July 31, 2010

Atul Setalvad

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.


Boskoe said...

Inspiring post! Sad part is, what was true 20 years ago is as true today!

BTW, regarding addressing your father by first name - was this a consciously cultivated habit on the part of Mr D'Souza Sr or did it develop in any other way? Just curious!

Anonymous said...

Dilip - Wouldn't this post of yours qualify as 'contempt of court'?

Baby V

Ketan said...

Disturbing! But thanks for writing it!

Don't think this easily qualifies as contempt of Court. After all, much water has passed under since that court ruling.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Boskoe: my father wasn't a fan of "dad" and "papa" and the like. So right from the beginning he asked his children to call him by his name.

Baby V: What's to be done, in any case?

Ketan: disturbing is right. I watched as that case made its way through the court. It was a signal lesson in the working of (some) lawyers, the court, the government. It underpins some of my cynicism about whether we will ever find the will to punish anybody important who commits egregious crimes.

Jai_C said...


I'm sure we have problems with our process and the example I'm going to bring up now will only highlight that, not take away from that argument.

My friend's property case that I alluded to earlier, is also stuck there on that bridge while the waters flow: 6yrs+ and re-taarikh-ification for the flimsiest of reasons from opposing counsel.

The opponent is no Thackeray, AFAIK he doesnt have anything more than a slight lean from the local police authorities towards his side. My friend is actually "better off" than him in terms of wealth and middle-classiness.

All he has really is *free time* and money from some earlier harassment projects that he has reinvested in these cases.

If he can do it, it looks like most anybody can.


Rohit said...

Whoever said "Time is a great healer" has never gone through such horrors as we in India endure time and again.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the great Azous is back. We didn't miss you my dear.

Baby V