Rajeev Dhavan was born on the 4th of August 1946. He was educated in Boys High School, Allahabad, Sherwood Nainital, Allahabad University, Cambridge University and London University. In the course of his education, he acquired a B.A. LLB (Allahabad) B.A., M.A.(Cambridge) Ph.D.(London). He was called to the Bar of the High Court of Allahabad and at the Middle Temple in London. He was designated a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India in 1994. At University in Allahabad, he won every conceivable debate in North India. But his first love in Allahabad was theatre. He produced, directed and acted in full length plays – modern and Shakespearean. He would have liked to have joined the Footlights in Cambridge but he chose to study and debate. He won both the individual and team prize in the Observer National Debating Championships of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Not surprisingly he became President of the Cambridge Union as his father had been five decades earlier.
He owed his interest in the academic to his father, Shanti Swaroop Dhavan, also a lawyer, later a judge, India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, later Governor of Bengal and Member, Law Commission. But he was schooled in research by J. Duncan M Derrett. His debt to Duncan remains. This resulted in a number of books on The Supreme Court of India (1977) – still considered a classic and others including the Supreme Court and Parliamentary Sovereignty (1976), The Supreme Court under Strain: The Challenge of Arrears (1979) Litigation Explosion in India (1982). Selection and Appointment of Judges: A Case study (1979), Justice on Trial: The Supreme Court Today (1980). He co-edited a collection of essays in honour of Justice Krishna Iyer: Judges and the Judicial Power (1984) and was part of the Team which edited: Supreme But not Infallible Essays in Honour of the Supreme Court Of India (2000). He also edited with J Cooper: Public Interest Law (in England) in 1986.
After editing a conference record: Black People in Britain, The Way forward (1975) he got involved in race relations with the Hillingdon Community Relations Council, later Chairman of London Region of Community Relations Councils and on the committee and as Treasurer of the National Community Relations Councils. He also steered an All-Britain group to bring ethnic communities together. He lobbied on the British Nationality Bill and wrote detailed reports on various as aspects of racial equality. Inspired by his Cambridge tutor David Williams he turned his interest to the law of the press resulting in the edited (with C. Davies): Censorship and Obscenity (1978), Only the Good News: On the Law of the Press in India (1987), Contempt of Court and the Press (1982) and Publish and be Damned (2010). His interest in affirmative action led him to edit and provide a long introduction Marc Galanter’s: Law and Society in India. Along with articles in the Modern Law Review and The American Journal of Comparative Law, these authoritatively recognized the paradigm shifts in Indian research. He ran the Indian Government’s Legal Aid Committee in the early 1980s to present a trend of ideas which were not implemented due to ineptitude and lack of resources. He taught at Queens University Belfast, briefly part-time in London University and, more substantially, at the University of West London (Brunel), with visiting assignments in Austin (Texas), Madison (Wisconsin), Delhi University, Melbourne University and at the Indian Law Institute, where he was made an Honorary Professor for Life.
Back in India, he wrote for newspapers as a columnist with around 1000 newspaper articles to his credit. This adds to the hundred odd substantial articles in edited books and law reviews. He anchored 25 episodes of a TV programme. He took over from Fali Nariman as Commissioner in the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Geneva later, the Chairman of its Executive Committee. His work with the ICJ, the Forum of Federations and on Refugee Law, took him on missions to Malayasia, Malawi, Iraq, Damascus, Japan, Fiji, Kenya, Argentina, Nepal and elsewhere. He was made an honorary member for life by the ICJ.
He started practice effectively in 1992, having apprenticed as a researcher with Kapil Sibal earlier. After his arguments in the Mandal (1992) and Babri Masjid (1994) cases, he was designated as a Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court in 1995. He used to say: “winning a few odd cases does not make you a marketable lawyer. You still end up eating your chappatis in the lawn”. His initial interest was in public interest law. A flurry of cases followed: Banwasi Sewa Ashram, Sariska, The Wild Ass Sanctuary case, the Pench cases, Nagarhole, Rathong Chu in Sikkim, the Omkareshwar Dam case, the Noyyil River Case, the North East Armed Forces Act case and many others. He was amicus to the Court in over a two dozen cases, including one of the police attack on the ‘Ramdeo’ meeting and the march of Gujjars towards Delhi causing damage to public property. In the Mandal case (1992), he supported reservations, but turned against its mindless excesses for vote banks. His later arguments on reservation, quotas and preferences in various cases emphasized this. Amongst those of others, his arguments led to constitutional amendments, culminating in the Nagraj case which he also argued and which put caps on excessive reservation for jobs in public administration and the public sector. He answered his critics with a masterly account of how Parliament debated reservations in his book Reserved: How Parliament Deleted Reservations (2008). He believes in an inclusive Constitution seeing the divide between the rich and poor, empowered and dis-empowered as the greatest challenge to the Republic. His next book: The Constitution of India: Miracle, Surrender and Hope (2017) was dedicated to Fali Nariman. Later in 2019 two volumes on the ombudsman controversy in India called The Lokpal Idea [1963-2010] and Anna and the Lokpal Bill [2010-2018] dedicated to the memory of Duncan Derrett, his long time guru from 1970.
Soon he became a well known as a lawyer on all aspects of the working of the Constitution, the regulatory state, and civil and criminal issues. He argued and wrote opinions and submissions for hundreds of cases. Bound copies of these are leather bound in his office. His knowledge of constitutional, and all forms of public law was immense, his eloquence and clarity exemplary. His work took him to virtually every High Court in India. His interest in governance led him to make submissions to Parliament on many occasions, using his newspaper articles for further critique. He will be remembered as a lawyer for his insights and actual contributions to cases, adding ideas which are consecrated in judgments. He spoke his mind to judges who were rude to lawyers but respected the judicial process.
Asked if he would be remembered as a lawyer, he said: “No! But every institution depends on renewal. I would like to believe that in difficult times, I was part of the renewal.” Modest to the last, and with an unerring sense of humour!
He has written a fictional biography of his mother called Talking to Yamraj, an account of Returning Home from England, a fictional account of his travels with a retired judge in quest of life after death called The Funeral Man and some short stories and poems called ‘snippets’ which die with a huge amount of other unpublished material. Described by a newspaper as “almost famous” his response was that even this was an exaggeration.