5 Landmark Rulings by Former CJI & PIL Pioneer Justice PN Bhagwati

Justice PN Bhagwati passed away at the age of 95 on 15 June.

3 min read
Justice PN Bhagwati. (Photo: Reuters)

Former Chief Justice of India (CJI) Prafulchandra Natwarlal Bhagwati passed away on 15 June. He was 95. Bhagwati, who hailed from Gujarat, served as the CJI from 12 July 1985 to 20 December 1986.

Bhagwati is best known for introducing the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in 1986. The instrument was constituted with the aim to protect the interests of the underprivileged and marginalised sections of the society. Today, the PIL is one of the crowning achievements of the Indian judicial system.

Here are some of Justice PN Bhagwati’s quotes from his landmark judgments over the years:

A Champion of Human Rights

Justice PN Bhagwati’s judgments were seminal in the field of human rights. He pronounced one such judgement in the Maneka Gandhi passport impounding case of 1978.

Gandhi had challenged the Indian government after it did not issue her a passport. Bhagwati had then ruled that a person’s movements cannot be restricted and that she had full right to hold a passport.

In one his talks, Bhagwati expounded on his views on the right to life:

(Image: <b>The Quint</b>)
(Image: The Quint)

Justice For All

Bhagwati also gave rulings to support the expansion of access to justice to all Indians. In the SP Gupta Vs Union of India, 1981 case, he said:

(Image: <b>The Quint</b>)
(Image: The Quint)

Torchbearer of Public Interest Litigations

Not only did Bhagwati introduce the PIL concept, but he also ruled that a person did not need any ‘locus standi (the right or capacity to bring an action or to appear in a court) to knock the doors of a court on the issue of fundamental rights’. “If we want human rights to become meaningful for the large masses of people in the country, this is the only way in which it can be done,” he said.

(Image: <b>The Quint</b>)
(Image: The Quint)

A Critic Of Death Penalty

In the 1980 Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the death penalty. The apex court, however, said that it should be used only in the “rarest of rare” cases.

While the majority judgment opined that death penalty was a deterrent to murder, was Justice Bhagwati had a different take on the matter. Quoting George Bernard Shaw, he said: . “Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another but similars that breed their kind.”

(Image: <b>The Quint</b>)
(Image: The Quint)

Bhagwati on the Constitution

Justice Bhagwati was also the lone dissenting judge in the 1980 Minerva Mill case. He upheld the 42nd Constitution amendment during Emergency, which was struck down by a majority verdict. In the case, the court had said that the power of the Parliament to amend the Constitution is limited by the Constitution.

Talking about the Constitution, Bhagwati said:

(Image: <b>The Quint</b>)
(Image: The Quint)

“This harmony and balance is an essential feature of the basic structure of the Constitution,” he said.

(With inputs from IANS, PTI and Columbia Law School.)

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