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An Octogenarian Looks Back

M.S. Ganesh

By Shanti Bhushan
Penguin, Delhi, 2008, pp. 395, Rs. 650.00


Halting of voice and limb, flattering the mighty, I have been made an actor in a farce. I know not what new comedy old age will have me dance with these white hairs for grease paint. Murâri (From Anargharâghava, trans. DHH Ingalls) Written in the melancholic decade after his wife’s death, this book is a leading octogenarian lawyer’s reminiscences and reflections of a life that has spanned the last three quarters of the twentieth century and is now into the first decade of the twenty-first.   Born on Armistice Day in 1925 in Bijnor in Western Uttar Pradesh, Shanti Bhushan is a scion of the Rajvansh branch of the Aggarwal community. Both by birth and propensity, he meant business. His business pursuits variously made him lawyer, legislator, law minister, judge manqué and almost attorney general of India.   Passing over his formative years, I start with his emergence as a reputed counsel by the time he was thirty-seven, when he was offered judgeship of the Allahabad High Court. ‘I did not drink, nor did I smoke and with the lifestyle that I maintain, I had always saved a large part of my income’, (p. 75). Initially he gave his consent for elevation but subsequently declined. In 1969, at 43, he became the youngest ever Advocate General. In 1972, he and others were arrested for defying prohibitory orders by a demonstration against price rise, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment till the rising of the court and the court rose immediately.   In 1977 he was elected to the Rajya Sabha and became the Law Minister in Morarji Desai’s Janata Party cabinet. Political office invariably creates ambivalence, if not actual equivocation, in the best of lawyers. Shanti Bhushan was no exception. Referring to the infamous Habeas Corpus case (1976) during the Emergency, he says: ‘That was indeed a sad day for the Indian judiciary. Two of the ablest Judges of the Supreme Court, Justice Chandrachud and Justice Bhagwati had succumbed to political pressure. Consequently, their reputations suffered’ (pp. 145–146). On the other hand, he asserts that it was on his insistence on adherence to the principle of seniority that saw Justice Chandrachud being appointed as Chief Justice of India and not superseded (p. 189). He adds: ‘In the matter of appointment of judges, the cabinet does not come into the picture and only the law minister and the prime minister decide the matter’ (p. 190). This Executive praxis, however, has ...

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