Remembering Anil Divan

His life mission was to defend and fight for our most cherished constitutional principles

Updated - March 23, 2017 12:38 am IST

Published - March 23, 2017 12:02 am IST

Anil Divan

Anil Divan

I was in my first year at Government Law College, Mumbai, the country was newly independent and a 67-year-old friendship was about to begin. Somebody had taken my usual spot on the front row of the classroom. I was miffed but on the last row was a vacant spot. I quickly took it and found myself seated next to Anil Divan.

His friends knew that he was destined for great things. He came first in the examinations and bagged the gold medal in jurisprudence. On January 26, 1950, when India became a republic, the two of us walked for hours around the Victoria Terminus railway station, gazing at the brightly lit building. We wondered if the light of freedom and democracy could dispel the darkness of poverty and ignorance that engulfed our country. It was only appropriate that Anil would go on to defend and fight for our most cherished constitutional principles.

An illustrious family

The principles of justice and the law were embedded in his DNA. Once, while flipping through the pages of a book in our college library, I stumbled upon a photograph of a young Anil with his maternal grandfather, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, an eminent lawyer who had later served as vice-chancellor of Bombay University. Anil’s paternal grandfather was no less accomplished. Jivanlal Divan founded the famous Proprietary High School in Ahmedabad and marched with Gandhiji to Dandi in 1930. Sharda, Anil’s mother, was the first woman registrar who would go on to become vice-chancellor of the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai. There were so many other family members who rose to eminence: M.C. Setalvad, his maternal uncle, was the first and longest serving Attorney General of India, for 13 years; Bipinchandra J. Divan, his paternal uncle, was Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court. Yet, I never heard Anil boast about his lineage or drop names to get ahead.

All of us who knew him could vouch for his absolute integrity. He was appointed amicus curiae (friend of the court) on several occasions, including in the Jain hawala diary case where he appeared against his brother-in-law, his wife Smita’s elder brother Ashok Desai, who was then India’s Attorney General. Both men of unimpeachable honesty, what counted was the pride they took in being defenders of the law.

Anil was tall in body and mind. Never once to mince words, he was bold and fearless and never worried about the consequences of his actions. He was an extraordinary scholar. A staunch believer in the independence of the judiciary, he made signal contributions to the legal profession, which will go a long way in strengthening freedom, dignity and democracy in the country.

His great pillar of strength was his wife Smita. In her independent capacity, Smita has worked for the empowerment of women and was President of the Maharashtra State Women’s Council.

The last reunion

On December 10 last year, my 88th birthday, Anil perhaps inadvertently gave me the most special birthday gift ever: the launch of the second edition of his book, On the Front Foot. Seated on the front row were so many of our law college friends who had gone on to accomplish great things: Fali Nariman, Soli Sorabjee and Ashok Desai. We had ended up with a college reunion without really intending it or planning it to be one.

Well over half a century ago when the Republic was still nascent, we had left Mumbai and shifted to New Delhi with a dream in our hearts to practise in the Supreme Court as defenders and champions of the Constitution. Now, Anil had brought us together again on that winter evening.

I never realised then that my best friend was preparing to embark on his next journey. I only know that wherever he is, he will continue to fight for the voiceless, coming to the aid of justice and inspiring future generations of lawyers.


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