42 Years On, Son Overrules His Father’s Supreme Court Ruling

42 yrs on, SC overturns ADM Jabalpur ruling that barred those arrested in Emergency from seeking judicial help. 

4 min read

The Supreme Court’s 547-page judgement on the right to privacy has been as much about according it the status of a fundamental right, as about course correction. Part of the nine-judge Constitution bench on the matter, Justice DY Chandrachud, on Thursday, overruled a judgement authored by his father Justice YV Chandrachud in the (in)famous case of ADM Jabalpur VS Shivakant Shukla:

When histories of nations are written and critiqued, there are judicial decisions at the forefront of liberty. Yet others have to be consigned to the archives, reflective of what was, but should never have been. ADM Jabalpur must be and is accordingly overruled.
Constitution Bench on the right to privacy

What Was the ADM Jabalpur Case?

On 25 June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi invoked Article 359 and imposed a state of Emergency citing “internal disturbances”. The decision was the result of a prolonged period of social and political turmoil. But a Supreme Court decision that threatened the Prime Minister’s Lok Sabha election from Rae Bareilly was the final straw.

Consequently, all rights guaranteed by the Constitution under Article 14 (right to equality before the law), Article 21 (protection of life and liberty) and Article 25 (protection against arrest and detention) – were suspended. Thousands, mostly political rivals and some members of the Press, were detained without trial under Preventive Detention Laws, one of which was the dreaded Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA).

On 27 June 1975, a Presidential Order was issued that barred anyone detained or arrested from seeking any relief through a habeas corpus or any other writ filed in the High Court.

Essentially, the government suspended all civil rights, armed itself with the power to arrest anyone without due procedure, and took away the only avenue of judicial relief one could have sought.

Regardless, many of those who’d been arrested challenged their detention by filing writs of habeas corpus under Article 226 in various High Courts. Despite the Presidential Order, several High Courts – Allahabad, Andhra Pradesh, Bombay, Delhi, Karanataka, Madras, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan – rejected the government’s contention and held that despite the imposition of Emergency, a person could demonstrate that his/her detention/arrest was not in compliance with the law.

In view of the High Courts that refused to fall in line, a five-judge Constitution Bench was set up to examine the matter.

What Did the Supreme Court Rule?

The question at hand was whether Article 21 alone guarantees protection of life and personal liberty. And does its suspension take away that right?

Four of five judges – Justice Beg, Justice Chandrachud, Justice Bhagwati and Justice AN Ray said, yes, it does. In their majority opinion, the Constitution was supreme and it is irrelevant if a certain individual right pre-dated the Constitution.

The majority view ruled:

Liberty is confined and controlled by law, whether common law or statute. It is, in the words of Burke, a regulated freedom. It is not an abstract or absolute freedom. The safeguard of liberty is in the good sense of the people and in the system of representative and responsible government which has been evolved. If extraordinary powers are given, they are given because the Emergency is extraordinary, and are limited to the period of the Emergency.
42 yrs on, SC overturns ADM Jabalpur ruling that barred those arrested in  Emergency from seeking judicial help. 
Justice Mirza Hameedullah Beg
(Photo Courtesy: Supreme Court Of India)

The lone dissenting observation was of Justice HR Khanna, of whom the New York Times reportedly remarked – “surely a statue would be erected to him in an Indian city.”

Justice Khanna had observed:

“Even in the absence of Article 21 in the Constitution, the State has got no power to deprive a person of his life or liberty without the authority of law. This is the essential postulate and basic assumption of the rule of law and not of men in all civilised nations. Without such sanctity of life and liberty, the distinction between a lawless society and one governed by laws would cease to have any meaning.”

The dissenting opinion is widely believed to have cost Justice HR Khanna the Chief Justice of India’s post. He resigned when his junior Justice MH Beg superseded him.


Setting the Record Straight

The Supreme Court judgment on privacy unequivocally safeguards the right to life and liberty.

“The judgments rendered by all the four judges constituting the majority in ADM Jabalpur are seriously flawed. Life and personal liberty are inalienable to human existence…They constitute rights under natural law.”

Six of the nine judges on the Constitution bench went into great detail of the 1975 ADM Jabalpur case to drive home the point that the right to life existed even before the advent of of the Constitution. In recognising the right, the top court said, the Constitution does not become the sole repository of the right.

“It would be preposterous to suggest that a democratic Constitution without a Bill of Rights would leave individuals governed by the state without either the existence of the right to live or the means of enforcement of the right. The right to life being inalienable to each individual, it existed prior to the Constitution and continued in force under Article 372 of the Constitution....”

And that’s how the record was set straight in the ADM Jabalpur case.

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