Atul Setalvad: A Tribute

by Tehmtan R. Andhyarujina, Senior Advocate 
(This was read by Mr Darius B. Shroff, Senior Advocate)

I regret I am unable to be present at this meeting of the Bombay Bar Association to join in our grief at the passing away of Atul Setalvad. I would like to pay my tribute to my friend and colleague Atul of over 50 years with a few words.

Atul was a man of character, courage and conviction. These qualities were reflected in his career as a lawyer.

We both joined Seervai’s chamber as his juniors at about the same time in 1958. Seervai initially dissuaded Atul from joining his chamber but as his father Motilal Setalvad persisted Atul joined our chambers. However, once Seervai came to know Atul he had the highest respect for Atul’s abilities. Within a short time, Atul made his mark by his learning, clarity of thinking and industry.

In his early days when we juniors did not have a substantial practice Atul edited Mulla’s Stamp Duty Act, assiduously rewriting the whole book in his own handwriting. Later, he edited Mulla’s T.P. Act jointly with his father with the same diligence. This was the beginning of his academic side writing several legal books, the last one being on the law of Sales Tax.

He was always meticulous in the preparation of his brief, with short notes written in his neat handwriting. So good were his notes that even Seervai often relied on them.

His advocacy in court was typical of the man. It was direct, concise and to the point without embellishments or sycophancy to the judge. Like his father, having made his point he did not repeat it trusting the judge was competent to appreciate it.

Though in due course he commanded a large and remunerative practice he offered his services in many pubic interest cases particularly in matters of the environment of Bombay. He took up the cause of air hostesses who were discriminated in their service conditions by Air India. I was for Air India. I vividly remember his very forceful and persuasive arguments in the Supreme Court in Air India vs. Nergiz Mirza in 1989. The land mark judgment in that case ended sex discrimination in public sector undertakings.

Atul did not flaunt his considerable achievements in law his distinguished lineage. He did not even put his title of doctor of laws from the London University to his name. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes the most distinguished judge of the US Supreme Court, he believed that the best thing one can do in life is to hammer out as compact and solid a piece of work as one can, to make it first rate and leave it unadvertised. What a contrast to our present day distinguished lawyers who are seen on TV every day. He combined in him the high traditions and values in life which his father Motilal and Seervai set.

Though our paths diverged in due course, I retained an abiding respect for him at all times. Early this year I was deeply distressed to know of his terminal sickness, and on my visits to Bombay I visited him and we recounted the days of old in Seervai’s chamber and in the High Court. The last time I met him was on 24th May of this year. On that occasion I had a premonition that I may be seeing him for the last time. I said in jest that perhaps in the four generations of the Setalvads his daughter Teesta had achieved the greatest fame by her social activism. He laughingly agreed. And that is true. The Setalvad name and reputation still survives with Teesta’s courageous fight against communalism in the Supreme Court and in the public.

Lawyers will come and go in abundance but it is rare that we will have persons of the stuff of Atul.

When the day that he had to go came he passed away peacefully. All the trumpets must have sounded for him on the other side.