It is given to few to be considered a legend in their lifetime: Palkhivala’s greatness as an advocate can be attributed to an incredibly analytical mind, a prodigious memory and a lucidity that made the most complex argument simple to the meanest intelligence. Add to this a felicity of expression that elevated that argument to something that resembled an essay in classical prose and you have Nani Palkhivala
To most practitioners of income-tax law, N. A. Palkhivala is best known as the author of the treatise “The law and practice of income-tax” which he wrote in collaboration with Jamshedji Kanga (“Kanga & Palkhivala”). A crisp commentary on the complicated subject, giving you almost predictively, a judgement on the very point you were looking for.
The treatise was written when Palkhivala was only 30 years old. That gives you an idea as to the genius of the man.
Another introduction to Palkhivala is through the judgements. Almost every important judgement on income-tax where the core principles have been laid has been argued by Nani Palhkivala. But it would be a mistake to think that his contribution was confined to income-tax law. His contribution to the development of constitutional law is also incredible with landmark cases like that of Bank Nationalization, Privy Purses, Golak Nath, Keshavanand Bharathi and Minerva Mills.
Palkhivala’s magic is best understood by looking at him from the perspective of other legends.
Iqbal Chagla says that to call Nani Palkhivala “a tax lawyer” was to miss the essence of this man. “He made the world his stage and he strode upon it like some great Colossus”.
Chagla explains that it is given to few to be considered a legend in their lifetime: Nani was one such. Palkhivala was a legend not only because he rose from the humblest beginnings to become one of the greatest lawyers in the country but most importantly, because he was so uniquely himself: a man of genius who never lost the virtue of humility; a man of singular simplicity graced with unbounded warmth and kindness; a man of letters as much as of the law.
Chagla calls Nani “unquestionably the greatest advocate that I have had the privilege of having heard, of having appeared with and, on occasion, having had the chastening experience of having appeared against.”
“Nani’s greatness as an advocate can be attributed to an incredibly analytical mind, a prodigious memory and a lucidity that made the most complex argument simple to the meanest intelligence. Add to this a felicity of expression that elevated that argument to something that resembled an essay in classical prose and you have Nani Palkhivala.”
Bansi S. Mehta explains two remarkable qualities of Nani Palkhivala. The first quality is of Analysis and assimilation: “One meets many outstanding lawyers, who can analyse a given provision or situation in threadbare detail. Nani, of course, could always do that. But, more importantly, Nani was a rare lawyer, who after a detailed analysis, could assimilate all aspects to fit into a whole picture and the remarkable part of this is that he could do it in just a few minutes. He had the knack of providing his assimilation to the judiciary by resorting to reductio ad absurdum, in which one shows that any other contrary conclusion would be not merely not justified, but plainly laughable”.
Nani’s second quality is of civility. Bansi Mehta says that “Nani’s civility knew no bounds. He made no distinction between seniors and juniors or members of judiciary, who struggled to understand the issue and those who had already grasped the issue. Every time in my early thirties I had gone to his residence for a conference, Nani unfailingly came out of his home and saw me up to the lift. I remember that in 1965 when there was a curfew order following the Indo-Pak war, I had to meet him for something urgent at his residence and since the usual queue of persons waiting to meet him was not there, after we finished our work, he asked me whether he can offer me any soft drink. Not merely that, he got up and fetched the soft drink himself and poured it in glasses. If only one were to compare his civility with the bluff and bluster that we see in some of our public personalities, we can hardly believe that such a person like Nani ever existed.”
Soli Sorabjee adds: “There have been lawyers who matched Palkhivala in erudition and legal knowledge. But for sheer advocacy Palkhivala was unsurpassable. Clarity of thought coupled with precision and elegance of expression, impassioned plea for the cause he espoused in the case, excellent court craft and an extraordinary ability to think on his legs rendered him an irresistible force and made him sui generis.”
Justice Sujata Manohar, who retired as Judge of the Supreme Court and has a number of landmark income-tax judgements to her credit remembers Nani Palkhivala as a great orator, an outstanding scholar and a humanist par excellence,. She says “I had the privilege of hearing Palkhivala in a few tax matters. His clarity, precision and at the same time, eloquent advocacy produced many remarkable arguments in court. His inspired advocacy on constitutional issues in the Supreme Court created history. He persuaded the court to accept the basic structure doctrine and rescued the constitutional values for posterity — a service one cannot afford to forget. His annual lectures on the budget ultimately came to be held on the CCI Lawns which alone could accommodate crowds that came to hear him. He could address a gathering for hours, citing complicated figures without a single note in his hand”.
For more: See My tryst with the legendary N. A. Palkhivala by H. S. Serna, IRS
All quotes are reproduced with permission from the book “A Tribute to the stalwarts of the Tax Bar” published by AIFTP.