I may have been a social activist, but I was not a politician. For me it was more of beliefs in matters of society, people’s rights. It was a very strange way that I landed in politics. I was a trade union leader at that time and they had even threatened to put me inside. I was organizing a sports contest in Cuncolim when some of my friends came and said, ‘you must contest the elections.’ I was given a ticket and I won. I spent no money. At that time people worked for you, people spent money from their pockets for you. I had no money at that time as I had just entered the profession. In 1989 I had not planned to contest but then the election was countermanded and I contested that election. After that I took a conscious decision not to get into politics.
This passage obviously has to be read carefully in light of hindsight and spin; there are an awful lot of politicians who claim that they are not ‘really’ politicians. But it may nonetheless shed light on why Ferdino Rebello alone was able to break the trend. He was elected at a time of exceptional turmoil within India’s political system, in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency and the end of one-party Congress dominance. The breakdown of an old political order, prior to the ascension of the new, may have made it possible for someone like Rebello – a political activist without strong partisan ties – to enter politics without patronage and at an age (28) when he could still go on to return to his legal career. (Even though prominent lawyers have, of course, continued to play prominent roles in Indian politics – Arun Jaitley, Kapil Sabil, P. Chidambaram, etc – most have been first elected at ages that make subsequent returns to legal practice and then appointment as judges implausible. Rebello had the advantage of essentially completing his period in elected office prior to the bulk of his legal career.) That is, whereas an age of stronger parties and a more settled cursus honorum might have meant that someone like Ferdino Rebello would have had to ‘choose’ between political and legal life, the precise circumstances of his ascension made it possible to move fairly seamlessly between worlds.
But at this point we encounter limits. As High Court judges go, there is a reasonably substantial amount of information online about Ferdino Rebello, who has also been relatively willing to express his views in press; the indented quote above comes from an illuminating interview with Alexandre Moniz Barbosa of O Heraldo. But (especially for a researcher living in Australia) there are limits to what bare accounts of Rebello’s career, even accounts by Rebello himself, can tell in terms of his significance. Rebello’s reputation, for example, cannot just be gauged from the fact that the Goa Legislative Assembly passed a vote of congratulations on his appointment to the Allahabad High Court (he was, after all, only the second Goan to be appointed as a Chief Justice and such a vote may hence be expected); it requires insights from lawyers, politicians, activists and ordinary citizens who witnessed or were party to his work as a lawyer, politician and judge. Estimates of this kind (about any individual Indian judge, not just Rebello) are very difficult to gauge from online sources and even from the Indian press as a whole – both because of a relative paucity of scholarly judicial biography in India and given the limits on critical commentary and debate of individual judges imposed by rigid laws of contempt.
So this post ends with a call for help. I can be contacted at douglas.mcdonald7190 at gmail.com (with an @ and no spaces instead of “ at “). If you are willing to share insights about Ferdino Rebello, his career, his work or his significance, whether anonymously or on the record, please email me; I’d very much appreciate any of your thoughts or even any information you have to offer. Chief Justice Rebello has had a fascinating career that has defied much of the conventional wisdom about what Indian judicial careers look like; we can only work out why if we work together.
 Jason Keith Fernandes, Citizenship Experiences of the Goan Catholics, available at https://repositorio.iscte-iul.pt/bitstream/10071/6582/1/%2BPost%20defence%20Thesis%20for%20submission.pdf, pp 140, 142.