Nani Palkhivala: The Legendary Lawyer

8 May 2021  Read 4896 Views

“If a count were to be made of the ten topmost lawyers of the world, I have no doubt that Mr. Palkhivala’s name would find a prominent place therein” – H.R.Khanna

Nanabhoy ‘Nani’ Ardeshir Palkhiwala was a renowned lawyer who fought some of the most crucial battles in Indian Constitutional history defending the fundamental rights of the people, among other things. A distinguished jurist, an economist, a defender of constitutional liberties, Nani Palkhivala was a man with multi-faceted personality. Palkhiwala’s story is not just a journey of the legend who saved the Constitution but also an inspiring tale of an extraordinary man who overcame all odds. 

Palkhiwala was born in Bombay and he completed his Master’s degree in English literature from St. Xaviers College. And thereafter he did law from Government Law college. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Rather he was born and brought up in middle-class Parsi family.

The Case which Shaped Palkhivala’s Career

Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973), also known as the Fundamental Rights case is considered as the zenith of Palkhiwala’s fame and success. The main issue in this landmark judgment was whether the Constitution can be amended/altered in such a way to take the Fundamental rights of the citizens. And Palkhiwala arguing from the side of the petitioner persuaded the Apex court to accept the basic structure doctrine and this judgment was considered as landmark in defining the concept of Basic Structure Doctrine. 

Palkhiwala saw an opportunity in this case to challenge a series of constitutional amendments introduced by the Indira Gandhi government which granted unlimited power to Parliament to alter the Constitution of India.

His advocacy in the case can be best summarized in the words of Justice HR Khanna, who remarked: ‘

It was not Nani who spoke. It was divinity speaking through him.’

The then legal experts scoffed at the argument when Palkhiwala propounded the theory of an unalterable and unamendable “basic structure” of the Constitution. 

How can the power of a sovereign Parliament to amend the Constitution (Article 368) be curtailed or subjected to a review by judges appointed by the Executive, they asked. At the end of the day, only seven out of 13 judges on the Bench bought Palkhivala’s then-novel argument. Today, we can say, thank god they bought the argument. This one case will forever stand the test of time in Palkhiwala’s outstanding career.

Palkhivala’s Notable Contribution to the Constitution

  • Only 10 years to his practice, in May 1954 Palkhiwala fought his first case in the Bombay HC concerning interpretation of Article 29(2) and Article 30 of the Indian Constitution. The case was related to the right of Anglo-Indian schools regarding admission of students in schools teaching through English medium. The Supreme Court upheld the high court judgment in this case.

  • He made another crucial role in the famous Bank Nationalization case were he made interesting legal arguments for the petitioner challenging the validity of Banking Companies Act, 1969.

  • Privy Purses Case: Palkhiwala challenged the government’s midnight executive order derecognizing the Privy Purse since he was appalled by the government’s breach of faith. 

  • In 1975 he also agreed to defend the then PM Indira Gandhi when the Allahabad High court overturned her election to the Lok sabha. But he withdrew his support as her lawyer after she declared a state of emergency. During the Emergency period, Palkhiwala and a group of lawyers fighting cases of civil liberties then went to the apex court in November 1975 and challenged its suspension of all fundamental rights. It was evident that Palkhivala wasn’t afraid of taking on the government.


From Privy Purse case to Kesavananda Bharati, Nani Palkhiwala played an important role in directing the court and saving the Basic Structure Doctrine. Palkhiwala believed that ‘Political Freedom and civil liberty are the keystones of the Indian Constitution. And he also said that our constitution is primarily shaped and molded for the common man. He was also known as the Keeper of the Conscience of the Nation. Also honored with Padma Vibhushan in 1998, Palkhiwala has unarguably made numerous contributions to the legal fraternity and development of the political system in India. 

About the Author: Shikha Rohra | 18 Post(s)

Shikha is a graduate from HNLU, Raipur and has an interest in content writing. She is an ambivert with a sarcastic sense of humor and her favorite guilty pleasure is over-using social media.

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