Justice P.N. Bhagwati: The People’s Judge

21 December 1921 marked the birth of a legend in the Indian judiciary. The birth of a man whose vision, intellect and need to do justice would change the face of the Indian judiciary, and give human rights jurisprudence an all new perspective. This man was Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati who came to be popularly known as Justice P.N. Bhagwati.

His journey in the Indian judiciary began when he was appointed as a judge of the Gujarat High Court in the year 1960. He also went on to become the Chief Justice of India in the year 1985.

His Contributions:-

Justice P.N.Bhagwati has been a crusader for human rights in the Indian judiciary. He has also been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Be it his judgment in the celebrated case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, where he along with Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer ruled in favor of Maneka Gandhi, who had challenged the impounding of her passport by the authorities;

Or, in the case of Bacchan Singh v. State of Punjab, where he opined, “murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another but similars that breed their kind.” He further said, “criminals do not die at the hands of the law. They die at the hands of other men. Assassination on the scaffold is the worst form of assassination since there it is invested with the approval of the society.”;

Or, in the famous case of S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, where he said, “the Court has to innovate new methods and strategies to provide access to justice to large masses of people who are denied basic human rights, to whom freedom and liberty have no meaning.”

In the light of such judgments, he also became the torch-bearer of two of India’s most vital judicial tools – Public Interest Litigation and Absolute Liability.

Importance of PIL:-

Locus standi, which means the right or capacity to bring an action or to appear in a Court, was a compulsory rule to bring a case to a Court of law. That is to say, a person who came before the Court should have been directly affected by the cause or the consequence of the act for which the case was brought. However, the introduction of the concept of Public Interest Litigation relaxed this very principle.

Public-Interest Litigation is litigation for the protection of the public interest. Article 32 of the Indian constitution contains a tool which directly joins the public to the judiciary. A PIL may be introduced in a court of law by the court itself (suo motu), rather than the aggrieved party or other third party. It is not necessary that the victim’s rights must have been violated for him or her to personally approach the court. In a PIL, the right to file the suit is given to a member of the public through judicial activism. The member of the public may be a non-governmental organization (NGO), an institution or an individual. The Supreme Court of India, rejecting the criticism of judicial activism, has stated that the judiciary has stepped in to give direction because due to executive inaction, the laws enacted by Parliament and the state legislatures for the poor, since independence, have not been properly implemented.

The importance of PIL lies in the very fact that it is an aid which gives a voice to the unheard; to the people who are not even aware that certain rights are available to them; to the people who we conveniently tuck away as the under-privileged and the poor; the people who also form a part of the country that we live in, yet remained ignored somehow.

The main aim of law, or the Courts to be more precise, is to impart justice. However, in the absence of a tool that facilitates the same, justice is but a mere ideology that remains stagnant in a system like ours. Therefore, PIL is a necessary tool in the Indian democracy, and must be used to the farthest possible extent to uphold human rights.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that today the PIL is being misused which has become the major source of problem for the judges. The false and vexatious filing of PILs for satisfying personal enmity or for grabbing media attention has not only frustrated the basic purpose of  PIL but has resulted in wastage of time for our courts., keeping in mind the huge backlogs of cases.

Principle of Absolute Liability:-

The principle of absolute liability has been derived from one of the most intriguing chapters of the history of Indian jurisprudence. Its definition as laid down by the then Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati revolutionized the entire trend on environmental protection laws in India.

The rule of absolute liability was evolved in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India. On the 4th and the 6th of December, 1985 in Delhi there was severe leakage of oleum gas which took place in one of the units of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries, which belonged to the Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. Due to this, an advocate practicing in the Tis Hazari Court had died and many others were affected by the same. A writ petition by way of public interest litigation (PIL) was brought to the court.

The Court had noted that this was the second case of large-scale leakage of a deadly gas in India within the period of a year, as a year earlier more than 3000 people had died due to the leakage of gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and lakhs of others were subjected to various other kinds of diseases. The Supreme Court therefore evolved a new rule – the rule of “Absolute Liability”, as coined by the then Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati.

The Court explained its position in the following words:

 “If the enterprise is permitted to carry on any hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for its profit, the law must presume that such permission is conditional on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accident arising on account of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity as an appropriate item of its overheads. This principle is also sustainable on the ground that the enterprise also has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazard.”

Thus, absolute liability, in simple words, means the liability imposed upon a person due to any harm caused to the environment with or without fault, regardless of whether such conduct was negligent. It is also known as no-fault liability.

The way ahead:-

And while the legend departs from us, he has left behind a legacy that is futuristic, just and makes law accessible to every person in the country today. He has left behind tools that could play a vital role in shaping the future of the Indian democracy, and giving power to the idea of justice to one and all, instead of justice to a selected few. He has left behind a story that must continue to be written.


Author: Pooja Kannurkar

You can reach the author at: poojakannurkar01@gmail.com 

[Pooja has completed her bachelors in law from D.E.S.(fergusson) Law College, Pune. She is now prepairing for LL.M. She is also a board member of Hari-Kamal Foundation for Policy Research.]

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