Rajaratnam, IRS, could ‘smell the brief’

In the last few decades, if there was one man whose name was synonymous with the law of income-tax, it was that of Mr. S. Rajaratnam, IRS, who breathed his last on Saturday at the age of 93.

There were few men more soft-spoken than him, and more knowledgeable than him in the subject. To acquire such mastery over that branch of law is not an easy achievement; it takes a major part of one’s life. Mr. Rajaratnam was one of the most sought-after persons for his unbiased, but sharp views on anything to do with income-tax law. He was a prolific writer on the subject, and given his vast experience, he had much deeper insights into the practical implications of the frequent amendments of the Income Tax Act than most others. His popularity among the chartered accountants in Madras and other cities/towns of south India was unmatched, for he had a special skill for direct and straight-forward communication of his thoughts, bereft of any kind of airs or pomp – simplicity personified, a rarest of rare traits these days!

My lawyer-friend told me while breaking the news this morning that in the last twenty years or so he had not seen Mr. Rajaratnam miss a single study-meeting organised by the professionals. Such was his eagerness to learn, and share what he knew. He never dismissed an idea or a seed of an idea out of hand; he would think, nurture the idea, water and manure it and develop it into a full-grown theory, the same way in which he would pass orders during his long stints in the IRS and in the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal.

I first had the opportunity to interact with him when he was on deputation from the IRS to the Sales Tax Appellate Tribunal, Madras Bench, which sat in the High Court premises. We from our senior’s chamber appeared before him frequently. It was refreshing, even at that time, to hear his soft but probing queries, put to us with a smile and an encouraging nudge. I remember an occasion when I appeared before him in his camp office in Madurai as Controller of Estate Duty, when he politely rejected one of my claims with a smile, saying “Sorry Easwar, you have to get it from up there (meaning Tribunal)”,

Mr. Rajaratnam’s stint in the Tribunal was a golden era, particularly for the junior members of the Bar. He could “smell the brief” as they say! You had only to stand up, and he would anticipate all your arguments and sum it up for you. He would have looked up all the facts and all the law himself. He never stood on the formalities of a judicial proceeding; his only aim was to do justice. Patience he had in abundance; not a frown creased his face, nor a harsh word was uttered. The Madras Benches of the Tribunal those days had others like him: Mr. George Cherian, Mr. T.N.C. Rangarajan (later Justice Rangarajan), Mr. C.K. Nair and others and the Tribunal those days afforded a launching platform for several of us juniors. We loved to appear before such gentle giants. They knew so much, but never showed it.

I was in touch with him almost continuously even after leaving Madras. When I was posted in Delhi in the Tribunal, we had an orientation programme for newly appointed Members and Mr. Rajaratnam was one of the invitees to address the Members. When I spoke on charitable trusts in a meeting organised by RBA, Mr. Rajaratnam was the Chairperson and after my speech, he softly whispered in my ears why I did not mention anything about the proviso to section 2(15)! I realised with shock what a glaring omission it was, but he was such a graceful person that he did not rake it up in is summing up and allowed the matter to rest. For the memorial lectures for my senior, Mr. Rajaratnam and Mr. Cherian, both in their nineties, were present to listen to the guest-speakers, with the eagerness of students! I last met Mr. Rajaratnam in December last in a function in the ICAI premises and noticed that he had become a bit short of hearing, but otherwise looked trim and prim in his well-ironed white shirt. I even had the privilege (which I accepted after much hesitation) of writing a foreword to his book on valuation. Till date I feel guilty for that blasphemous act of mine!

The profession will undoubtedly miss Mr. Rajaratnam’s sobering counsel. What drove him to live income-tax was his sheer passion for the subject. A gentleman to the last word, a friend, philosopher and guide for upcoming practitioners. The values he stood for are eternal. His motto in life appeared to me to be only to share his stupendous knowledge with others so that it may benefit them. I recall the words of Seneca:

“If wisdom were conferred with this proviso, that I must keep it to myself and not communicate it to others, I would have none of it”.

Mr. Rajaratnam would have none of it! May his soul rest in peace!!

(The writer is a retired judge of the Delhi High Court and previously, the President of ITAT)

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