Born in Lahore to former chief minister of United Punjab Bhim Sen Sachar in 1923, Rajinder Sachar was truly a man of tumultuous times. A product of Government College and then Law College in Lahore, he started practice in Shimla in 1952.
As a lawyer, and later as a judge, he wore his convictions on his sleeve, never for a minute flinching at fighting for the rights of the downtrodden or making an elaborate case for how India could be made a better place.
In 1960, he started practising in Supreme Court, cutting his teeth assisting a campaign against corruption charges of Punjab Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon. This prepared him for larger campaigns and causes he was to embrace later.
He was an additional judge of Delhi High Court in 1970 and became a permanent judge in 1972. He was a judge in Sikkim but sent to to Rajasthan for his bold defiance of the Emergency after 1975. His associates saw his transfer without consulting him as ‘punishment’ for his espousing of civil liberties and approach to the Emergency.
After the Emergency was called off, Justice Sachar was moved to Delhi High Court in 1977.
Later, Sachar was the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, from where he retired in 1985.
Post-retirement, his activities continued and he was part of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties’ (PUCL) report on Kashmir. He was the president of PUCL in its most active years and Justice Sachar lent his weight to draft Bills on human rights reform. In 2002, he actively fought to end POTA, the anti-terror law that was eventually repealed after 2004.
He was the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, and a member of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.
To his close associates, Rajinder Sachar remained a socialist and progressive until his last days. In more recent times, his work, heading the PM’s high-level committee on the social, educational and economic status of Indian Muslims, set up by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005, was a defining moment.
The committee, with its path-breaking report busting myths of minority appeasement, played a seminal role in shaping the discourse around the politics of the United Progressive Alliance. Other than its work adding to academic details on the status of Muslims, it provided a framework for looking at the problem on backwardness among India’s largest minority community, not relying in identity terms but identifying their problems as Indian citizens.
The report went on to call for an Equal Opportunities Commission and challenged both the ruling Congress, the opposition BJP and other parties claiming to be progressive.
Justice Sachar never lost an opportunity to stand up for a cause that mattered, or a fight that must be fought. His frail demeanour could be deceptive, as it concealed nerves of steel and a determination to stand by whoever he felt needed his support.
The experience of the bloody Partition he witnessed as a young man, and the dislocation it meant for him personally, remained a firm reminder of the futility of politics that played on identities. His conviction – that the Partition took a toll on minorities (both Hindus and Muslims) – remained his guiding principle and explained the tremendous goodwill and trust he enjoyed among all sections of Indians.
Rajinder Sachar was a beacon, part of a generation older than independent India which is hard to find. His Lordship would be missed.