue before the  Supreme Court all these years will miss him for his erudition, and clarity of thought, which, more often than not, helped the Judges to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In his letter to the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, Dhavan had deplored the fact that he was quitting following the ‘humiliation’ he suffered on December 6, when the Constitution bench heard his arguments and reserved its verdict.  “After the humiliating end to the Delhi (vs Centre) case, I have decided to give up court practice”, he has written in his letter to the CJI.

Later, he was reported to have said: “I was humiliated. The whole court was laughing at me. This is my final decision.”

Dhavan has added that the CJI is entitled to take back the Senior Gown conferred on him, though he would like to keep it for memory and services rendered.

Those who were present at Court No.1, when Dhavan persuaded the reluctant bench to hear him out could understand his anguish at the turn of events. He told the court that he had just gone out, hoping to return, before the court rose, and the when the court decided to rise at 3.30 p.m., instead of the usual time at 4 p.m., he thought he could use the remaining time, to complete his oral submissions. When the bench was reluctant to agree to his request, he expressed his disappointment. Not everything he wanted to say could be expressed in written submission, he suggested to the CJI, who told he was free to submit his propositions in writing, after the hearing was over. The CJI was concerned that Dhavan should not be repeating the points which the lead counsel, Gopal Subramanium had made during his rejoinder submissions.

Dhavan clarified that he hardly met Subramanium during the hearing separately, or talked to him after the hearing began; therefore, he suggested there was no question of his repeating what he said. His comments on the Constitution bench’s reluctance to hear him appeared to have infuriated the CJI.

Remarkably, however, Dhavan, despite that unpleasant exchange with the CJI, kept his cool, and completed his propositions at 4 p.m. as promised. Whether Dhavan misunderstood or correctly interpreted the proceedings may be debatable.  After all, he was entitled to his view of how the bench and the other counsel understood the issue before them. Other counsel disagreed with him mildly and politely. In retrospect, Dhavan might have been incorrect in assuming that the entire court laughed at him that day.  There were many who sympathized with him that the bench could have been more accommodative of him, because of his standing and the contribution. And the propositions that he advanced on Article 239 of the Constitution, regarding the powers of the Delhi council of ministers vis-à-vis the Delhi Lieutenant Governor, indeed appeared unique to someone who had not followed the previous day’s deliberations.

It is difficult to fathom why successive Chief Justices of India or other Judges of the Supreme Court, especially in recent times, had one issue or the other with Dhavan. Whether it was the Sahara matter, or the Ayodhya matter, or even the NEET matter, Dhavan’s position mostly seemed different and unconvincing to the Court. But it never had any impact on his respect for the institution of the Supreme Court, which he held in high esteem. His article in the newspaper saying that the tenure of the former CJI, Justice J. S. Khehar, was the worst in recent history, created ripples in the bar, many of whom disapproved of his blunt criticism of the CJI, who had just retired.  On the contrary, it is his courage of conviction, and his willingness to call spade a spade, which endeared him to many.

Dhavan’s decision to quit the legal profession will, however, be a blessing in disguise to the world of academics and the public discourse. He was always willing to engage a young reporter or a lawyer on the intricacies of law, despite his busy schedule. He was a regular contributor to The Hindu for a very long time.  He said he had to stop writing for The Hindu, because his take on China was different from that of the newspaper’s editor. His columns in The Mail Today continue to enlighten the readers on contemporary issues. His Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre had regular weekly meetings to make the youth take active interest to debate the various legal issues.

His early books on the Supreme Court, and the controversy over the supersession of Judges, continue to be cited by scholars even today.  Juristic Techniques in the Supreme Court of India, published in 1972 was one such book, which is still valued for its contribution. Selection and Appointment of Supreme Court Judges, co-authored with Alice Jacob, in 1978, was another significant contribution. There have been many over the years. Law and Society in Modern India, co-authored with his friend, Marc Galanter, in 1989, is another.  His recent books include Reserved!: How Parliament Debated Reservations 1905-2007 and Publish and Be Damned: Censorship and Intolerance in India (2008) both reflect his years of insights and meticulous research.

Hopefully, Dhavan will have more time to write and speak on contemporary issues confronting the polity and the judiciary.

Future historians of the Supreme Court might consider him as its conscience, if not, to borrow the title of Alok Prasanna Kumar’s interesting legal weekly digest, a contumacious curmudgeon.


Rajeev Dhavan’s image from here.


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