RKP Shankardass: Gentleman of the Indian Bar

An Obituary by Jyoti Sagar, Chairman, J. Sagar Associates & Managing Partner, K&S Partners and Amit Kapur, Senior Partner, J. Sagar Associates.

Kumar Shankardass, as he is popularly known, will be fondly remembered first of all as a gentleman. That does not take away his eminence as a respected Senior Counsel; an eternal optimist who brought to bear a gentle firmness in his argument in and outside the court. Kumar was a charming, erudite and widely read man who could cut through those tense moments in legal battles with his easy wit and charming smile. He was ever willing to help and guide younger lawyers and was devoted to institutional development of the Indian Bar and legal journals. His soft voice was heard over the din. Not even most trying of circumstances led him to utter one unkind or harsh word. He carried his many achievements with immense grace and dignity.

Born in Kenya in 1930, he studied Economics and Law at Cambridge before being called to the Bar at the Lincoln’s Inn. He learned the ropes with the celebrated Attorney General of India Mr C.K. Daphtary and rose to be a leader of the Indian Bar. His career spanned over 5 decades—with multi-dimensional roles of a litigator, advisor, counsellor, friend, philosopher and guide—all played out with great decency, charm and probity.

He was keenly devoted to rule of law and judicial reforms; freedom of speech; editorial freedom of the fourth estate; freedom of choice and dignity of women at workplace. His several notable contributions on issues of Constitutional, Civil, Corporate and International Law would not be forgotten.

Kumar acted as Commissioner and Panel Chairman, United Nations Compensation Commission, Geneva (1996-2005) for adjudicating war claims. He represented the State of Qatar (1988-2001) in a dispute on Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions before the International Court of Justice at The Hague. He was counsel to the Government of India (2005-2013) in disputes at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague) between Pakistan and India under the Indus Waters Treaty, 1960†† in respect of the Baglihar and Kishenganga Hydroelectric Projects in Kashmir; and between Bangladesh and India on maritime boundary delimitation in the Bay of Bengal. Having served as legal advisor to the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom since 1974, he was bestowed with the Honorary Order of the British Empire (OBE) in July 1996. He was conferred with Doctor of Laws (Honoris Cause) by the North Orissa University in 2012.

Kumar made foundational contribution to the Bar Association of India since 1969 in various capacities to eventually preside over it in 2016. For long years he made editorial contributions to the Supreme Court Reports and was the Editor of The Indian Advocate. He presided over the Indian Law Foundation and served as Vice-President of the Indian Society of International Law. He brought Indian legal profession to the international high table with his active work at the International Bar Association since 1976 to be elected the first and the only Indian to preside over IBA in 1986-1988.

His impact transcended the profession. He championed his cherished values in his life with his loving wife Ramma. His was a presence equally cherished by his friends in all walks of life—be it the Saturday Lunch Club at the India International Centre; the charitable trusts he served on, like the India Foundation of the Arts, the Talwar Research Foundation, the Nurul Hasan Educational and Research Foundation, and the Pratichi (India) Trust; or the Governing Board of the Centre for Policy Research.

To us he was a gentle giant of the Bar. A mentor, a constant source of inspiration, a friend, and a role model. What endeared him to many of us was his characteristic humour, ready smile, humility and understated demeanour. Jyoti, one of the authors, recalls that as a young intern in a law firm whilst studying law, he was introduced by his senior to Kumar—with the words “meet Kumar, he is perhaps one of the nicest people you will ever meet in your life!” This when the two of them were engaged in one of the bitterest corporate wars representing opposing clients. That introduction turned out as one of truest ever for Jyoti—standing the test of time of 45 years. For Amit and his wife Sarita, he was a father figure whom they turned to for guidance in tough moments and who would always present another perspective in the face of any real or perceived wrong or disillusionment. He remained an eternal idealist with deep faith in genius of India to reinvent and bounce back after every adversity. And over the years, delightful interactions with Kumar continued to bring home to us the truth that being nice and decent is not contrarian to professional and personal success; that being aggressive is not a necessary condition for such success.

Alas!, as the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end as did his wonderful innings in the morning of 10-3-2017—as he was getting ready for a meeting—suddenly, quietly, and without any fuss—just as he would have wanted. He leaves behind many a daffodils in our hearts and an unbridgeable void in many of our lives including his repertoire of charming anecdotes! We only hope that the leaders of the Bar preserve his legacy by reminding us lawyers of our duty to the society and to our noble profession.

__________

[R.K.P. Shankardass, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India and an esteemed former member of the SCC Editorial Board, passed away on 10-3-2017. He was 86.]

    ‡  Ed.: The reference is to Qatar v. Bahrain, 1994 ICJ Reports 112

  ††  Ed.: The reference is to Pakistan v. India, Case No. 2011-01, decided on 20-12-2013 (PCA)

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