On Justice P.N. Bhagwati's death

PUDR remembers the significant contribution of Justice P.N. Bhagwati to the cause of furthering and protecting fundamental and democratic rights of citizens, in his death on 15 June 2017. In his years as a judge, especially through the 1980s, Justice Bhagwati along with Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, introduced Public Interest Litigation on a substantive scale in India, and the thrust of many of his judgments was to make justice and rights accessible to large numbers. His championing of legal aid can also be seen in this light.

Justice Bhagwati’s contribution to furthering rights has to be seen however without forgetting his role in the infamous ‘Habeas Corpus’ case (ADM Jabalpur vs. Shivkant Shukla, supporting the state’s right to detain persons without presenting them in court, delivered in 1976 during the Emergency), and his dissenting stance in the Minerva Mills judgment in 1980 (Minerva mills vs. Union of India, in which Justice Bhagwati supported changes in the Constitution brought about by the 42nd Amendment during the Emergency – supporting the Parliament’s unlimited powers to amend the Constitution). These have been rightly criticised for lending support to authoritarian state and governments to curtail democratic rights. These amounted to severe curtailment of the very rights and freedoms that some of Justice Bhagwati’s other judgments sought to defend.

And yet no critique can completely negate the contribution of the substantial body of his judgments. Among his important judgments was the one given in the PUDR vs. Union of India (1982) in which PUDR wrote a letter to the Supreme Court based on its investigation, about the violations of labour laws and rights of particularly contract workers in the various projects associated with the Asian Games (Asiad ’82). Treating the letter as a writ petition the Supreme Court issued notice to the Union of India, Delhi Administration and DDA. Apart from ruling on the particulars of the violations, extensively commenting on how the Rule of Law was for all and not just the ‘fortunate few’, the Justice Bhagwati established the ‘locus standi’ of organisations (like PUDR) to take up the cause of the directly affected, and submit the writ petition on their behalf, instead of the workmen fighting their own case. It also established the principal responsibility of the Union of India, Delhi Administration and DDA to ensure that their contractors acted according to labour laws and workers’ due wages and rights were granted. Sections of the judgment such as the one quoted below, are a measure of Justice Bhagwati’s commitment to bringing about social justice through the judiciary, and a representative of the decade of PILs, the 1980s.

The time has now come when the courts must become the courts for the poor and struggling masses of this country. They must shed their character as upholders of the established order and the status quo. They must be sensitised to the need of doing justice to the large masses of people to whom justice has been denied by a cruel and heartless society for generations. The realisation must come to them that social justice is the signature tune of our Constitution and it is their solemn duty under the Constitution to enforce the basic human rights of the poor and vulnerable sections of the community and actively help in the realisation of the constitutional goals.”

Lines such as these would be rare and anachronistic in judgments today, and due credit has to be given to Justice Bhagwati and other judges at the time, for actively and effectively taking forward the struggle for rights through the judiciary. Justice Bhagwati’s death and Justice V. Krishna Iyer’s three years earlier seem to mark the physical end of an earlier period, not a ‘golden age’ of rights and justice by any means, but at least one marked by a broad commitment in some sections of the judiciary to bringing constitutional rights within the reach of ordinary people.

Cijo Joy and Anushka Singh

Secretaries, PUDR

27th June 2017

Section: