Sarosh Zaiwalla’s clients have included global political leaders, the Dalai Lama, Greek shipping tycoons, Russian oligarchs, the ‘Pathur Natarja’ and even Mafia boss Joseph Zappia. The London-based solicitor may be best known here for his successful defence of the Bachchan brothers in the Bofors case, but he also tried to set up a back channel for the Sino-Indian border dispute, and saved India millions in maritime arbitration. Here for the launch of his memoir, ‘Honour Bound’, he spoke to Bachi Karkaria on his amazing journey .
What gave you the confidence to set up the first Indian solicitor’s firm in the toff ‘City of London’ back in 1982?
While training for being enrolled as a solicitor in London. I became friends with Cedric Barclay, an eminent maritime arbitrator. Cedric strongly advised me to start on my own. He said that however brilliant I may be, if I joined a big City law firm, I would not progress far as I would always be seen as an outsider.
How did you deal with racism, and the Old Boys’ Club?
Like anything new, it was difficult in the beginning. However, when they saw that I worked with the same high standards, honestly and integrity, they accepted me, bar a few exceptions.
Tell us about the hostility from India’s high commissioner to the UK.
I had very close and friendly relationship with all Indian high commissioners. Even though Kuldip Nayyar (high commissioner, 1990) sacked my firm because I did not accept his request to stop representing the Bachchans, it did not affect his personal cordial relationship with me. Unfortunately, Dr L M Singhvi (high commissioner, 1991-97) acted unfairly towards my firm for a possible personal reason. I was a member of an international arbitration tribunal in a multimillion dollar claim against the Indian government. His son, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, then a very junior counsel, was appearing before us. My co-arbitrator knew Dr Singhvi well and was clearly under pressure. He gave a dissenting award in favour of the Indian government. I joined the majority award given by the chairman of the tribunal, Lord McKenzie Stuart, which was against the Indian government. Mine was a judicial decision on merits. This apparently provoked Dr Singhvi to recommend blacklisting my firm despite the successful service we had provided the High Commission over the years.
What was your learning from your involvement in the Bofors case?
Never to act again for a case where internal Indian politics is involved.
Do you believe that the GBP15 million that Ajitabh Bachchan gave you for a compensatory business partnership actually came from Rajiv Gandhi?
The monies did arrive but I have no definite proof of the source. However, from my own dealings with Rajiv Gandhi, I believe he was a good, honest man.
Weren’t you involved in the Indo-China border dispute?
Yes and no. I had assisted China in a successful second-channel, high-level dialogue between the actual political decision-makers of China and UK on the thorny issues arising from the hand-over of Hongkong. So, a few years later, the Chinese ambassador in London asked me if I could organise a similar private dialogue to find an amicable resolution of the border dispute with India. We prepared a note which was handed in person to Maneka Gandhi (whom we were representing in another case) to be passed on to the external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh. There was no response from India.
Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Benazir Bhutto, The Dalai Lama, Ban ki Moon.. Who really impressed you?
Rajiv Gandhi as a very warm person. Narsimha Rao had this fluency in Persian language. I was touched by the Dalai Lama’s complete openness and honesty during our one-on-one meeting. Ban ki Moon had such genuine humility.
In your Dalai Lama chapter, you express a prescient view on Art 370.
Yes, by not allowing businessmen from other parts of India to own immoveable property, Art 370 was detrimental to the economy of Kashmir and, and thereby of the state’s ordinary people. I said this in the context of Tibet where there’s job security, healthcare and advanced education facilities.
And what did Benazir tell you?
One, that at a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, when both were Prime Minister, they came very close to settling the Kashmir dispute. Two, she said that the Kashmir insurgency was being financed by the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia.
How many millions did you save India during your early days of maritime arbitration?
At the time I had started my firm, India was going through a major food crisis. President Johnson had decided to donate free gift of wheat to India under what was called US PL 480 scheme. But India had to charter ships to carry the wheat from the United States ports to India ports. The charter party contract for the vessels required all disputes to be settled by London arbitration. The success which my firm obtained for the Indian government in those arbitrations saved India over $50 million in those years when India was going through a severe foreign exchange crisis as well.
Your argument in the Pathur Nataraja case of the 1970s resonates with that of ‘Ram Lalla’.
The Nataraja idol, found buried in a Tamil Nadu field, was bought by the Canadian Bumper Development Corporation, and sent to the British Museum for appraisal and cleaning. There it was seized by the British police as a possible stolen antique. Bumper filed for its return, but the Indian government claimed to be the rightful owners. There was insufficient evidence to prove that it was stolen or smuggled out. So, my firm came up with a rather unusual argument for an English court, namely, that, as a consecrated idol, Nataraja under Indian law had a juristic personality as a deity god on his own, and he was entitled to go back to his home – even if that temple in Tamil Nadu had been demolished centuries earlier by Islamic rulers. After 50 days of hearings, we won.
You seem to have most enjoyed doing business in China.
Yes it was very interesting and even fun. It was when China had just begun opening up. The government sought my advice on how to set up legal infrastructure in for foreign investors.. I found that China respected Indians more than it did Europeans.
What was Zaiwalla & Co’s toughest case?
Bank Mellat of Iran vs UK Government. Bank Mellat had challenged its listing under the Iran nuclear-sanctions, and my firm was instructed after the bank had lost in both the English High Court and the Court of Appeal. We won for Bank Mellat in the UK Supreme Court, which held that the UK government had acted unlawfully and irrationally in listing Bank Mellat under nuclear sanctions. Then, Bank Mellat decided to claim for damages totalling USD 1.6 billion. The UK Government strenuously defended itself , but, at the door of the trial, gave in. We concluded a very satisfactory settlement was concluded in favour of our client.
And its proudest?
It concerned a charter party dispute in respect of a vessel called La Pintada. This was a test case where the Indian government could stand to lose around $5 million in compound interest because in those years India always paid freight and demurrage very late. We won before the House of Lords which happened to be the first Indian victory in the House of Lords in a commercial case. Interestingly, the counsel I had instructed at the high court hearing was Tony Blair.
What drew you to the Baha’ai faith ?
I saw the Baha’i faith as the progression of all other faiths, including my own Zoroastrianism. It responds to a changing world. It envisions ‘One world, One mankind’, where what matters is the colour of the heart and not the colour of the skin, religion or flag.

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