A stalwart jurist (1921-2017)

One of India’s most celebrated jurists, Justice P.N. Bhagwati was born in Gujarat on 21 December 1921. His father Natwarlal H. Bhagwati was a Judge of the Supreme Court of India. Justice Bhagwati passed out with an Honours in Mathematics, and later graduated in Law from the Government Law College affiliated to Bombay University. He courted arrest during the freedom struggle and remained underground for four months. He practiced law in the Bombay High Court for several years before his appointment as a judge of the Gujarat High Court in 1960. Later he was elevated to the post of Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court. Justice Bhagwati took over as a judge of the Supreme Court of India in July 1973, and became the Chief Justice of India in July 1985, and served till his retirement in December 1986. During his tenure in the apex court he was responsible for several rulings on issues related to fundamental rights, and also on matters regarding right to life and the rights of prisoners. Along with a brother judge Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Bhagwati was instrumental in the introduction of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and Absolute Responsibility, a reform that made him a pioneer of judicial activism in the country.

The one blot on an otherwise long and illustrious career was the majority judgment delivered by a Supreme Court bench including Justice Bhagwati in ADM, Jabalpur vs Shrikant Shukla case heard during the emergency, where the judiciary sublimated to an absolutist regime by holding in its decree that during the emergency a person’s right to not be unlawfully detained stood suspended. The judgment was a clear contravention of the right of habeas corpus enshrined in the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The lone dissenting judge Hans Raj Khanna, who was lauded for his brave act of defending human rights, however paid the price for his stand and was not considered for elevation as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In a dramatic twist more than three decades later, Justice Bhagwati apologised for his role in the judgment and deemed it as ‘short sighted’. An admirer of Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi during the emergency days, Justice Bhagwati turned critical of her functioning after the Janata Party coalition came to power, and later did another flip flop after Mrs. Gandhi became PM once again, lauding her achievements.

After his retirement Justice Bhagwati held several key offices on judicial reforms and legal aid in Gujarat, and was in charge of the pilot project for free legal aid, and was also an adviser to the state on judicial issues. In 1982 he was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences while he was affiliated to the Columbia University. He was also a Member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee from 1995 to 2009, and had the distinction of being re-elected every two years on expiry of his term. Justice Bhagwati was also a member of the high profile Committee of Experts of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for over 27 years. The Justice also served as the Chancellor of the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

One of his brothers Jagdish Bhagwati was a renowned economist, and another brother S.N. Bhagwati was a reputed neuro-surgeon. Justice Bhagwati’s book My tryst with justice, which also carried his selected speeches and writings, was a best seller. A compassionate judge who believed in justice for all, earned encomiums from several quarters, and perhaps one of the best tributes came from Jusitce V.R. Krishna Iyer who opined that he was a jewel among judges, lucid and excellent. Justice Bhagwati passed away on 15 June 2017 at the ripe old age of 95. Among the laurels that this eminent jurist received was India’s second highest civil honour next only to Bharat Ratna, the Padma Vibhushan. His invaluable contribution to the judiciary and his role in ushering in judicial reform was lauded by several dignitaries, with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailing him as a stalwart of India’s legal fraternity.

– C. V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.