Justice PN Bhagwati
Justice PN Bhagwati

The unparalleled legacy of Justice PN Bhagwati

On his birth anniversary, we remember how Justice PN Bhagwati transformed the concept of access to justice.

Justice - social, economic and political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship; equality of status and of opportunity are all objectives enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. One can find the implementation of these ideologies and objectives in the judgments of Padma Vibhushan Justice PN Bhagwati.

“Justice for all” also includes the equality of opportunity to approach the courts. In a society like ours, which is riddled with social, political, and economic inequities perpetuated by poverty and casteism, drawing the courts' attention to these issues was a difficult task.

Justice Bhagwati was the messiah of civil liberties in the Indian context. He came up with the concept of Public Interest Litigation (PIL), which enabled non-affected parties to come to the court on behalf of the down-trodden.

In SP Gupta v. Union of India, he said:

The court has to innovate new methods and strategies to provide access to justice to large masses of people who are denied basic human rights, to whom freedom and liberty have no meaning.”

Champion of Legal Aid

Justice PN Bhagwati was born on December 21, 1921. He enrolled as a lawyer on February 24, 1948, and practiced commercial and constitutional affairs before the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India from 1948 to 1960. He later became a judge of the Gujarat High Court, where he would later serve as Chief Justice. He was appointed to the Supreme Court on July 17, 1973.

In addition to being a judge, he held different positions both in India and abroad. By the time Justice Bhagwati became Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court, he was appointed as Chairman of the Legal Aid Committee to give suggestions to the State government on legal aid programs. His yearning to support the oppressed had become almost a fixation. He used to travel to the interiors of rural areas to get to know the real India.

His reputation and influence through his work in the field of legal aid was duly appreciated by the public. A tribal village whose residents benefited from one of his decisions was even renamed "Bhagwati Puram".

His contributions to human rights, legal aid, and law for poor people were also recognized by the President of the World Congress on Human Rights held in 1989. He was also appointed to the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons to observe the working of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the alleged infringement of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Judicial Legacy

Justice Bhagwati is lauded as a champion of human rights for an impactful contribution in the legal field. He helped in expanding the meaning of “State” in Ramana Dayaram Shetty v. International Airport Authority, wherein he held,

“When a public sector corporation acts in exercise of its function, it must also be subject to the discipline of fundamental rights and the corporation is really and truly only an instrumentality of the state, fundamental rights must be enforceable against the public sector corporation too”.

To make fundamental rights enforceable against various agencies of the State was a laudable move. In effect, the citizen was given security, and the State could not shirk its responsibilities by hiding behind its agencies.

His impact on the interpretation of Article 21 is no secret. In the case of Maneka Gandhi, the Supreme Court not only overruled the case of AK Gopalan, but also considerably expanded the scope of personal liberty. Again, Justice Bhagwati came with a more refined definition of personal liberty in Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator, UT of Delhi by observing,

"The right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter and facilities for reading, writing and expressing ourselves in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings."

We could perhaps use Justice Bhagwati’s humane approach in present times, with the incarceration of various activists and journalists. In Babu Singh v. State of UP, the Supreme Court held that the refusal of bail was a deprivation of liberty and that a fundamental right to bail is implicit under Article 21. The judgment came at a time when a large number of poor people were languishing in jails for being unable to afford the surety for bail.

One cannot talk about Justice Bhagwati and fail to mention Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, which was essentially the first Public Interest Litigation heard by the Supreme Court. In that judgment, Justice Bhagwati opined:

"What faith can these lost souls have in the judicial system which denies them a bare trial for so many years and keeps them behind bars, not because they are guilty, but because they are too poor to afford bail and the courts have no time to try them. It is a travesty of justice that many poor accused, little Indians, are forced into long cellular servitude for little offences because the bail procedure is beyond their meagre means and trials don't commence and even if they do, they never conclude. Now, one reason why our legal and judicial system continually denies justice to the poor by keeping them for long years in pre-trial detention is our highly unsatisfactory bail system."

Despite all these astonishing achievements, the great man had to come forward and apologise for a blunder he committed in 1976. Justice Bhagwati stood with the majority view of the apex court in the infamous ADM Jabalpur v. Shivkant Shukla, in which it was held that fundamental rights stood suspended during Emergency. As he revealed in an interview, Justice Bhagwati was of the minority view, but was eventually persuaded to decide otherwise.


Legal professionals, law students, and academicians alike still go back to reading the unique judgments authored by Justice Bhagwati. From the foundational evolution of access to justice to the progressive stances on locus standi and judicial activism, Justice Bhagwati had given the Indian judicial system the power to transform societal structures which would otherwise be denied the basic and most necessary prerogatives - fundamental rights.

On his birth anniversary, we remember his vision of a progressive society, his ability to be ahead of the times, and his transformation of the concept of access to justice.

The author is a student of VIPS University.

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