Justice RF Nariman: The Liberal Lion of the Indian Supreme Court

By | October 12, 2021
Justice RF Nariman

This article titled ‘Justice RF Nariman: The Liberal Lion of the Indian Supreme Court.’ is written by Eshanee Bhattacharya and discusses the life, achievements and works of RF Nariman.

“The fact that we can write dissent today is a great matter, you finish one judgment and then there are three others. It is not that people don’t dissent. Today the Supreme Court is acting as a national court of appeal and not a Constitutional court.” – Rohinton Fali Nariman

I. Early Life

Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, a former Supreme Court of India judge, was born on August 13, 1956. Justice Nariman is the son of eminent Indian jurist Fali Sam Nariman. He went to the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai for his early education.[1] Shri Ram College of Commerce awarded him his bachelor’s degree in commerce. He received his LL.B. from the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi’s Campus Law Centre, where he was placed second in his class. In 1980–81, he completed his LL.M. at Harvard Law School, where he was educated by luminaries such as Professor Laurence Tribe and Professor Unger.

II. On religion and discipline

Justice Nariman, a man with a deep interest in history, philosophy, literature, and science, authored several notable judgments that the Supreme Court has delivered in recent years, some of which he wrote while still a junior judge. Able to perform marriages and the Navjote ceremony — when a child from a Zoroastrian family is initiated — Justice Nariman also has access to enter the sanctum sanctorum (inner-most part) like any other.

III. Career as a judge of the Supreme Court

Five Chief Justices of India – Justices RM Lodha, TS Thakur, JS Khehar, Dipak Misra, and Ranjan Gogoi – have delivered judgements with Justice Nariman. On his last day, he sat with incumbent CJI NV Ramana, as is customary. According to data on the Supreme Court website, Justice Nariman issued 774 rulings over his nearly seven-year term or 2,594 days to be exact[2].

His immense contribution to the legal sector led to his selection as the Solicitor General of India in 2011 on the advice of the late G.E Vahanvati, the then-Attorney General of India. However, due to the requests of then-Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, Justice Nariman resigned as Solicitor General after 18 months.

IV. Contribution to landmark judgements

1. Jarnail Singh v. Lachmi Narain Gupta[3]

The Constitution Bench of CJ Dipak Misra and Kurian Joseph, R.F. Nariman, Sanjay Kishan Kaul, and Indu Malhotra, JJ., dismissed a batch of petitions, finding that the judgement in M. Nagaraj v. Union of India[4], does not require to be submitted to a 7-Judge Bench. However, the conclusion in Nagaraj that the State must collect quantifiable data demonstrating the backwardness of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which is contrary to the 9-Judge Bench’s decision in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India[5], was found to be invalid to this extent. The court determined that applying the creamy layer theory to SC/ST was not invalid.

2. Shreya Singhal v. Union of India[6]

The Information Technology Act of 2000, Section 66A, was struck down in its entirety by a bench of J. Chelameswar and R.F. Nariman, JJ., for violating Article 19(1)(a) and not being saved under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. On the basis of the clear and present danger test or the tendency to cause public disorder, it was determined that Section 66A would fail to pass muster because it lacks any element of a tendency to cause public disorder, which should be an essential component of the offence it generates. Justice Nariman was the author of the decision.

Several terms in the challenged law were “open-ended, imprecise, and unclear,” according to the judges. The Court, on the other hand, confirmed the constitutionality of Section 69A of the IT Act and the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Public Access to Information) Rules 2009.

It was also decided that Section 79 is valid if Section 79(3)(b) of the IT Act is read down to mean that if an intermediary receives actual knowledge from a court order or is notified by the appropriate government or its agency that unlawful acts related to Article 19(2) of the Constitution are about to be committed, the intermediary fails to remove or disable access to such material as soon as possible.

3. Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India[7]

The landmark decision by the Indian Supreme Court marks a turning point in India’s quest for gender equality and social justice. The ruling not only frees the LGBTQ community from the constraints of gender disparity; it also grants them the right to privacy, life and liberty, and freedom of choice, as well as the right to freedom of self-expression. The decision can be seen as a typical example of the Indian judiciary rising to the occasion when the discriminated sections of society are subjected to injustice. More than anything else, judgement determines one’s identity.

Justice Nariman in his Judgement laid down that-

  1. When it is found that privacy interests came in and the State has no compelling reason to continue an existing law that penalises same-sex couples who cause no harm to others, it is the transgression of Articles 14, 15, 19 and 21.
  2. LGBTQ are entitled to the protection of equal laws and we are entitled to be treated in society as human beings[8]

In a landmark decision, the five-judge Constitution Bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice R.F. Nariman, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud, and Justice Indu Malhotra, JJ. found Section 377 IPC unconstitutional inasmuch as it criminalised gay intercourse between consenting adults.

4. Shayara Bano v. Union of India[9]

The 5-judge Supreme Court bench found that Triple Talaq is unconstitutional and violates Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution by a 3:2 majority. The verdict was reached by a bench that included Chief Justice J.S. Khehar, as well as Justices Kurian Joseph, Rohinton Fali Nariman, Uday Umesh Lalit, and Abdul Nazeer. While Justices Nariman and Lalit ruled that Triple Talaq is unconstitutional and violates Article 14, Justice Joseph ruled that the practise violates Shariat and the Quran’s essential precepts.

Justice Nariman in his judgement held that ‘we see a clear iteration of the principle that the government cannot pass a law which is “manifestly arbitrary”: a law which instead of being based on rationality and reason, is a product of someone’s ‘personal will’.[10]

Justice R.F. Nariman is one of those legal eagles who has garnered respect for his thorough and to-the-point demeanour during his years as an advocate, a trait he carried over to his time as a Supreme Court Judge. He did not confine his brain to the study and advancement of law; he also invested equal time and thought in learning about other areas of religion, philosophy, and music, among other things—he is really a man of many abilities.


References

[1] Wikipedia Contributors (2021). Rohinton Fali Nariman. [online] Wikipedia, Available Here.

[2] Aditya AK and Areeb Uddin Ahmed (2021). The Verdictum: Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman. [online] Bar and Bench – Indian Legal news. Available Here.

[3]  (2018)  10  SCC 396

[4] (2006) 8 SCC 212

[5] 1992 Supp (3) 217,

[6] (2015) 5 SCC 1

[7]  (2018) 10 SCC 1

[8] Devika Sharma (2018). Final Judgment| Gender Identity and self-expression basic to human dignity; Section 377 unconstitutional insofar it penalises consensual sexual acts between adults in private: SC | SCC Blog. [online] SCC Blog. Available Here.

[9] (2017) 9 SCC 1

[10] Tripathi, K. (2021). “One Man Army”: Justice Rohinton Nariman Retires, But What Will be His Legacy? [online] TheQuint, Available Here.


  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Author: Eshanee Bhattacharya

Eshanee is practicing in the areas of Corporate Commercial, Insolvency and Securities Law. She is an alumnus of the National Institute of Securities Markets. (MNLU Mumbai)

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