Justice P.N. Bhagwati: Pioneer of Judicial Activism

India lost a great leader earlier this month. Having served as the 17th Chief Justice of India he left a formidable legacy behind him. As the nation rows its boat towards the Presidential election, Justice Bhagwati’s achievements during his lifetime hardly got any attention. The champion of human rights, he introduced judicial activism and concept of absolute liability to Indian Jurisprudence. In today’s political scenario of political unrest, someone like Justice Bhagwati is ever needed.

Justice Bhagwati’s contributions through judiciary to the Indian jurisprudence compile of an enormous pile. His deeds define his life and his life was a human textbook. A person of great moral understanding and an observer of human rights, he was a man par excellence. Serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court of India, hon’ble Justice Bhagwati gave many decisions and set numerous precedents which would later go on to change the face of Indian Jurisprudence.

Born in the British Raj Era, late Justice Bhagwati went on to become the most prominent Chief Justice India had ever seen. His judgments in plethora of cases present evidence of his calibre, of him being a stalwart of the legal fraternity. While keeping the part 3 of the constitution of India close to his heart, he delivered many judgments based on humanitarian grounds. These cases defined the modern Jurisprudence in India.

The introduction of PIL or the Public Interest Litigation and judicial activism is perhaps his most formidable gift to the Indian legal system. The postcard revolution brought out a different kind of practice by the Indian courts. Justice was more accessible with judicial activism and with the introduction of PIL. On the other hand, he introduced more concepts to the system the most prominent of which was founding the principle of absolute liability. Environmental Law had not been developed in India when this principle had come to being in his judgment. His belief in PILs that it could make justice accessible and more feasible and revolutionise the then judicial system was a commendable job. These newly introduced principles gradually being a boon to the Indians and the result of which are the PILs by MC Mehta, Prashant Bhushan and many others which fought for the greater good.

Indian Legal Fraternity already missed the preacher of human rights and the believer in fundamental rights after his retirement as a judge. After his death, he’ll be remembered through his judgments. Each and every of his judgment, be it Bachhan Singh, Maneka Gandhi, EP Royappa, Hussainara Khatoon, Sunil Batra, Upendra Baxi, S. P. Gupta, Bandhua Mukti Morcha reflected a humanitarian thought, a plea for sustaining human rights, a fight and a recognition of part 3 of the Constitution of India, 1950.

If a brain like his was in the Supreme Court in today’s political climate, would it reflect the same attributes it did then? Would Justice Bhagwati deliver such humanitarian judgments protection freedom of speech, right to life and other principles enshrined in the constitution of India? As a student of law, one should be curious enough to dig deeper into the mind of Justice Bhagwati and impersonating him, think about the injustices and unrest going on in this country. Would someone be able to replicate a legal beauty that was Maneka Gandhi’s judgment? A simple passport case going on to rejuvenate the right to life and personal liberty of Article 21 of the Constitution is rarely a sight nowadays. A legal gem, Justice Bhagwati would have thought of violation of Article 19(1)(a) that is a reality of this decade. When the entire nation is busy for the last couple of years in defining the word ‘nationalism’ and unable to do so, confusing it with ultra nationalism, we need someone like Justice Bhagwati to come to the rescue. When in the name of uniting India and integrating the dalits, SCs and STs, the benefits of the reservation system are being misused (by the people and by the politicians), we need someone like Justice Bhagwati to carve out a new principle so that no student misses out on quality education.

Pic Credits: The Quint

Who would help us fight for justice when there are hardly innovators in the Justice System? For innovation is the key for an evolving jurisprudence. The constitution isn’t just a textbook which should be learned and enforced but it is the idea of innovation of a progressing country. The constitution is the map to a lost traveller. Learning the provisions by heart and innovating the legal framework within the limits of basic structure is what is desired. Justice Bhagwati was an evidence of that innovation; he was a champion of innovation and inspiration. The jewel among the judges may be criticised for his judgment in ADM Jabalpur case, but his legacy is far more inspiring and humanitarian. Long live his legacies, long live the constitution. Let the justice be served.

Author: Toshan Chandrakar and Jinendra Parakh

You can reach authors at: toshanc96@gmail.com and jinendra.hnlu@gmail.com

(Both the authors are pursuing law from Hidyatullah National Law University. Jinendra is also the board member of Hari-Kamal Foundation for Policy Research)

Hari-kamal Foundation for Policy Research is an independent research think-tank working in the areas of environment, energy, politics and governance. It is situated in Bhopal. The Analysis (TA) is being maintained by the foundation only.  


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