The Father of the Human Rights Jurisprudence Hon’ble Justice P.N. Bhagwati

By | June 17, 2017

Justice Prafulla Chandra Natwarlal Bhagwati, one of the most distinguished judge, deeply respected not only in the legal world but by people from all walks of life, by the rich and the poor, by the elite and downtrodden, passed away on 15-06-2017 in New Delhi.

He believed that the job of a judge was not just to interpret law but also to make law. It is, perhaps, this streak of activism that influenced him to pave the way for public interest litigation (PIL) in India. In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Others, Bhagwati turned a post card from an activist into a petition and gave a landmark ruling that freed hundreds of bonded labourers. The PIL became an important ally of social activists across the country in their battles against systemic oppression and structural violence.

His Early life

He was born on December 21, 1921 and graduated in Maths (Hons.) in 1st class from Elphinstone College, Bombay in 1941 and was appointed a Fellow of the same college.

He took his Law Degree in 1st Class from Government Law College, Bombay and practiced at the High Court, Bombay. Became a Judge of the Gujarat High Court on July 21, 1960 and became Chief Justice of Gujarat on September 16, 1967. He was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court on July 17, 1973.

He acted as Chairman of the State Legal Aid Committee for running the Pilot Project of free Legal Aid and Advice in Gujarat. And was, also, the Chairman of the Judicial Reforms Committee set up by the Government of Gujarat. And became the Chief Justice of India on July 12, 1985 and retired on December 20, 1986.

When Justice Bhagwati said sorry

If the introduction of the idea of PIL marked the pinnacle of his judicial career, Bhagwati had his low point during the Emergency. He was one of the five judges in the Supreme Court bench that ruled in the ADM Jabalpur (habeas corpus) case in April, 1976. The SC upended the high court ruling in the case and held that the right to life ceased to exist under the Emergency provisions, a ruling that remains a stain on the otherwise stellar record of India’s highest court.

Justice H.R. Khanna was the lone dissenter; that act of superior wisdom and integrity cost him the CJI’s post, but history earmarked him as a hero of modern India. In 2011, Bhagwati, now 89, pleaded guilty. He said: The Supreme Court should be ashamed about the ADM Jabalpur judgment. I plead guilty. I don’t know why I yielded. A year earlier, the SC itself had apologised for the 1976 ruling, which, it said, violated the fundamental rights of a large number of people in the country.

The apology, indeed, came late in the day. But Bhagwati was upfront about his complicity in the courts disgraceful compromise with the establishment. He didn’t shift blame or put it on the system. It was an act of weakness of my part, he said. Such unqualified confessions of guilt are rare in the Indian establi.

A hero par excellence – Father of Human Rights

Justice Bhagwati through Judicial activism converted the rights to livelihood, shelter, health and water into basic fundamental rights. He expanded the frontiers of Human Rights Jurisprudence and brought the entire Indian Humanity within its reach.

Justice Bhagwati chaired the United Nations Human Rights Committee. And organized judicial colloquia in different parts of the world on domestic implementation of international human rights instruments. The united nations high commissioner for human rights appointed him as regional adviser for the Asia Pacific Region.

He also carried out several missions for the United Nations Centre for Human Rights, the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the International Commission of Jurists. His services have been utilized by several countries including, Mongolia, Cambodia, Nepal, Ethiopia, and South Africa in framing their Constitution and particularly the chapters on human rights. He also chaired the World Congress on Human Rights held in New Delhi in 1990. And was also a member of the Committee of Experts of International Labour Organisation.

Today Justice Bhagwati has become synonymous with justice and human rights. He has earned immense respect and affection of common people. We have lost a patron, philosopher, guide and well wisher.

By – Mayank Shekhar

(Legal Bites)


  1. The Indian Express
  2. Times of India
  3. Sabrang India
  4. Quint


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