Over 35 years after he signed off — with the majority on a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court — to rule that even the right to life could be abrogated, former Chief Justice of India P N Bhagwati today said he was sorry for that ruling.
“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 (H R) Khanna did. I am sorry (for the judgment),” Bhagwati told The Indian Express today.
In the 1976 ADM Jabalpur vs Shivkant Shukla case, popularly known as the habeas corpus case, Justices Bhagwati, A N Ray, Y V Chandrachud and M H Beg agreed with the then Indira Gandhi government that even the right to life stood abrogated during the Emergency. The verdict constitutes one of the darkest chapters in the history of the court as it struck at the very heart of fundamental rights.
“I don’t know why I yielded to my colleagues,” said Bhagwati. “Initially, I was not in favour of the majority view. But ultimately, I don’t 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.”
Justice H R Khanna, incidentally, was the only judge on that bench who dissented with the majority view arguing that the Constitution didn’t permit the Right to Life and Liberty to be subject to any executive decree. This cost him the job of CJI.
He claimed that his later judgments dealing with fundamental rights did uphold the Constitution. Was it the lure of high office? “I can’t say this. It would not be right for me to say this,” he said.
Incidentally, during the Emergency, Bhagwati praised the Indira government but after the Janata Government came, he was critical of her. After Indira’s return, he sent her a gushing letter: “…I am sure that with your iron will and firm determination, uncanny insight and dynamic vision, great administrative capacity and vast experience, overwhelming love and affection of the people and above all, a heart which is identified with the misery of the poor and the weak, you will be able to steer the ship of the nation safely to its cherished goal.”
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