In an extensive chat with Tarun Nangia of NewsX on the “Legally Speaking: Up, Close and Personal with Sarosh Zaiwalla” show, Sarosh Zaiwalla, founder, Zaiwalla & Co., who is known for having represented the Bachchan family in the Bofors libel case, as well as Sonia Gandhi, Maneka Gandhi and many other leading personalities, spoke on his life since he migrated to the United Kingdom in the late 1970s. He spoke on how he became the first Indian to start a law firm in London, on winning the first ever case in the House of Lords for India, on intervening on behalf of Sonia Gandhi to stop an Italian producer from making a movie on her life, on knowing Rajiv Gandhi, and on starting a shipping company with the Bachchan family in the early 1990s. He also revealed that the Income Tax authorities in India had contacted him.Excerpts:
Q. Anybody who has seen Indian history through the decades knows you very well and you have been the toast of newspapers in India since the 1980s. You graduated from the Government Law College, Bombay, and migrated to England in 1975. Why did you go to London?
A. Well, I wanted to qualify as a solicitor in London and I wanted to come back and join politics. Then I decided to stay back.
Q. But it was even more surprising that instead of just taking up a job in London, you, in fact, stayed back in London and started your own law firm?
A. Those days England was very different. It was a place where Englishmen used to wear hats and carry walking sticks and as a solicitor, I would have had no scope at all because if I had joined one of the big city firms, I would have remained just at the bottom and everybody else, the white people, would have gone ahead of me. And therefore, very early, I decided that if I have to survive, I have to start on my own and beat the system, overcome the system.
Q. None less than the then Chief Justice of India, Justice Chandrachud, inaugurated your law firm.
A. Well, my firm was quite unusual because nobody expected an Indian to start; so, I invited Chief Justice Chandrachud. I wrote him a letter to come and inaugurate my firm and he came as a sitting Chief Justice of India to inaugurate my firm at Chancery Lane.
Q. What prompted you to start your own law firm? You could have just had a good job and retired well like most Indians?
A. I had a mentor in London, Cedric Barclay, a very eminent arbitrator. I once had tea with him and he asked what I was going to do. I said I was just deciding what to do and he told me not to join a big English firm. He said if you are good, they will take you on, but a senior partner will take you for lunch every year and say “good job, old boy” and you just remain where you are.
Q. How tough was it to take that decision?
A. It requires courage, but I was very confident and as a Parsi, I knew how to get along with the Brits to some extent. It was considered absolutely tough. On the whole, it was a challenge, but worth doing.
Q. You saw initial success very early in your life when you were appointed a solicitor for the Government of India by Syed Mohammed, the Indian High Commissioner in London.
A. That is called good luck, because Syed Mohammed, a lawyer himself, a barrister, was the High Commissioner and he used to be Kerela’s Advocate General, I think, and he saw a young Parsi boy starting a law firm in an Indian name and called me and appointed me as the High Commission’s solicitor. Those were the days when you did not require push or to know people or get recommendation; he just appointed me. He was so excited by it that he virtually took over the firm. Every afternoon at 3’o clock, I would go to the High Commissioner’s office and he would discuss cases with me.
Q. You were a friend of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s former Prime Minister, and they say you were associated with the ninth Asian Games. Is it then that you came to know Rajiv?
A. I got to know Rajiv Gandhi when he was the chairman of the special organising committee of the ninth Asian Games, and a Dubai company was suing the ninth Asian Games for about $5 million. So, I was appointed as solicitor by the High Commission to act and we succeeded in court and Rajiv Gandhi was very happy.
He got excited and wrote me a very nice congratulation letter which I still have with me. We kept up the correspondence, I kept him informed of what was going on and when he became the Prime Minister, we still continued. I used to get his Christmas card or New Year card signed by him.
Q. You were the toast of all newspapers and magazines in India when you acted for Amitabh Bachchan and his brother Ajitabh Bachchan that they were not keeping the Bofors money for Rajiv Gandhi.
A. Yes I did. In fact, Amitabh and Ajitabh were sent to me from Delhi and I said: “Look, if you are really not handling the Bofors money, then the best way for you to vindicate yourselves is to issue libel proceedings”. The issue then was how would England have jurisdiction because the allegations were made in a Swedish newspaper. I found just one Swedish newspaper called Dagens Nyheter being sold. We went before the court and I said London is a libel capital and the English should have jurisdiction. The judge said: “Yes, I have jurisdiction”, and then we won.
Q. Recently, your name figured in newspapers in India when you were named along with Amitabh Bachchan in the Panama Papers case. Why were you named along with Amitabh Bachchan?
A. Well, the Bachchans and I were involved in starting a shipping company called Delta Shipping. That was sometime in the 1990s. In fact, I got a letter from the tax authorities in India, I think from the Deputy Commissioner of Tax or something like that, wanting information. I was asked if I would assist in the investigation and I said: “Look, if it is a formal request, then I’ll consider whether I will respond or not; but the request must come to me formally through the Indian High Commission”, and I never got a response back then.
Q. So you saying that the income tax authorities did approach you?
A. Yes, they did approach me for assistance and I’m going to say whatever is true and honest.
Q. Did you happen to meet Sonia Gandhi after Rajiv Gandhi passed away?
A. Yes I did, I called on her. She is a very lovely and pleasant person and I remember her telling me that Rajivji was fond of me. She asked me if I would be the trustee of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. I said that it won’t be practical because I live in England and I just come for a day or two and go. Whenever Soniaji was in London, I would go have tea with her.
Q. You have represented both Sonia Gandhi and Maneka Gandhi, but they don’t get along?
A. I would represent anyone if there is no conflict of interest. When Maneka Gandhi came to me, she wanted to issue libel proceedings against Katherine Frank’s book on Indira Gandhi on some allegations about Maneka behaving in an immoral way or something like that and we succeeded. But after that, I think Sonia stopped inviting me.
Q. Your are saying that you first contested a case for Sonia Gandhi and when you fought for Maneka Gandhi, Sonia stopped talking to you. What case did you contest for Sonia Gandhi?
A. Soniaji had instructed me because an Italian movie producer was going to make a movie on her life and we stopped. We were successful and never went to court, but I gave a few notices and they agreed to stop making this movie.
Q. The V.P. Singh government sacked you as the Indian High Commission’s solicitor after you took up the Bachchans’ Bofors case. Have you ever worked as a solicitor for the Government of India again?
A. Yes, we were sacked soon after we took the Bofors case. In fact, the High Commissioner Kuldip Nayar gave me a choice. He told me to tell him within one week whether I wanted to act for the High Commission, Indian government, or the Bachchans. And I, as a true Parsi, and being independent, thought there was no conflict of interest. You can’t tell me who I should act for. We were sacked from some 74 cases.
Q. Do you still represent the Government of India?
A. Yes, we do, in fact, we have represented many cases. We now act for Air India, for example, as their solicitors.
Q. Recently, we saw your photographs in newspapers with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Russia. Where did you get to meet him in Russia and why were you in Russia?
A. A 50 billion dollar Yukos award was made against the Russian government by the Hague Tribunal. It was a hopeless situation for Russia and they came to me for assistance, to come up with an out-of-box solution. We are known for out-of-box solutions.
Q. You actually acted on behalf of the Kremlin?
A. Yes. They left it to me to select a lawyer because it’s in Holland and not in England and I went along with the Russian team and selected professor Wendon Berg. We won as the main ground was that although the arbitration had taken place for four years and Russia had participated, the treaty under which the agreement was made, was not approved by the Russian Parliament, although signed by the Prime Minister of Russia and the Dutch court said yes.
Q. Recently, you also acted for Rosneft which has been in news in India because they have taken over Ravi Ruia’s Essar Group’s refinery in India.
A. But we have not been involved in the Ravi Ruia company. We are one of the penal solicitors for Rosneft and I was invited for the last two years by the Prime Minister of Russia as their guest for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
Q. You were in news recently when you won a case for Iran’s largest bank, Bank Mellat, in United Kingdom. What was this case about?
A. Bank Mellat is one of Iran’s largest private banks or it is the largest private bank. Bank Mellat was listed by the UK government under the sanctions list for allegedly supporting Iran’s nuclear proliferation. Bank Mellat had instructed a big solicitor’s firm, Stephenson Harwood and they lost in the High Court, they lost in the court of appeal and they were probably advised not to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Q. Bank Mellat was being victimised because it was an Iranian company and because Iran had sanctions on it?
A. Exactly. They put up a sanctions list. The allegation was that the bank had supported Iran’s nuclear proliferation. The bank said it was not involved and that it was a private and not a government bank. They sacked Stephenson Harwood and came to me. We changed the whole case in the Supreme Court and we won. Nine of the 12 Supreme Court judges said that the British government had acted unlawfully and irrationally.
Q. It has been rumoured that this is one of the biggest cases.
A. It is and the Supreme Court has referred the claim now to the commercial court to assess the damages.
Q. What are the damages?
A. Bank Mellat is claiming four billion dollars, which is the biggest case in the UK court. One did not hear of a billion in a UK court or in an America court and the hearing is in next October.
Q. I will take you back to October 2002 because the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee awarded you. What was that award for?
A. I was invited and given the National Law Day Award by some Indian institution and I was presented to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha. It was a great experience and I’ll never forget.
Q. So you were awarded in the Lok Sabha in 2002?
A. No, not Lok Sabha, I was awarded the National Law Day Award for outstanding contribution to international arbitration.
Q. You also acted on behalf of the People’s Republic of China many times.
A. Many times. All the five international arbitrations which China had in London, were handled by me. Let me tell you a story. When I met Atal Bihari Vajpayee and I was introduced to him—he obviously knew who I was—I said, “Sir, I hope when you come to London, we’ll meet again.” He mumbled something. I understood it, but I just wanted to make sure, so I said it loudly, “Sir, I hope we will meet again in London.” You know what he said: “Not as an accused I hope” (laughs). That’s tremendous sense of humour.
Q. So, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had that sense of humour?
A. Yeah and I also recall that Narasimha Rao came to me also as an accused.
Q. We have been given to understand that his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, wanted you to act to negotiate some kind of an accord with China. Is that true?
A. That is true. Mrs Takla from Dalai Lama’s office came to see me saying that the Dalai Lama was going to come to the UK and he would like to meet me. She didn’t tell me why; so a meeting was arranged for me, a private meeting in Glasgow. I met him and saw the political side of Dalai Lama. He is a very honest man. He said that he had found out that I was one non-Chinese whom the PRC government trusted completely and asked if I could help. I asked help for what and he said that he does not want to claim sovereignty over Tibet, but wants to go back to his homeland and be the head of religion there.
Q. Then what happened?
A. I did not act for the Dalai Lama, he sought my assistance. To be fair to China because of my relations with that country, before I met the Dalai Lama, I met the Chinese ambassador and told him that I was going to meet the Dalai Lama. He briefed me about what the complain against the Dalai Lama was and I remember he brought all his books and said that the Dalai Lama had written a foreword claiming half of China was Tibet. I mentioned this to Dalai Lama and asked if it was true? He said: “What can I do, my people are living there.” The Dalai Lama asked me if I can have a second channel for a dialogue. It was because I was involved in a second channel dialogue between Britain and China on Hong Kong when the Chris Patten problems were there and two meetings had taken place, without any bureaucrats because the Chinese were suspecting that Mrs Thatcher had undersold Hong Kong and that is British belief that they undersold Hong Kong and therefore they wanted to back out of the Hong Kong agreement. It was a very frank conversation. And there was a second channel arranged.
Q. You are most famously known for your very big political friendships in the UK, including John Major, and it is said that the former Prime Minister of UK Tony Blair was a jobbing barrister, he was working for you.
A. Yes, that’s very true and oddly enough, the only time Tony Blair’s name appears in the law report is instructed by Zaiwalla and Company for President of India and that was in 1982. He still is a very good friend.
Q. After all these years, do you still continue to actively work and act for the Government of India in London?
A. We do, we act for Indian banks, we act for the Indian government’s difficult cases, not all, but some.
Q. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the ambition of making India a centre of arbitration. You are such a big and well-known name in this area. What could India do to emerge as a country where people seek to do arbitration?
A. That’s a very important question. But first of all, the Indian legal fraternity, the arbitrators’ fraternity, must cooperate. They must have a genuine desire not to be selfish, but act in India’s best interests, which is not there at present. Everybody is thinking of themselves to earn money. The most important thing for that to happen is that there must be a perception that India is a fair centre. And at present, that perception is not there overseas; there is a suggestion that some of the arbitrators take backhanders. This may not be true; I don’t know, but there is a perception.
Q. The worrying fact is that a lot of Indian companies are going to London, Blackstone, SIAC (Singapore International Arbitration Centre) and ICC (International Chamber of Commerce), Paris, with their arbitrations. They do business in India, make money in India, everything about the business, except for the fact that they would arbitrate outside India. Do you think that’s a worrying trend?
A. It is a natural trend because everybody wants to be sure that they get justice. In places like England, and to some extent Singapore, justice is absolutely guaranteed. Look at what happened to Bank Mellat, the nine judges of the Supreme Court of UK were prepared to say that the government had acted irrationally.
Q. So you are saying that the nine Supreme Court judges of UK actually ruled against the state itself?
A. Yes, the state itself. They were not worried, they were not concerned, they were independent. Same is the case with arbitration in England. I sit as an arbitrator and there is one layer of supervision and I would dare not do anything that is wrong. The way the system works in England is that if there is even one slightly dicey arbitrator, nobody will deal with him and that is done by self regulation, not by Parliament passing any law.
Q. You have been on the panel of ICC Paris since 1990.
A. I was representing India on International Court of Arbitration; I represented India for 12 years.
Q. Why has England emerged as a hub for arbitration. What did they do right?
A. What they did right was integrity and priority in ensuring the interest of justice. In England, arbitration has been going on for 300 years, people have been coming to England for 300 years, so it has a history and though Singapore is trying to compete, it’s nowhere near England.
Q. So what is your preferred centre for arbitration?
A. I would say London, because there is one layer of supervision by the court and that is very important.
Q. In a country like India, with 125 crore people and as the only country in the world which is possibly going to give a growth of 8% or 10%, a lot of disputes are going to arise. There is a tremendous opportunity in India as far as arbitration is concerned. Do you think India has the potential to at least emerge as a leading centre for arbitration?
A. Of course, India has (the potential) because there are very good lawyers in India. Take, for example, the current Attorney General K.K. Venugopal; he is a lawyer of absolute integrity. Fali Nariman, Soli Sorabjee, there are so many lawyers of tremendous integrity, but the strength of the chain is its weakest link.
Even if one person is slightly bent, the perception in the outside world…perception is everything for a country to stand out as a top of class.
Q. You have emerged as one of the top international arbitrators we have today. What does it take? Is integrity, as you have always pointed out, the only thing required?
A. No. I think my policy has always been that law is for justice and not justice for law, and sometimes I am criticised for that. When I sit as an arbitrator, I try and do what is fair justice according to my conscience and that is very important. When an arbitrator has to decide completely independently, he doesn’t have to decide for his appointer, but he has to ensure that his appointer’s points are considered by his co-arbitrator at the time of making the final decision; that is the most important thing.