Justice RF Nariman: An Incredible Life Of A Parsi Priest Who Decriminalised Homosexuality

Justice Nariman, only the fifth lawyer in the nation’s history to be directly appointed as judge of the Supreme Court, retired on Thursday.


“There is no caste in the mother country of my religion. But here, we have it. It doesn’t matter there, where you are born, but here you have to take birth in a priestly family to become a priest. I couldn’t have become a priest, if I was not born in a priestly family.”

Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, while hearing arguments in a case involving reservation in promotion for SC/ST community, said the aforementioned on 16th August 2018. Exactly three weeks later, on 7th September 2018, Justice Nariman was a member of the bench that decriminalised homosexuality in India, by striking down Section 377 as unconstitutional. It is certainly poetic that a Parsi priest, who’d be considered a conservative based on his priestly background, sat on one of the historic and most progressive judgments of modern India. That speaks who Justice Nariman indeed was when he wore the coat as a Supreme Court judge, and how much he valued personal liberties of citizens.


Justice Nariman was only the fifth lawyer in the nation’s history to be directly appointed as judge of the Supreme Court.


The”Renaissance Man” Retires

Krishnadas Rajagopal, in his piece for The Hindu on Wednesday, said: “Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, Supreme Court’s “Renaissance Man”, retires on August 12. He was sui generis on the Bench. Sharp, brusque, fearless and armed with repartees. He did not suffer incompetence and frivolous cases in court, dismissing both without mercy.”

Justice Nariman, only the fifth lawyer in the nation’s history to be directly appointed as judge of the Supreme Court, retired on Thursday. Many remembered Justice Nariman’s legacy very fondly on the day of his retirement, but the most heartfelt message came from the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, who said: “With Brother Justice Nariman’s retirement I feel like I am losing one of the lions which guarded this Judicial institution.”

“One of the strong pillars of the contemporary judicial system, he is a man of principles and is committed to what is right. I’m sure there are many more chapters left to be written in professional life of Brother Nariman”, the CJI added.

Personal Background

Justice Nariman was born to Fali Sam Nariman, a distinguished Indian jurist, on 13th August 1956. He received his early education in Mumbai, at the Cathedral and John Connon School. He completed his undergraduate B.Com. degree from Shri Ram College of Commerce. He completed his LL.B from Campus Law Centre of the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, where he ranked 2nd in the batch. He then went to Harvard Law School for his LL.M. degree in 1980–81 where he was taught by stalwarts like Professor Laurence Tribe and Professor Unger.


Justice RF Nariman is son of eminent Indian jurist late Fali Sam Nariman.


Legal Career

Justice Nariman joined the Bar as an advocate in 1979. The Times of India has placed him among top ten lawyers of his time. After his year at Harvard, Justice Nariman practised Maritime Law in New York at Haight, Gardner, Poor & Havens for a year. He was designated as a Senior Advocate at Supreme Court of India from 15th December 1993 at the young age of 37. While appointing him, then Chief Justice Venkatachalaiah amended the rules, as Nariman was only 37 years old and the minimum age for being made a senior in the Supreme Court was 45.

Justice Nariman has been practising law for the last 30 years and has more than 500 reported Supreme Court Judgments to his credit. He is an expert in Comparative Constitutional Law and Civil Law.

He was appointed the Solicitor General of India on 23 July 2011. After being at the post of SG of India for eighteen months, Nariman resigned on 4th February 2013. The reason for this is not known though it was said that he shared a poor rapport with the Law Minister Ashwani Kumar.

Justice Nariman was elevated as a Judge of the Supreme Court on 7th July 2014.

Key Judgements

Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India:

Shreya Singhal v. Union of India is a judgement by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India comprising of Justice RF Nariman and Justice J Chelameshwar in 2015, which deals with the issue of online speech and intermediary liability in India. The Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, relating to restrictions on online speech, as unconstitutional on grounds of violating the freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

Justice RF Nariman, in his judgment in the case, wrote: “It is obvious that an expression of a view on any matter may cause annoyance, inconvenience or may be grossly offensive to some. A few examples will suffice. A certain section of a particular community may be grossly offended or annoyed by communications over the internet by “liberal views” – such as the emancipation of women or the abolition of the caste system or whether certain members of a non proselytizing religion should be allowed to bring persons within their fold who are otherwise outside the fold. Each one of these things may be grossly offensive, annoying, inconvenient, insulting or injurious to large sections of particular communities and would fall within the net cast by Section 66A. In point of fact, Section 66A is cast so widely that virtually any opinion on any subject would be covered by it, as any serious opinion dissenting with the mores of the day would be caught within its net. Such is the reach of the Section and if it is to withstand the test of constitutionality, the chilling effect on free speech would be total.”

Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union Of India


In this landmark judgement, a five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India, decriminalised all consensual sex among adults, including homosexual sex. The bench comprised of then CJI Dipak Misra, Justice RF Nariman, Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice AM Khanwilkar, and Justice Indu Malhotra.

In the judgment authored in the case, Justice Nariman observed: These fundamental rights do not depend upon the outcome of elections. And, it is not left to majoritarian governments to prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters concerning social morality. The fundamental rights chapter is like the north star in the universe of constitutionalism in India. Constitutional morality always trumps any imposition of a particular view of social morality by shifting and different majoritarian regimes.”

“Given modern psychiatric studies and legislation which recognizes that gay persons and transgenders are not persons suffering from mental disorder and cannot therefore be penalized, the Section must be held to be a provision which is capricious and irrational. Also, roping in such persons with sentences going upto life imprisonment is clearly excessive and disproportionate,” he observed.

Shayara Bano vs. Union of India

On 22 August 2017 the Supreme Court took a landmark decision on the constitutional validity of “Talaq-e-Biddat” popularly known as “Triple Talaq” which is one of the three male initiated divorce in the Muslim community. The 5-judge bench, comprising of Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar, Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, Justice Rohinton Fali Niraman, Justice Uday Lalit, Justice K.M. Joseph, declared this custom unconstitutional by a majority of 3:2 ratio. Justice Nariman opined in favour of striking down the Triple Talaq custom.


In his observation, Justice Nariman wrote: The thread of reasonableness runs through the entire fundamental rights Chapter. What is manifestly arbitrary is obviously unreasonable and being contrary to the rule of law, would violate Article 14.”

Joseph Shine vs. Union of India

On 27th September 2018, a five-judge Bench comprising of CJI Dipak Misra, Justice AM Khanwilkar, Justice RF Nariman, Justice DY Chandrachud, and Justice Indu Malhotra, unanimously struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), thereby decriminalising adultery.

Justice Nariman, in his judgement, said: “A statutory provision belonging to the hoary past which demeans or degrades the status of a woman obviously falls foul of modern constitutional doctrine and must be struck down on this ground also.”

“Ancient notions of the man being the seducer and the woman being the victim is no longer the case today”, he added.

Suo-motu case (UP Kanwar Yatra)


The court had taken suo motu cognisance of the UP’s nod to allow the Kanwar Yatra amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and issued a notice to the Yogi Adityanath-led government regarding the same.

“State of Uttar Pradesh cannot go ahead with it. 100 percent,” Justice RF Nariman had said.

The health of the citizenry of India and their right to “life” are paramount .All other sentiments, al beit religious, are subservient to this most basic fundamental right”, he had added.



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