100 Legal Luminaries of India — Guest Book Review by Venkat Iyer

100 LEGAL LUMINARIES OF INDIA, no author stated, LexisNexis,  New Delhi, 2016, pp 470, Price: Rs 5,995.00 (hbk), ISBN: 978-93-5143-757-4.

Even by the standards of vanity publishing, this book will raise many eyebrows for its nakedly hagiographic tone and tenor. It purports to sketch the lives and achievements of 100 ‘illustrious legal minds in India’ – men and women who, in the words of the blurb, “have contributed in [sic] every sphere of the society [sic].” These worthies, the blurb goes on,   “[i]n their own ways … continue to bring about a just, peaceful, prosperous, happy and contended society.”

A flavour of the book’s approach can be had from the first of the 100 entries: it features an ‘eminent senior counsel’ posing with his wife alongside his luxury car, with the car occupying nearly three-fourths of the double spread page. His Eminence is described as “a thinker, a philosopher and a lawyer” who offers this pearl of wisdom: “Everybody should be allowed to pursue what they like – as long as they are doing it with dedication and devotion and not resorting to shortcuts for quick gains.”

Another luminary featured in the book offers the boast that he “was the most eligible bachelor” in his community before he got married at “the early age of 23”. The self-same lawyer became better known in 2012 for a less worthy reason, viz. of being the chief protagonist in a video involving sexual activity of a rather lurid kind, but the book coyly avoids any mention of it. (It is similarly silent about the serious sexual harassment charges brought against another senior lawyer who graces its pages; this lawyer, pictured lounging on his patio with a hookah, is eulogised as someone who will be remembered “for his insights” and for his exemplary “eloquence and clarity”.)

Modesty clearly is not a leitmotif of this work. Many of those featured are very willing to unburden themselves of their claims to greatness. Sample this statement from a ‘legend of the Indian legal firmament’: “The turning point for the Indian legal profession came in 1997 when I chaired the IBA conference in New Delhi”; or this from another who is currently the Minister for Law and Justice in the Indian government: “I am [sic] a first class first till M.A. [sic]”. One worthy is credited with having written a report for a non-governmental organisation which “played a crucial part in ending the constitutional crisis in Pakistan.”

Many of the entries refer liberally to fame by association: being the son of a former government minister, or the offspring of a former law officer, or even having a famous client (“[F]or over 20 years,” says one luminary, “Aamir Khan has been my client and I do all his legal work. Salman Khan is also my client” – the two Khans being well-known Bollywood stars, for those who may not be keen followers of the popular press). In at least one case, the deceased father of a featured luminary has, for good measure, been profiled separately alongside the son, although the father does not appear to be distinguished enough to merit membership of this exclusive club on his own.

It has often been suggested that hiding one’s light under a bushel does not come naturally to many Indians. The creators of this book have gone to great lengths to prove the truth of that saying. The work is full of “gold medallists”, “path-breakers”, and winners of multiple awards, many of them of obscure provenance. A particularly striking feature of the entries is that the Indian legal fraternity seems to have a disproportionate number of ‘Pranic healers’ of formidable powers, with some of those featured claiming to have achieved miracle cures, from deadly ailments, for their near and dear ones. Scriptures, too, make frequent appearances (“I have in-depth knowledge of the scriptures,” proclaims one legal big gun, not very bashfully). Boasts involving ownership of cars – fancy or otherwise – are liberally sprinkled all over the book. The wife of one legal hotshot is credited with a “fetish for shoes” and compared, not unfavourably, with Imelda Marcos, the vainglorious wife of the former Filipino dictator, Ferdinand. There is even a boast from one luminary that he “took the pain of getting … toilet seats from Japan” for his “Renaissance Mansion” in Delhi! By comparison, the claim of an academic worthy that “I was far ahead from [sic] other people in terms of speaking English, in terms of preparation and lecturing” may not seem overly conceited.

In terms of professional achievements, there are some unusual boasts. One luminary is very proud of the fact that he has been dubbed as “the lawyer getting the most interim orders”. Another is credited with being the “first ever to give a PowerPoint presentation in court”. A third lawyer says, without a touch of irony, about his firm, “We are publicity shy” (in which case, a cynical reader may ask, why did he agree to feature in the book in the first place?). More disconcertingly, most of those featured in the book appear to live in a bubble and completely disconnected from the real world of Indian justice. How else can anyone claim, as one smug, relatively young, legal hack does, that the global lament about “the Indian legal system [being] very lethargic” is a myth? “Courts here,” says this sage, “are as efficient as anywhere else.”

The vanity of many of the lawyers appears to be inversely proportional to their erudition or even their basic general knowledge. Take the case of the luminary who has named his law firm Hammurabi and Solomon – evidence, we are told, of his “out-of-the-box” thinking. The ‘Solomon’ in the title, proclaims this genius proudly, comes from “the Solomon vs. Solomon judgement of 1895” – which may have been alright, except that, actually, the case in question was Salomon v. Salomon (decided in 1896, not 1895), as any novice law student worth his salt would know.

Little expense has been spared by those behind this publication in indulging the luminaries with photographic props of their choice whether it involves them posing in a gym, on the golfing green, on a badminton court, with their dogs or their extended families, in front of portraits of favourite gods or god-men, before a home bar, leaning on a billiards table, clutching musical instruments, or performing yoga. One worthy has even chosen to pose in front of a plaque testifying to the inauguration (by someone else) of a building, another against the backdrop of an industrial crane, and yet another in the act of chopping a vegetable! And as can be expected of a project of this kind, there are multiple images of those who ‘conceptualised and created’ this tome.

We are told that the book even had a ‘mentor’ – a person one of whose main claims to fame is as a leading light in an organisation of local lawyers which has been at the forefront of the pushback against the opening up of the Indian legal profession to foreign lawyers and law firms in recent years. His visage, fittingly, adorns many of its pages (including as one of the 100 luminaries!). He is said to have “edited each and every word” of this bulky volume though, on the evidence of the finished product, it seems unlikely that his brief extended to checking grammar, syntax or even basic factual accuracy (his own, rather extensive, entry abounds with errors that would make a grammarian blanch).

The errors are, sadly, more than the occasional aberration which may be considered excusable in any publication. In addition to a cavalier disregard for spellings (e.g. “St Beed’s College” for “St Bede’s College”), common words and phrases are routinely mangled (e.g. “Keshava Bharti case” for “Kesavananda Bharati case”) and some hilarious new formulations adopted to render sentences meaningless (e.g. the father of one of the luminaries is cited as having developed “the fatal Hodgin’s disease”; in the case of another, “Fate’s mechanizations” are said to have begun when he was transferred from one Indian city to another; more bizarrely, a luminary is described as “[a] casserole by himself”). The less said about the standard of proof-reading, the better.

More egregious errors include getting names of individuals and institutions badly wrong. The grandson of a featured luminary, Jehan, a student at King’s College London, is described as “Rehan [who] is studying in Queen Mary College”. Another lawyer is credited with writing “two authoritative books on law with the prestigious Halsbury Books, including the book Games Lawyers Need to Play…”: not only does the imprint Halsbury Books, prestigious or otherwise, not exist, but the lawyer in question was actually the co-author of two titles in the Halsbury’s Laws of India series – and the book named in the entry was actually brought out by a less well known publisher. In a further example of lackadaisical approach to fact-checking, Trinity College, Oxford, is referred to (in relation to a lawyer who has lectured there) as “Trinity College, London” (a reference which is apt to be seriously misleading in the context in question). There is even a reference to “Indian Law Lords” in England (a non-existent breed of people), although that description is attributed to one of the featured luminaries, which makes the apportionment of blame slightly difficult.

Nor is that all. Such is the shaky grasp over the English language of those behind the prose that many of the descriptions are likely to make their subjects feel less than pleased (though one cannot be entirely sure if that is indeed the case, because it is a fair guess that the luminaries in question would have had a chance to check their respective entries before publication). One academic worthy has been referred to as “a founding stone” of a university; in the case of another, a practitioner whose father and grandfather were also lawyers, it is stated that he was never keen on taking up the “family trade”. Intriguingly, a featured luminary refers to his own father as “a combination of microscope and horoscope”! The wife of another is described as a “green thumb” (probably in genuflection to American usage). Some readers may also wonder what is being meant when it is said that the contribution of an academic luminary in a certain field “cannot be overruled” (by whom? for what reason? The mind boggles).

Publications such as these raise many disturbing questions, not only about the state of legal professional ethics in India and the capacity of the regulatory authorities to deal with the extensive rot that has set in over the years, but also about the judgment of reputed publishers such as LexisNexis. Unless the latter wake up to the reality of the serious harm that association with such questionable projects can cause, it will not be long before they see their reputations suffer irreparable damage. Some introspection is also called for on the part of the small number of genuinely distinguished lawyers included in the volume. By associating themselves with this dubious enterprise – and thus giving it a veneer of respectability – they are doing themselves and the cause of justice a grave disservice.

The author is a barrister and legal academic based in Northern Ireland. He can be reached at [email protected].

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