Breakfast with Aney (Part IV): Bar Associations and the politically active lawyer

This time around, Aney talks about Bar Associations and a lawyer’s role in society.

(You can read Part III of the interview here)

AA: After moving to Bombay, why didn’t you stand for Bar Association posts here?

SA: I am too old. I am 67 years old. This is something that ought to be taken up by younger men. There is a time in our lives when we are productive, but as we age, this productivity goes down.

It is like this somewhat off-colour joke about the old bull who is advising young bulls on how to go about their business. And when a young bull asks him why he doesn’t go do it himself, he says, “I have now reached the age where I am a consultant”.

At a particular point in your life, you realise that you are not at the forefront of these fights. These are things that younger people need to get into.

AA: A number of senior counsel say that they do not want to get into the politics involved.

SA: As an individual, I would respect their view. But when they speak of the “politics” involved, they are probably pointing to something that I alluded to earlier. Their objection is to lawyers ‘using’  the Bar Associations for some gain, including judicial or political positions.

They see the Associations’ only purpose as assisting lawyers into the practice of the profession, and sorting issues like the Bar Association’s space problems, or getting a bank branch opened in the court premises, or organising a Bar dinner or a lecture or a function.

But to my mind, this seems such a limited use of the power of the Association. You must do all that. Of course, you must make sure that lawyers don’t resort to fisticuffs to decide who gets to sit on which chair (pauses) but surely there is more to a lawyers’ association than that.

Why don’t many of the seniors want to engage in Bar politics? They do not want to lead from the front. Remember that the seniors have reached a stage where they are really not required to push themselves forward in order to be recognised. I respect that because at that point of his life, these kind of wars are not very meaningful – just sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But if, as I always advocate, the Bar Associations should always be in the thick of what is happening in society – these offices would become extremely important, and therefore more the reason for very responsible seniors to occupy.

AA: How do you reform Bar Associations?

SA: I tried. It failed.

A long time ago, I had set up a Federation of Bar Associations of Vidarbha. This Federation included the President and Secretary of each Bar Association, and it was intended for them to come together periodically to discuss the problems that not only concern the lawyers at the Bar, but also concern the society at large.

The idea did not work out.

AA: Why?

SA: For one thing, it was an attempt to bring about a change in an existing institution by creating a new institution. The main flaw was that I was trying to super-impose a structural change on an existing set-up, where the Federation I had in mind had different objectives from those of the Associations.

The President of a small Bar Association in a tiny town and the President of a High Court or Supreme Court Bar Association do not have much common ground. They seek to serve different objectives. So, although the Federation according to me was a very necessary development, it did not take off.

AA: Do you think the association officers should be lawyers who are good in court?

SA: No, not necessarily. True, he shouldn’t be a wretched lawyer. But he need not be a great lawyer or a famous lawyer. Sometimes we think that the President of the Bar should be a well-known lawyer because he is the face of the Bar.

That is true, I guess. You don’t want to be known as a Bar that is headed by a questionable lawyer. At the same time, where the Bars are small – twenty lawyers or less – where are you going to get high profile Presidents?

AA: How do you get younger lawyers in Bar Associations?

SA: I think personally to start with, Bombay or Delhi are not representative cities when we talk about things like this. Younger lawyers in metropolitan cities are a different breed of lawyers – their requirements are very different.

Younger lawyers in metropolitan cities are a different breed of lawyers – their requirements are very different.

In other towns, the younger lawyers are the first ones to be interested in Bar Associations; they are the ones who often control the outcome of elections. Lawyers are more keen on getting younger lawyers to become office bearers because in our populist way of thinking, younger lawyers are the ‘vote banks’.

So they are the ones who are always getting involved in the electoral process.

AA: But don’t you think that stops them from focusing on work?

SA: Oh they have plenty of time. They don’t have much legal work, so they can afford to spend time on things like this (smiles). It comes to them eventually that they are wasting too much time on non-essentials (pauses) then they start focusing on their practice.

But till that time, they are involved. Younger lawyers often look at the Bar Association elections as a kind of adult extension of the college elections. They don’t see it as anything other than that.

AA: But that is incorrect.

SA: It is imperfect. I would not say it is incorrect. It is an election. As far as all elections go, there are certain similarities there. But the objective of college elections and the objective of Bar Association elections are different.

The young lawyers don’t understand that because they have not been in the Bar long enough to know why the Bar Association is supposed to be there at all. That clarity comes to them eventually.

AA: Do you think association posts are a stepping stone to politics?

SA: Sometimes to politics. Or to public offices. More often to judgeships.

AA: What is the connection?

SA: Well, like I said, by virtue of being a member of the body, you tend to have more opportunity to be closer to judges. To fraternise with them may not be a right word, but to be associated with them for events at the Bar, functions etc.

You become a known face and that helps you, possibly, to get some judicial appointments. So that is one of the reasons why people tend to become office bearers. But like I said, this is an exception, not the rule.

The majority of the office bearers are usually people who are already known to some extent in the Bar. So they don’t have to go through this method alone to become better known.

AA: Who are the lawyers you admire?

SA: I have liked leaders who have taken strong stands on matters. I have known leaders of the Bar, Presidents, who have gone into the chambers of judges to tell them that their behaviour with the Bar or with a lawyer was wrong.

I have known leaders of the Bar in open court, asking the judge to refrain from a particular kind of conduct. Now these are giants of the Bar, and these are men who commanded such respect that even judges end up saying “Yes, I am sorry”.

I’ll tell you about such giants. People like Arvind Bobde, our former Advocate General, for instance. Long ago, a very old lawyer, very learned, but given to stammering or stuttering, was humiliated by a visiting judge who didn’t know this lawyer. When word of what happened got back to the Bar, Mr. Bobde didn’t hesitate even for a moment, and went straight into the judge’s chambers, and ticked him off. The judge called the old lawyer and apologised for his behaviour.

Rajani Iyer
Rajani Iyer told a sitting Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court in open court that he wasn’t fit to sit in the Chief’s chair.

Or the time Rajani Iyer told a sitting Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court in open court that he wasn’t fit to sit in the Chief’s chair. That judge later quit in disgrace.

One learns from such examples.

Let me tell you something that happened when I was President of the Nagpur Bar. One of our judges was to retire, a very popular but controversial judge. He had had a stormy personal life.

Anyway, he was due to retire and the Bar Association traditionally felicitates a retiring judge at a Bar dinner. A date was fixed and the function announced. It so happened that the new Nagpur High Court extension building was also waiting to be inaugurated at the hands of the then Chief Justice of India. And the Chief Justice happened to schedule the inauguration on the very next day after the felicitation dinner.

As President, I contacted the Chief Justice and requested that he attend the Bar dinner on the prior evening, and felicitate the retiring judge. The Chief Justice’s office confirmed the programme. A few days later I got a call from the Supreme Court Registrar saying that his Lordship would be pleased to attend the dinner, but there should be no felicitation of the retiring judge. It was obvious that the story of the retiring judge’s past life had been conveyed to New Delhi on some invisible judicial grape-vine. The Bar was understandably in an uproar.

As President, I had it conveyed to the Chief Justice that the Bar would proceed to hold the felicitation and dinner as planned. The Chief justice’s office called back saying that in that case, the Chief Justice would not attend the dinner. To this, I replied, as politely as was possible, that to attend or not to attend the dinner was a matter of the Chief Justice’s choice, but the Bar would felicitate the retiring judge, as planned. The Chief Justice’s office replied that in that case, the Chief Justice would not attend the dinner, and the inauguration of the new building would be postponed indefinitely. I said so be it.

Of course this was very controversial and half the Bar hated me for it. The ones who loved this retiring judge loved me. But the long and short of it was that we held our felicitation dinner, but the Nagpur High Court extension building did not get inaugurated for almost a year.

This is just an example of how one can take a stand. Whether I was right or wrong is different, but one can do it. It can be done.

AA: There must be a lot of people who don’t like you. Doesn’t that bother you?

SA: How does it matter? Does it really matter? We are all dead in the long run. It doesn’t really bother me. Not a bit.

I disagree with Shakespeare when he said,

“The evil that men do, lives after them / The good is oft interred with their bones”

I guess we are remembered by what we do; not so much by what we didn’t do.

The Chief Justice who refused to felicitate will be remembered as the Chief Justice who changed the way the office of the Supreme Court worked. His singular contribution was to bring computers in our courts, to computerise the Supreme Court registry and its offices. He will not be remembered for his refusal to attend the retiring judge’s farewell dinner.

The retiring judge, who is now no more, will be remembered for his wonderfully humane judgments. His personal life was a mess, but what does it matter?

And me? When my day is done, let it not be said that when something needed to be done, he did nothing.

When my day is done, let it not be said that when something needed to be done, he did nothing.

AA: But don’t  you consider the consequences?

SA: Consequences of what? Of course consequences follow one’s actions, but that is not the reason I am not going to do something. I am well aware that something like this will have consequences, but so be it.

You know, I am usually alone in these kind of things. When I resigned my post of Advocate General, one of the editorials referred to me as ‘The Last Man Standing’. I am not particularly scared of standing alone. And it doesn’t trouble me much.

It might explain why I demitted the Advocate General’s office so easily. That did not take much doing. (laughs)

(Views expressed in this interview are of Senior Advocate Shreehari Aney. Bar & Bench neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)