Some words in tribute to a quietly forthright, clear thinking, widely-read lawyer who died on July 22.
I knew Atul Setalvad growing up - our families knew each other well and, especially, he and my father shared a mutual respect that I always sensed. (Something else they shared: Both fathers were also the only ones I knew of whose kids called them by their first names).
But I got to know him better in the early '90s. That was when he fought the case Dilip Thakore and my father filed in the Bombay HC, asking the court to direct the Government of Maharashtra to prosecute Bal Thackeray for his editorials during the 1992-93 riots. It was a tortuous process, lengthened by adjournments allowed for the flimsiest of reasons offered by the counsel for the Shiv Sena. (Once, that he "had not expected the matter to actually come up that day" in court.)
Through it all, Atul (as we all knew him) kept firm and calm. When it finally came up for hearing before a two-judge bench, they began by asking - yes - if Atul's clients "really wanted to press the matter." After all, "much water had passed under the bridge" (which it had, most of all because of adjournments granted to the Shiv Sena) and did the petitioners really want to "rake up all these old issues again?"
Atul simply said the petition had to be heard.
It was, and the two judges dismissed it. They observed once more that much time had passed and it was unwise to "rake up" old issues all over again. The implication is interesting, as several outraged letters in the press pointed out: why, there's no need to punish any crime at all. We should simply let some years pass and then refuse to take action, because old issues should not be "raked up."
Atul had plenty of other court successes too, I'm sure. But I will always remember his patience and grit during that one case. It was dismissed, and maybe he knew that would happen. But he was determined to show to what lengths the police, the government and the judges would go, the twists and turns they would take, to shy away from acting against Bal Thackeray.
In that, he succeeded.
As ever: go well, Atul Setalvad. You inspired me.