Former Chief Justice of India PN Bhagwati passes away; The Man who introduced PILs

Former Chief Justice of India PN Bhagwati, who has been ailing for some time, passed away on Thursday at the age of 95. It was Justice Bhagwati who introduced the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to Indian judicial system.

He is known for his controversial judgment as part of the bench in the ‘Habeas Corpus case’, during the Emergency under former prime minister Indira Gandhi. He agreed with the then Indira Gandhi government that even the right to life stood abrogated during the Emergency.Having graduated from Mumbai’s Elphinstone College with a degree in Economics, Bhagwati was also active in India’s freedom struggle in his young age. His profile on the Supreme Court of India website mentions that “he courted arrest during the National Freedom Movement in 1942 and went underground for four months”.

However, the former Chief Justice is also associated with the infamous Habeas Corpus case. The case was heard in 1976 in the context of the Emergency. What was under question was whether a person could file Habeas Corpus writ if he has been subjected to unlawful detention. The bench comprising Bhagwati said that he/she could not in the judgement, which was interpreted by many as undermining a Fundamental Right. Notably, Habeas Corpus is one of the six writs that comes under the Right to Constitutional Remedies – a Fundamental Right.

However, Bhagwati called this judgement “an act of weakness” 30 years later, adding that “it was against my conscience… That judgement is not Justice Bhagwati’s.”

This verdict constitutes one of the darkest chapters in the history of the court as it struck at the very heart of the fundamental rights.

Justice Bhagwati was the 17th Chief Justice of India. He served from July 12, 1985 to December 20, 1986.

His wife Prabhavati and their three daughters survive him.


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