Know your Judges: Justice P.N. Bhagwati.

Justice P.N. Bhagwati


Justice PrafullachandraNatwarlalBhagwati was the 17th Chief Justice of India. He was appointed as the Chief Justice by the then President GianiZail Singh for a duration of 15 months, i.e. from 12th July 1985- 20th December 1986. He succeeded the 16th and the longest serving Chief Justice of India till date, i.e. Y.V. Chandrachud. He is considered to be the pioneer of Judicial Activism in the Country, for he introduced reforms in Human Rights including the most distinguished Public Interest Litigation.

Life and Career-


Justice Bhagwati was born on 21st December 1921 in Ahmedabad, the then Presidency of Bombay in the British India. He was the son of the former Supreme Court Judge, Justice Natwarlal H Bhagwati and the brother of the economist JagdishBhagwati and Neurosurgean S.N. Bhagwati. Justice Bhagwaticompleted his schooling from and then then in 1941, took the Bachelor’s degree in mathematics (Hons.) from Bombay University. In 1942, he was however courted arrest during the Indian Independence Movement and went underground for four months. He later received a law degree from Government Law College, Mumbai.

He began his career by practicing as an advocate in the Bombay High Court. In July 1960, he was appointed the judge of the Gujarat High Court. Thereafter,in September 1967, he was appointed the Chief Justice of that court. He also acted as an acting  Governor of Gujarat a couple of times, i.e. from 7 December 1967 to 25 December 1967 and 17 March 1973 to 3 April 1973. In July 1973, he was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of India. In August 1985, he became Chief Justice of India.

In 1982, Justice Bhagwati was also elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee from 1995 to 2009.  He was also chairman of the committee in 2001-03. In 2006, he had also served as a member of the Committee of Experts of the International LabourOrganisation for over 27 years. He was appointed Chancellor of Sri SathyaSai Institute of Higher Learning on 6 May 2011.

In 2007 Justice Bhagwati was awarded with the Padma Vibhushan in public affairs, which is India’s second highest civilian award.

Justice Bhagwati died on 15 June 2017 at the age of 95 after brief illness in New Delhi.


Landmark Judgments-

During his entire tenure, Justice Bhagwati delivered many landmark and important judgments. In the capacity of a supreme court judge, Justice Bhagwati introduced the concepts of public interest litigation and absolute liability to the Indian judiciary. Therefore he, along with Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, is called the pioneer of judicial activism in the country. Some of his most prominent Judgments may be briefed as under-

Habeas Corpus Case-

A controversial judgment of Bhagwati was in the ADM Jabalpur v. ShivkantShukla case (popularly referred to as the ADM Jabalpur case or the habeas corpus case) where he decreed that during the Emergency of 1975 to 1977, a person’s right to not be unlawfully detained (i.e. habeas corpus) can be suspended. This judgment received a lot of criticism since it reduced the importance attached to Fundamental Rights under the Indian Constitution. Bhagwati later in 2011 agreed with popular opinion that this judgement was short-sighted and “apologised”.

Maneka Gandhi Case-

In the case ManekaGandhi, had been issued Indian passport on 1 June 1976, which was confiscated abruptly on the airport. Under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which deals with Right to Freedom, Gandhi filed a writ petition in which Bhagwati and Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer ruled in favour of Gandhi.

S.P Gupta vs. Union of India-

Justice Bhagwati in the said case supported the expansion of access to justice to all the Indians and held that “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 at all.

Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab-

In this case where the rarest of rare doctrine was given by the majority judges, Justice Bhagwati was of the opinion that “Criminals do not die at the hands of law, they die at the hands of other men. Death Penalty is the worst form of Assassination since there it is invested with the approval of the Society.

Minerva Mills Case-

Justice Bhagwati was the only dissenting judge in the Minerva Mills case as well in 1980. He upheld the 42nd Constitutional Amendment during Emergency, which was struck by the majority. In the case the majority was of the view that the power of the Parliament to amend the Constitution was limited by the Constitution itself.

By: Rhishika Srivastava.