In 1975, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency across the country, most of her political opponents were imprisoned without court hearings and the press was censored.
The ADM Jabalpur Case, which occurred during the Emergency, became a significant legal milestone in Indian history. It centered around the right of Habeas Corpus and involved a petition that challenged the detention of individuals without trial.
It was then that Justice Hans Raj Khanna stood up to the Emergency and the then prime minister. Of the four judges of the five-member bench, he was the lone dissenter in the case.
The State argued that in a time of Emergency, the executive gets the power to take over the implementation of laws for the interests of the State.
But, Justice Khanna stated that the right to enquire about the matter and the Habeas Corpus writ could not be denied. He argued that no one should be deprived of liberty and life.
A 1976 article in The New York Times mentions that it was Justice Khanna who spoke out “fearlessly and eloquently for freedom” in dissenting from the court’s decision.
In his book Making of India’s Constitution, Khanna wrote, “A constitution is not a parchment of paper, it is a way of life and has to be lived up to.”
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and in the final analysis, its only keepers are the people. Imbecility of men, history teaches us, always invites the impudence of power.”
After nine months of delivering his dissent, Khanna was superseded to the office of the Chief Justice of India by Indira Gandhi in favour of Justice M H Beg in January 1977.
Justice Khanna, as Chairman of the Eighth Law Commission, showcased his independence from the government by serving without a salary following the arrival of a new government.
After assuming the position of the central minister of law, justice, and company affairs, he resigned within three days due to concerns about potential doubts regarding his objectivity from certain sections of the public.
In 2003, he published his autobiography Neither Roses Nor Thorns which documents the influences that shaped his life. Five years later in 2008, Justice Khanna died at the age of 97.