My Leader- A Tribute

V. Sudhish Pai

17 July 2021 5:14 AM GMT

  • My Leader- A Tribute

    Shri S.G.Sundaraswamy was one of the most eminent lawyers and a former Advocate General of the erstwhile State of Mysore. I had the fortune to be his junior. It is a silver jubilee span of time since his passing. It is appropriate to remember and pay tribute to him. He belongs to the galaxy of the old world that is becoming increasingly rare.

    He was born at his maternal grandfather's house in Sira, Tumkur District on Monday, September 22, 1924 as the eldest son of Smt Jayalaksmiamma and Shri S.D. Ganesha Rao, himself an esteemed lawyer of his time. He studied at Central High School and Central College, Bangalore from where he graduated in Science in 1944. He did the B.L. course in the Madras Law College and obtained the Law Degree in 1946. He was naturally the pet of his paternal grandfather, Shri Dasappa whose keen desire it was that the grandson follows in the footsteps of the son reading in the Madras Law College which the grandson successfully did. But unfortunately the grandfather did not live to see the grandson become a lawyer.

    He joined the legal profession in 1946 as a Pleader and was enrolled as an Advocate on March 20, 1947, starting the general practice of law in the chambers of his revered father where the foundation for a sound professional life was laid. In the first couple of years at the Bar, young Sundaraswamy had the opportunity and the distinction of opposing successfully, the legendary lawyer, Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar appearing for the tenant before the Rent Controller in Bangalore. That was surely a spur for the young lawyer. The father's ailment at a relatively young age stirred him to action and to scale greater heights in the profession. As he himself said he had to retain the clients and also sustain the reputation of his father and his own. These factors, among others, motivated and impelled him to apply himself and give of his best which he did. He soon acquired a wide and varied practice. He would be at his desk by 6 - 6.30 in the morning applying himself meticulously and methodically to his work. Among many other retainers, he was also retained by HAL. In the very early days of his career, on Sundays after finishing his other work in the chamber, he would be attending to the opinion and advisory work of HAL in the afternoons. Air Marshal P.C. Lal, later Chief of the Air Staff was then the Chairman of HAL.

    Shri Sundaraswamy was appointed Advocate General on June 25, 1970 succeeding Shri E.S. Venkataramiah who was sworn in as a judge of the High Court that day. His two year stint as Advocate General, which office he held with great dignity and distinction, witnessed many interesting and challenging cases which he had to prosecute or defend on behalf of the State. As he himself stated, he was new to Constitutional law litigation and had to familiarize himself with the nuances of Constitutional law and the nitty- gritty of the litigation in that field. He demitted office on April 16, 1972 handing over charge to Shri R.N. Byra Reddy.

    Thereafter he had a large and lucrative private practice in all branches of the law and appeared for various institutions and organizations as also for different State instrumentalities. He handled and argued cases of great importance in various fields representing a wide spectrum of clientele. Himself an institution, his chamber was a nursery for young legal talent- a large number of new entrants to the profession- who in course of time reached positions of eminence at the Bar and some on the Bench.

    He was offered High Court judgeship twice, first by Chief Justice Narayana Pai in 1972 and then by Chief Justice Govinda Bhat in 1974-75.The then CJI, Shri A.N. Ray also endeavoured to persuade him. But, for personal reasons, he declined the offer on all occasions preferring to be at the Bar. There is no doubt that he would have made a sound judge. What was the judiciary's loss was to the profit of the Bar. In the two decades and more thereafter he served the law with unstinted devotion arguing a large number and variety of cases and helped quite substantially and significantly in developing and laying down the law. The law reports bear witness to this.

    The story of his life and work is well and widely known. But what that bare story does not and cannot reflect are the great qualities of his head and heart which were never worn on the sleeve but which those who knew him closely could discern and admire and try to emulate. His half a century at the Bar is an object lesson of total devotion and dedication to the profession and practice of law.

    He represented the best and highest traditions of the Bar and trained generations of young lawyers in that tradition. Tradition, said Carlyle, is an enormous magnifier. But it is not like instant coffee, it has to be absorbed and imbibed over a period of time. Shri Sundaraswamy did it and passed that on to several others. His great patience, his vast experience, his mastery of law and facts and his phenomenal industry till his last day showed a dedication to the legal profession which is difficult to match. His capacity for sustained hard work is well known. He could and did sit through a brief for hours on end trying to master every little detail. He had all the facts of the case at his fingertips. He looked up, read and cited all the relevant case law. Even incidental and remotely connected details, whether of facts or law, were not missed. His preparation for a case was thorough and complete and many a time he did it all by himself. Every brief received the same whole-hearted attention. He had a distinctive style of making his notes which were meticulous and comprehensive and easily unravelled the whole case. This saved a lot of time and energy because with such notes he could always get ready within a short time to argue the case. A client's case and interest were safe in his hands. He fought his cases with zeal, determination and great tenacity, but always wielding the arms of a warrior, never of an assassin. He was ever conscious of his duty as counsel to give proper advice to the client and assistance to the Court. I have known him ask the Court to grant an interim order against his client when the facts and circumstances warranted that. Briefing him and assisting him was a great and rewarding experience. It was an education in itself when many aspects of law and life were touched upon. He would welcome and accept a good point whatever its source. But he never felt that anything extraordinary was done by him. He firmly believed that every counsel could achieve it with application and dedication.

    He was magnanimous and kind-hearted, quick to recognize and acknowledge good in others and rarely said anything negative about others. He believed and often said that it is improper for us to judge others. Loyalty to the client, respect for the Bench, courtesy to the opposing counsel and kindness to his junior never failed him. Gentle in manners, unfailingly deferential to the Court and faultlessly polite and courteous, Shri Sundaraswamy was grace personified. As a man simple in his tastes and habits and without pretence, he was free from all rancour, bitterness and resentment. Hero of many a battle and cause célèbre, he was a noble warrior who bore his scars and honours with philosophical indifference. He was rarely elated by professional success or perturbed by any setback. He treated both Triumph and Disaster just the same with equanimity. He was a thorough professional and above all a gentleman. Hard work, meticulousness, orderliness and devotion were the hallmarks of his professional and personal life. He taught by precept and practice. He hardly gave advice but one could always absorb and benefit from whatever he spoke and did. He would never indulge in or join any light hearted banter or poke fun at the expense of someone else, be it in the court room or otherwise. He never thrust himself on anyone or any issue. While he was always calm and respectful, he could be very firm, severe and hard hitting too, even to the judge, if the occasion demanded.

    Striking a personal note, I had a special relationship with him. In one sense it was like a father-son relationship. We were also like friends. Like someone rightly said both of us were not distracted by anything else and devoted single-minded attention to law. We knew and understood each other quite well, especially professionally and could read each other's mind. If I made notes in a case it would be to his satisfaction and he would not make separate notes. When he knew that I had read over something which was to go under his signature, he would confirm that I had read it and unhesitatingly sign without reading it himself. There were occasions when after he settled some pleading or opinion and showed it to me, he could gauge that I was not satisfied: I would frankly tell him that it did not have 'the Sundaraswamy touch'. He would then make necessary changes to the satisfaction of both. It was not unusual for him the previous evening to argue before me the cases to come up the following day with the remark, "If I get an admission before you, I will get it tomorrow before the Chief Justice." We would exchange our points of view freely and frankly. All this brings out more of his personality- generosity of the heart and magnanimity of spirit. I cannot forget the very touching letter he wrote to me on my father's sudden demise at quite a young age when I was newly married, and his moral support and guidance at that crucial time.

    Besides his successful career at the Bar Shri Sundaraswamy was deeply interested in and intimately associated with various religious and cultural institutions and organizations, to mention some –Shri Ramakrishna Math and Mission, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Shri Satya Sai Trust/ Institutions, Shri Sringeri Math, Shri Raghavendra Swami Math, Maha Bodhi Society, apart from being the Managing Trustee of the family temple established by his father and to which he was single-mindedly devoted. He was also closely associated with the Rotary movement.

    Senior and his wife were a peerless pair. Smt. Kamala was a most gracious lady, truly a mother to the entire family. I had not the fortune of seeing her. She passed away well before her time in May 1975 at the young age of 43. Her sudden and totally unexpected demise left Shri Sundaraswamy desolate. In a way that contributed to his plunging himself even more into his professional work.

    Life's race well run, / Life's work well done, /Life's victory won, /Then came rest.

    Like a General he met Death in harness on the battle field on Wednesday, July 17, 1996, departing from the world while he was on his feet in the court room. He passed away full of years and honours. No man could have asked for more. He was quite self effacing that his presence was hardly noticed but his absence is always sorely felt. It is my melancholy duty and privilege as perhaps the last of Shri Sundaraswamy's juniors to remember and pay tribute to my revered leader. I was associated with him immediately from the time I finished my law course and till the last moment of his life. He collapsed in the court room by my side when he was addressing the Court and passed away in my hands, his last words being, 'My Lord'. The cedar tree has fallen but its fragrance will long endure and fill the four quarters.

    Twenty five years after he is gone, his memory and his spirit continue to abide with us. In an atmosphere where the pursuit of the higher and nobler ideals of the legal profession is becoming increasingly difficult and half-baked ideas reared by accident have sway, it is well for us to pause and take count of our coarser selves. He has a lesson to teach us if we care to stop and learn; a lesson quite at variance with most that we practise and much that we profess. The love and respect with which we salute his memory is a measure of his greatness as a man and a lawyer.

    'He is not dead whose noble life/Leads thine on high./To live in hearts we leave behind/ Is not to die.'

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