October 3, 2003

India's Sorabjee Talks Terrorism

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Soli J. Sorabjee, the attorney general of India, spoke on terrorism and the judicial protection of human rights in Myron Taylor Hall last night as part of the Cornell Law School’s Berger International Legal Studies Program.

Sorabjee, a biweekly contributor to the Times of India, comes from a highly accomplished background with previous positions ranging from president of a group called Capital Jazz to personal envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights for East Timor.

Last year, the Indian government enacted the Prevention of Terrorism Act, comparable to the USA PATRIOT Act in its goals and controversial means of restricting terrorism.

Like the PATRIOT Act, the POTA has also come under international scrutiny. Because of his independent stance in India, Sorabjee has taken notice of the tension surrounding POTA, describing it as “a necessary evil” for India to tackle terrorism and desiring to sustain its constitutional validity.

Sorabjee has taken an active role in guiding India to preserve “the main demands of the [original] freedom fighters” in the Fundamental Rights of India, a document similar to the Bill of Rights which guarantees freedoms including speech, unions, personal liberty, religion, movement and the right to live with human dignity.

“In the beginning,” Sorabjee explained, “human rights took a back seat.”

However, India has since developed the basic principles of secularism, federalism, rule of law and judicial review “which cannot be amended or changed … due to implied, inherit limitations in the [Indian] Constitution,” Sorabjee said.

Judicial Review

Judicial review was highlighted throughout the lecture as a vital and necessary aspect of the Indian government. Unlike the United States, where Marbury v. Madison set a precedent for judicial review, India has had the concept written as a core element of its constitution. Sorabjee also stressed the importance of assuring that POTA does not infringe on the human rights of the Indian citizenry.

However, he unmistakably relies on the Indian Supreme Court’s capability to “strike a balance between the demands of the general interest of the community and the protection of the individual’s fundamental rights” due to the “basic structure of the Constitution.”

The Prevention of Terrorism Act has been invoked countless times since its inception last year. It has since been challenged on numerous occasions in Indian courts which have upheld it.

Sorabjee concluded that he has great faith in the courts to faithfully find balance in this changing global atmosphere.

Student Reaction

Students at the event were generally happy with Sorabjee’s lecture.

“I was impressed by his knowledge of Indian history and the background of the Indian Constitution,” said Shannon Delaney ’06.

Jillian Perrotta ’06 agreed.

“He was very erudite and wise, and I’m glad he had the opportunity to speak here,” she said.

Archived article by Kris Reichardt