There are many ways one can choose to remember Justice PN Bhagwati, who passed away at the age of 95 last week. Some may associate him with the infamous judgment in ADM Jabalpur v. Shivkant Shukla case (popularly known as Habeus Corpus) case, while some may always remember him as the man who gave voice to the underprivileged and marginalized sections of our society through the introduction of Public Interest Litigation (PIL).
Nevertheless, it is indisputable that he is responsible for the activist stance that our judiciary takes, when our legislative and executive branch of the government fails to perform.
Justice Bhagwati was born in 1921 as Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati in Ahmedabad, then part of the Bombay Presidency. He graduated in 1941 in Maths from Elphinstone College, Bombay with a first class. The very next year, he was arrested during the Quit India Movement and went underground for four months.
After resurfacing, he went on to secure his law degree from Government Law College in Bombay and started practicing at the Bombay High Court, until he became its judge in 1960. In little over a decade he became a Supreme Court Judge. By the end of July 1985, he had become the Chief Justice of India. He served in the position until his retirement in December the next year.
If there were two cases we could pick that showcased Justice Bhagwati’s commitment to the ideals of democracy, they would be the Hussainara Khatoon Vs Home Secretary, Bihar (1979) and M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1983).
Until the 1980s, only those people who had been personally affected by the law could knock on the doors of the court. They had to demonstrate the locus standi (or the standing required in law) that they have sufficiently been harmed by the law or the action that they are challenging in the court of law. Only then the case would be accepted.
However, in 1979, PN Bhagwati made history by accepting the petition of a practicing lawyer at Supreme Court of India, Pushpa Kapila Hingorani, to represent 18 undertrial prisoners (including 6 women), who were being kept in inhumane conditions, sometimes for much longer than their expected sentence, while they awaited their trails. He went on to rule in favour of the prisoners, eventually releasing 40,000 undertrial prisoners across India.
This became the first Public Interest Litigation case ever. Justice Bhagwati expanded the scope of locus standi, which allowed any individual, institution or NGO (including the court itself suo motu) could petition the court, if they could prove the litigation was in the larger interest of this undefinable entity called ‘public’. Even today, you can file a petition without relying on the legal jargon — a simple letter addressed to the court can be considered as a PIL. In fact, in Bandhua Mukthi Morcha vs Union of India & Others (1983), Justice Bhagwati accepted a post-card as a PIL.
He believed that, “The Court ha[d]s to innovate new methods and strategies to provide access to justice to large masses of people who were denied basic human rights, to whom freedom and liberty had no meaning.”
His conviction to social justice was also demonstrated in the M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1986), where he made sure Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd. complex was held responsible for the gas leak that led to death of at least one person. Occurring soon after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the court found the company liable, even though they had no intention of actually causing the leak. This came to be known as absolute liability, where a company cannot claim the defense of lack of intention of harming.
Since his retirement, he had been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee from 1995 to 2009, being re-elected every two years after expiry of each term. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2007. The 17th Chief Justice of India passed away in Delhi after a brief illness on Thursday. He is survived by his wife and three daughters.
Despite the black mark of ADM Jabalpur case judgment (for which he has since apologized), Justice Bhagwati will always be known as the one who brought Lady Justice from the corridors of the courts to the streets and among the people.