Ashok Desai – A Tribute (18 December 1932 — 13 April 2020)

A legal luminary and jurist Ashok Desai – distinguished Senior Advocate (1977), former Solicitor General (1989-90) Attorney General for India (1996-98), Padam Bhushan (2001) and recipient of several other awards and distinctions passed away after 87+ autumns without opportunity to family, juniors and friends to meet and commiserate. For one who commanded enormous love and respect, we sadly condole only online for this personal grief and great loss to profession. Ashok Bhai, as popularly called, was like a Guru, a playful friend young at heart and a presence one just took for granted for all weathers and hues in life. A reference point to seek approvals, someone to revere when disapproving of you and most of the time just being there around you. The loss to profession is immense with the passing away of a colossus who mentored so many present leaders of the Bar and Bench at Mumbai, Delhi and all over India.

After schooling in Bombay, Ashok Bhai studied at Fergusson College, Pune and then Law at Government Law College, Bombay. Thereafter, he went to England and studied at the London School of Economics. In 1956, he was called to the Bar from Lincoln’s Inn and started practice in Bombay. In addition, he taught law, journalism and worked as legal correspondent for Times of India. Apart from eminence as a very busy sought-after celebrity commercial lawyer of the Bombay High Court, Ashok Bhai came to be regarded as the finest public-spirited lawyer leading crusade for civil liberties and against institutionalised corruption and such other public causes. Notable among those battles were for playwright Vijay Tendulkar against censorship  of controversial play Sakharam Binder, discretionary land allotment in Backbay Reclamation and dislodging of AR Antulay[1] as Chief Minster for arbitrary allotment of cement.  In those days, it was a big legal fiat to expose those in power through not so developed public interest litigation.

It was a treat to see him in action after joining the Bar and enjoy hospitality at his elegant house with Suverna Auntie to host, herself a renowned Manipuri dancer.  There was fan like admiration for this tall person having sharp eyes and aquiline nose carrying naughty smile with a subtle wink. A unique smile which covered genuine love for frailties of fellow beings, deep understanding of human situations and acceptance all that life offered. An ajaatshatru rich with friends in all walks of life, love for literature, art, music and finer things and childlike curiosity to learn new technology.

Ashok Bhai was the Chairman of the Committee on Administrative Law of International Bar Association in 1986-88, Consultant to the Commonwealth Workshop on Administrative Law at Lusaka, Zambia in 1990 and presented India’s Report to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights in Geneva in 1997. In the same year, he represented India at WTO Appellate Body in a patent litigation filed by United States against India. In 1998, he led the Indian delegation to the United Nations Preparatory Committee on Money Laundering Bill in Vienna. He was also the Vice-President of the Bar Association of India.

It was providential coincidence for me that Ashok Bhai came to Delhi as Solicitor General of India immediately after I shifted here and poached to his chamber. This led to long association with him which continued in his days as Attorney General and thriving private practice thereafter. There is long list of matters of moment like Ramanna Shetty[2], Sardar Sarovar Dam[3], CVC[4], Parliamentary Privileges[5], Presidential Rule in States[6], Salwa Jadum[7], LGBTQ rights[8], just to name a few. There was lot to learn from his range of knowledge with cases on vast variety of subjects in civil, criminal, constitutional and international laws. As also from his role as public intellectual with nuanced views on socio-political issues. One also learned how a busy lawyer hosts judicial dignitaries, runs organisations, read papers, write books and attend TV debates. All with style, conviction, academic rigour and ease of lightness.

Ashok Bhai personified the now waning traditions of chamber in our profession. On innumerable occasions he would remember his own Senior S.V. Gupte and Gupte’s Senior C.K. Daftary on issues of advocacy, ethical dilemmas and affairs of life generally. A wide range of memories, thoughts and teachings can be recalled. For instance, his oft quoted dictum to dismiss self-opinionated Judges, pompous opponents and unreasonable litigants with a wink that “There is no law against having high opinion of yourself!” A lifelong hold of culture, style and value system the chamber inculcated at the core which was mutual respect, faith and bond. For a fresher, the chamber gave a sense of identity, belonging to ethos and purpose to hold on till work, recognition and success come your way. Of course, with no guarantee when and how much but lots of hope generated to look forward to navigate the rough and tumble of the Bar. A lot is lost when you lose your tether and  profession looses much more when you consider the full ramifications of the idea of the chamber traditions.

One of the summer vacations Ashok Bhai decided to work on the appeals against elections of the Shiv Sena leaders on Hindutva plank to be argued on reopening. It was commitment to a cause that for this pro bono group of cases, he returned several lucrative briefs including from one MNC bank which had recently come to India and offered double the fee on condition that all their matters be attended on priority. This was declined in the finest traditions of a counsel who valued professional independence more than turnover. However, we as juniors were paid full fees as only his services were pro bono. The high values of learning, gold standard professional ethics, nurturing the junior bar and principled stand on public issues has been the hallmark of lawyers of that generation difficult to find now. It was magnanimity of his mind and heart that the juniors in the matter were allowed to speak out of turn, lest a good thought even if raw, is lost. For bad points there was always a smile. So was the joy of learning with errors and no stress.

In the end, Ashok Bhai passed away like an enlightened Buddhist soul early in the morning at Mumbai in midst of lockdown without fanfare of last journey after living a full life. Maybe he would have preferred own last rites in this quiet detached way without vain externalities he never liked. A choice we could not ascertain because time was not yet ripe!


*Senior Advocate and a long time associate of Shri Ashok Desai since 1989.

[1] S. Nayak v. A.R. Antulay, (1984) 2 SCC 183

[2] Ramana Dayaram Shetty v. International Airport Authority of India, (1979) 3 SCC 489 

[3] Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union of India, (2000) 10 SCC 664 

[4] Vineet Narain v. Union of India, (1998) 1 SCC 226 

[5] P.V. Narasimha Rao v. State (CBI/SPE), (1998) 4 SCC 626 

[6] S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, (1994) 3 SCC 1 

[7] Nandini Sundar v. State of Chhattisgarh, (2011) 7 SCC 547 

[8] Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation, (2014) 1 SCC 1

and  Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, (2018) 10 SCC 1

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