Nani Palkhivala: Guardian of India's Constitution and Economic Reforms

Nani Palkhivala: Guardian of India's Constitution and Economic Reforms

Nani Palkhivala: The Legal Luminary of India

Nani Ardeshir Palkhivala, often referred to as Nani Palkhivala, is a name that resonates with profound respect and admiration in India's legal and intellectual circles. Born on January 16, 1920, in Bombay (now Mumbai), Palkhivala rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most formidable and influential legal minds of the 20th century. His contributions as a lawyer, economist, and public intellectual have left an indelible mark on India's legal landscape and economic thought.

Early Life and Education
Nani Palkhivala was born into a middle-class Parsi family. Despite struggling with a speech impediment in his early years, he exhibited extraordinary academic brilliance. He completed his schooling at Master's Tutorial High School in Bombay and graduated with a Master's degree in English Literature from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. Initially aspiring to be an academic, Palkhivala's career path took a decisive turn when he joined the Government Law College, Mumbai, where he excelled and graduated with flying colors.

Legal Career
Palkhivala's legal career began under the mentorship of Sir Jamshedji Behramji Kanga, a renowned lawyer of the time. Palkhivala's prodigious talent quickly became evident, and he established himself as an exceptional lawyer known for his eloquence, clarity of thought, and deep understanding of constitutional law.

His most notable contributions came through his involvement in several landmark cases that shaped India's constitutional framework. Among these, the Kesavananda Bharati case of 1973 stands out as a pivotal moment in Indian legal history. In this case, Palkhivala argued against the government's attempt to alter the basic structure of the Constitution. The Supreme Court's verdict, which upheld the doctrine of the basic structure, is considered a cornerstone of constitutional jurisprudence in India. This doctrine ensures that certain fundamental features of the Constitution cannot be altered by amendments, preserving the essence of India's democratic framework.

Economic Thought and Advocacy
Beyond his legal prowess, Palkhivala was also a distinguished economist and a passionate advocate for economic liberalization. His annual budget speeches, delivered at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai, became legendary events attended by thousands, where he dissected and analyzed the Union Budget with unparalleled clarity and insight. His writings, particularly the book "India's Priceless Heritage," reflect his deep concern for India's economic policies and governance.

Palkhivala was a strong proponent of free markets, individual liberty, and minimal government interference in business. He believed that economic freedom was crucial for India's development and consistently argued for policies that promoted industrial growth, entrepreneurship, and foreign investment.

Contributions to Education and Philanthropy

Nani Palkhivala's commitment to education and public service extended beyond his professional achievements. He served as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and was associated with several educational institutions. His philanthropic efforts included substantial donations to educational and charitable organizations, reflecting his belief in giving back to society.


Nani Palkhivala passed away on December 11, 2002, but his legacy continues to inspire generations of lawyers, economists, and public servants. His life and work embody the highest standards of integrity, intellectual rigor, and public service. Palkhivala's contributions to constitutional law, his advocacy for economic reform, and his commitment to education and philanthropy have left an enduring impact on India.

In remembrance of his invaluable contributions, various institutions and awards have been named after him, ensuring that his legacy endures. Nani Palkhivala remains a beacon of excellence and a role model for those aspiring to make a meaningful impact on society through law, economics, and public service.

Nani Palkhivala was involved in several landmark cases that have had a profound impact on India's legal and constitutional landscape. Here are some of the most notable ones:

Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973)
Arguably the most significant case in Indian constitutional history, Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala established the "basic structure" doctrine. Palkhivala represented Kesavananda Bharati, arguing against the government's attempt to alter fundamental aspects of the Constitution through amendments. The Supreme Court's verdict held that while Parliament had wide powers to amend the Constitution, it could not alter its basic structure. This doctrine has since been a cornerstone of constitutional law in India.

Golaknath v. State of Punjab (1967)
In this landmark case, Palkhivala successfully argued that Parliament could not amend fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. The Supreme Court's decision in favor of this argument marked a significant moment in the protection of fundamental rights, although this position was later modified by the Kesavananda Bharati case.

Minerva Mills Ltd. v. Union of India (1980)
Palkhivala played a crucial role in this case, where the Supreme Court reaffirmed the basic structure doctrine established in the Kesavananda Bharati case. The Court struck down parts of the 42nd Amendment, which had attempted to curtail judicial review and expand Parliament's power. The verdict reinforced the balance of power between the legislature and the judiciary.

Bank Nationalization Case (R.C. Cooper v. Union of India, 1970)
In this case, Palkhivala challenged the government's decision to nationalize 14 major banks. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Palkhivala's argument, declaring the nationalization invalid on the grounds that it violated the right to property and was not in the public interest. This case underscored the importance of judicial review in protecting economic freedoms.

Mandal Commission Case (Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, 1992)
Palkhivala appeared as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in this landmark case, which dealt with reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs and educational institutions. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the reservations but also introduced the concept of a "creamy layer" to exclude the more affluent among the OBCs from the benefits of reservations.

Presidential Reference Case (Special Reference No. 1 of 1964, re: Kerala Education Bill)
In this case, Palkhivala argued before the Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Kerala Education Bill. The Court's decision provided clarity on the extent of state control over private educational institutions and the rights of minority communities under the Constitution.

Privy Purses Case (Madhav Rao Scindia v. Union of India, 1971)
Palkhivala successfully argued against the government's decision to abolish the privy purses and privileges of former princely states. The Supreme Court ruled that the presidential order abolishing the privy purses was unconstitutional, thereby protecting the rights guaranteed to the erstwhile rulers by the Constitution.

S.R. Bommai v. Union of India (1994)
Though not directly argued by Palkhivala, this case was heavily influenced by his earlier arguments regarding the federal structure and the role of the President in dismissing state governments. The Supreme Court laid down significant guidelines for the use of Article 356 (President's rule), ensuring it could not be misused for political purposes. The case strengthened the federal structure and protected states' autonomy.

Madras Bar Association v. Union of India (2014)
In this case, Palkhivala's arguments about judicial independence and the separation of powers continued to influence Indian jurisprudence. The case challenged the constitutionality of the National Tax Tribunal, which was seen as infringing on judicial powers. The Supreme Court struck down the tribunal, maintaining the independence of the judiciary.

These cases not only highlight Nani Palkhivala's exceptional legal acumen but also his profound influence on shaping and protecting India's constitutional and economic principles. His advocacy in these landmark cases continues to be studied and revered in legal circles. These cases showcase Nani Palkhivala's profound impact on Indian law, particularly in safeguarding constitutional principles and individual rights. 

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