Former Chief Justice of India (CJI) Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati, 95, who introduced the concept of Public Interest Litigations (PILs), passed away in New Delhi on Thursday. He was a member of a five-judge Supreme Court bench, which had ruled in favour of the government’s stand that a person arrested during the Emergency was not entitled to fundamental rights. The question before the Supreme Court was whether it could admit a habeas corpus petition for a man arrested during the Emergency that Indira Gandhi’s government had declared in the 1970s.
Bhagwati and Justices A N Ray, Y V Chandrachud and M H Beg had upheld the government’s move to suspend fundamental rights during the period while Justice H R Khanna was the lone dissenter. The verdict is seen as one of the darkest in the Indian legal history.
Bhagwati regretted the verdict over three decades later. “I was wrong. The majority judgment was not the correct judgment. If it was open to me to come to a fresh decision in that case, I would agree with what Justice Khanna did. I am sorry (for the judgment),’’ he told The Indian Express in 2011. Bhagwati added that he did not know why he had yielded to his colleagues. “Initially, I was not in favour of the majority view. But ultimately, I do not know why I was persuaded to agree with them. I was a novice at that time, a young judge… I was handling this type of litigation for the first time. But it was an act of weakness on my part.”
But he earned acclaim with the introduction of PILs in 1986 while he was the CJI to protect interests of the marginalised and less privileged. PILs have over the years redefined judicial activism.
A Padma Vibhushan recipient, Bhagwati was born in 1921 and rose to become the 17th CJI from July 12, 1985 to December 20, 1986. Bhagwati, who was educated in Mumbai and started his legal career at the Bombay High Court, is survived by his wife, Prabhavatinand, and three daughters.