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S. Govind Swaminadhan — a tribute

By Sriram Panchu

S. Govind Swaminadhan, whose birth anniversary falls this month, passed away a year ago at the age of 93. He was the quintessential lawyer. Upright in physical and moral stance, he was fearless in the protection of his client, but always conscious of his duty to the court. He had a razor-sharp intellect, knew when to go for the jugular, and had that uncanny ability to sift through the chaff and spot the essential facts and the key legal argument.

To hear SGS in court was an unforgettable experience. He had a ringing baritone voice, impeccable diction, perfect accent, tone and pitch to suit, language and the turn of phrase to match. Close your eyes and you could be in the House of Lords. Little wonder that a judge of the Supreme Court stopped proceedings to request him to come back to his court as soon as possible because "its such a pleasure to listen to your English." Each of his appearances in court was a performance, and each performance was masterly.

And behind it lay a tremendous amount of hard work and preparation, which the observer would not have guessed at, so effortless would be the flow of argument and the build up of the case by the master craftsman.

Bhishma of the Bar

Lawyers in his chambers could not have asked for a better senior. To them he gave unlimited opportunity, regular reward and his special brand of protection. His Lordship may want to know which junior was responsible for a horrendous piece of drafting, but there was no way he could breach the Swaminadhan defence — "I settled the draft, the buck stops with me, so address your criticisms to me." On the other hand, when some judicial praise was forthcoming, the policy of self-effacement came into play — "My junior is the one who did the good job, address your praise to him."

His protégés kept in close touch with him long after their formal relationship had ceased. Many other lawyers adopted him as their mentor, looking up to and drawing upon him. For we all need our points of moral reference, compasses for our conduct. As he neared and passed three score years he became the Bhishma Pitamah of the Bar. The silvery mane of grey helped.

He held high offices in the law — Crown Prosecutor, Senior Central Government Standing Counsel, Advocate General. He sought none of these, and to each he brought lustre, distinction and his sturdy brand of independence. In his early days of being Advocate General came a request to visit Fort St. George to meet a particular Minister. Promptly went out a message to the Chief Secretary. All meetings with the Advocate General will be held at his place of work; if this be not acceptable his letter of resignation will be forthwith sent. No prizes for guessing who backed down. When you care not for the lures of office, it cannot lure you into giving up your independence.

SGS code

Speaking his mind clearly and boldly was something he did always. His welcome and farewell speeches to judges witnessed full attendance, for he would speak his mind clearly and boldly about shortcomings in the Bar, and Bench. Lawyers remember his standing up in the High Court to protest about a judge berating the Government Pleader — this is unfair treatment, he said, and it must stop. Needless to say, it did. Few lawyers will do battle with a judge, and fewer still out of a gratuitous sense of fairness. But that was a true SGS code — you do it because it is the right thing to do; and when something is the right thing to do, you do not count the cost.

He strongly believed that his profession was one of service — to court, client and community. He never turned away persons in distress because they could not afford his fee; he simply did their cases free of charge. If the client was a fellow professional, he would not take a fee. If the case was brought by a public service organisation or was a public cause espoused by an individual, SGS would always appear pro bono. He consistently appeared in these matters, spanning environmental and corruption cases to human rights of HIV patients, slum dwellers and construction workers. Much of the court's acceptance of public interest cases stems from the fact that leading practitioners were espousing these causes, and to SGS must go the credit for innovating this trend. He served on several social organisations — the Home Guards, the Bala Mandir orphanage, the Vidyodaya school, Camp Tonakela and Consumer Action Group.

Classic sense of humour

Everything about this man was distinctive. To each post he held, each relationship he nurtured, virtually each thing he did, he brought the touch and stamp of his individuality, his code of conduct, his charm, his concern, his sense of values and rightness. His sense of humour was classic. Essentially off the cuff, it produced delightful puns and repartee. Sample: On seeing his hair rather awry on a busy day, and seeking a lighter moment, question from the Bench — Mr. Swaminadhan, don't you carry a comb? Answer: "I do, my Lord, but parting is such sweet sorrow." Received at the Sheraton Hotel and led to its Towers, he said: "But I haven't yet lost the case." I can't leave out the sheer style and grace of the man, apparent and embodied in everything he did, and the manner he did it. His creased cotton Nehru jackets and bandhgalas made expensive suits look prosaic.

The International Bar Association conferred on him its highest honour "Living Legend of the Law" in 1994. It merely recorded what his profession had given him by popular acclaim. He is sorely missed, more so because of the devaluation of people in our times. He was a moral integer, an illustration of a first rate lawyer, citizen and a human being. Of SGS, it can be said, as it was of Motilal Setalvad, that with him around the Bar had an example, and therefore no need of a code of conduct. He had a sign on his table — "Old lawyers never die, they only lose their appeal." Well, he rarely lost an appeal in court, and on a different note, I'd like to tell you, Sir, that you haven't lost your appeal to those who were privileged to have you in their lives. In the hearts of the many you have touched, you will never die.

(The writer worked as a junior under S. Govind Swaminadhan.)

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