Soli J. Sorabjee: A champion of human rights and Jazz!

Former Attorney General and an outstanding lawyer, Soli J. Sorabjee succumbed to COVID-19 on April 30, 2021 at the age of 91.

Born on March 9, 1930, Sorabjee commenced his legal practice in 1953 in Bombay High Court. He was then designated as a Supreme Court Senior Advocate in 1971. He became the attorney general of India first from 1989-90 and then from 1998-2004.

A renowned human rights lawyer, Sorabjee was appointed by the UN as a Special Rapporteur for Nigeria, in 1997, to report on the human rights situation in that country. Following this, he become a member and later Chairman of the UN-Sub Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, from 1998 to 2004. He was also a member of the United Nations Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. He has also served as member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague from 2000 to 2006.[1] In the 1984 anti-Sikh riots cases, Sorabjee worked with Citizen’s Justice Committee and took up cases pro bono for the victims.[2]

Soli Sorabjee was also a champion of freedom of speech and expression and was awarded with Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award in India, in 2002 for his contribution in protection of freedom of speech and human rights.[3]

Did you know? Soli Sorabjee had a deep interest in jazz and was president of the Delhi Jazz Association for many years.[4] He was also one of the founders of the Jazz Yatra concert series.[5]

A prolific writer, Sorabjee has a number of publications under his name.

Here are the notable excerpts from some of his articles:

“Judicial activism must not be confused with judicial showmanship or judicial adventurism. Judicial activism does not warrant a trigger happy approach of striking down laws which are unpalatable to the personal predilections of judges. Judicial activism does not warrant venturing into fields where the judiciary does not have the requisite expertise.

What is the solution? Alas the real problem is that justice is not dispensed by slot machines but by human beings. Perfection is not the attribute of common humanity and judges are after all human beings. They are not celestial bodies endowed with the gift of infallibility. Therefore judicial aberrations do occur occasionally. But that is no reason for wholesale condemnation of active exercise of judicial power.”[6]

Read more at (2008) 3 SCC J-24


“It must be remembered that the rule of law is not a one-way traffic. It places restraints both on the Government and individuals. If the underlying principles of the rule of law are to become a reality in governance as also in our lives no doubt laws are necessary but they alone are not sufficient. In addition fostering of the rule of law culture is imperative. The only true foundation on which the rule of law can rest is its willing acceptance by the people until it becomes part of their own way of life. Therefore we should strive to instil the rule of law temperament, the rule of law culture at home, in schools and colleges. We should strive for the universalisation of its basic principles. Our effort should be to constantly aim at the expansion of the rule of law to make it a dynamic concept which not merely places constraints on exercise of official power but facilitates and empowers progressive measures in the area of socio-economic rights of the people. That indeed is the moral imperative for the civilised world.”[7]

Read more at (2014) 6 SCC J-27


“The decision in Bommai marks the high water mark of judicial review. It is a very salutary development and will go a long way in minimising Centre’s frequent onslaught on the States who as rightly pointed out “are neither satellites nor agents of the Centre” and “have as important a role to play in the political, social, educational and cultural life of the people as the Union”. However, there is genuine concern about misuse by the Centre of Article 356 on the pretext that the State Government is acting in defiance of the essential features of the Constitution. The real safeguard will be full judicial review extending to an inquiry into the truth and correctness of the basic facts relied upon in support of the action under Article 356 as indicated by Justices Sawant and Kuldip Singh. If in certain cases that entails evaluating the sufficiency of the material, so be it. The line between the existence of material and its relevance is not a rigid one and is susceptible of flexible fluctuation depending on the facts of a particular case.”[8]

Read more at (1994) 3 SCC J-1


“In countries like India where fundamental rights are violated every day, whether in flouting of labour laws, illegal detentions, discriminatory actions, and other violations, one may wonder what response may be given to a cynic’s taunt about the futility of fundamental rights. The answer is that guaranteed fundamental rights empower citizens and groups fighting for justice to approach the court. It also provides opportunities for vindicating the Rule of Law. It also establishes norms and standards which can be used to educate people to know, demand and enforce their basic rights. It has a salutary effect on administration which is made aware that it has to conform to the discipline of fundamental rights. Above all, a Bill of Rights, Part III enumerating Fundamental Rights, is a constant reminder that the powers of the State are not unlimited and that human personality is priceless.”[9]

Read more at (2014) 7 NUJS L Rev 1


Some landmark cases that Sorabjee had appeared in:

T.M.A. Pai Foundation v. State of Karnataka, (2002) 8 SCC 481

Special Reference No. 1 of 1998, Re, (1998) 7 SCC 739

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

I.R. Coelho v. State of T.N., (2007) 2 SCC 1

P.A. Inamdar v. State of Maharashtra, (2005) 6 SCC 537

State of Gujarat v. Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab Jamat, (2005) 8 SCC 534

Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, (1978) 1 SCC 248

S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, 1981 Supp SCC 87

Ahmedabad St. Xavier’s College Society v. State of Gujarat, (1974) 1 SCC 717

♦Did you know? Soli Sorabjee assisted the legal giant Nani Palkhivala in  Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, (1973) 4 SCC 225.

Recalling the time when he worked as Palkhivala’s junior, Sorabjee wrote

“I vividly remember the early morning conferences the two of us had those days in his room at Oberoi Hotel. Both of us were in our pyjamas. At one such conference, I nervously suggested the argument about inherent limitations on the amending power based on certain articles which I had read in the US law journals. He grasped the point, but was not quite convinced. A few hours later in the Supreme Court, he expounded the doctrine brilliantly. The labour and efforts which were put in the case were tremendous. The range of our research was far and wide.”[10]


Soli Sorabjee’s image Coutesy: Brandeis University, https://www.brandeis.edu/south-asian/sorabjee/bio.html 

[1]Biography of Soli Sorabjee, Brandeis University, https://www.brandeis.edu/south-asian/sorabjee/bio.html

[2] Utkarsh Anand, Soli Sorabjee: An exceptional lawyer and a Jazz aficionado, April 30, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/jurist-soli-sorabjee-succumbs-to-covid19-101619756987135.html

[3][3] Award of Padma Bhushan to Sri K.K. Venugopal and Padmavibhusan to Sri Soli Sorabjee, (2002) 1 LW (JS) 59, http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/9V532btr

[4]Coomi Kapoor, Soli Sorabjee(1930-2021): A remarkable life in law, champion of civil liberties and press freedom, April 30, 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/soli-sorabjee-a-remarkable-life-in-law-champion-of-civil-liberties-and-press-freedom-7296894/

[5]A. Vaidyanathan, Soli Sorabjee, Former Attorney General, Dies Of COVID-1, April 30, 2021, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/soli-sorabjee-former-attorney-general-dies-of-covid-19-he-was-91-2424976

[6] Soli J. Sorabjee, Judicial Activism — Boon or Bane?, (2008) 3 SCC J-24

[7] Soli J. Sorabjee, The Rule of Law: A Moral Imperative for the Civilised World, Lecture delivered at NLSIU, Bangalore on 5-4-2014, (2014) 6 SCC J-27

[8] Soli J. Sorabjee, Decision of the Supreme Court in S.R. Bommai v. Union Of India: A Critique, (1994) 3 SCC J-1

[9] Expansion and Protection of Fundamental Rights By Judicial Interpretation and Intervention, Lecture delivered by Shri Soli Sorabjee, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court and former Attorney General for India, at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS), Kolkata on February 7, 2015, (2014) 7 NUJS L Rev 1

[10] Soli J. Sorabjee, Palkhivala and the Constitution of India, (2003) 4 SCC J-33

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