Independence Day Special: Remembering Indian Judges of the Pre-Independence Era

Members of the Federal Court that preceded the Supreme Court of India
Members of the Federal Court that preceded the Supreme Court of India

This Independence Day, we remember some of the judges who made their mark in Indian Judicial History, starting from a time before the Judiciary could have been termed as truly Indian.

These judges are path-breakers in certain ways, having had to break the ranks of colonial-era courts that were predominantly composed of European judges, at a time when Indians were viewed as inferior regardless of their impeccable credentials.

Shah Muhammad Sulaiman 

Justice Shah Muhammad Sulaiman was the first Indian Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, and the second Indian Chief Justice during British Colonial rule in India. Following his BA education, Sulaiman completed his further education abroad. He returned to India a barrister and commenced his practice in Jaunpur. However, in 1912 he shifted his practice to Allahabad.

Justice Shah Muhammad Sulaiman – Photo Credit : Frontline
Justice Shah Muhammad Sulaiman – Photo Credit : Frontline

He became an officiating judge of the Allahabad High Court in 1920, in which position he served for close to four months. He served as a temporary judge for two more brief periods in 1921 and 1922 before resuming legal practice. However, in April 1923, he was appointed a permanent judge of the Allahabad High Court

In 1929, he served as acting Chief Justice in the absence of Chief Justice, Sir Grimwood Mears. Upon the retirement of Justice Mears, Sulaiman was appointed the Allahabad High Court’s Chief Justice. Following its constitution, Justice Sulaiman was appointed a judge of the Federal Court in May 1937.

Apart from his illustrious legal career, he is also credited to have been a keen physicist, even questioning Einstein’s theory of relativity. Among other roles, he also served twice as the Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University.

Romesh Chandra Mitter

Justice Romesh Chandra Mitter was the first Indian officiating judge of the Calcutta High Court. He became a judge of the High Court at the young age of 34 years. Circa 1882, he was appointed to act as the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court when Chief Justice Sir Richard Darth went on leave. He served in this position for two months. During his years of judgeship, he also served concurrently as a member of the Viceroy’s Legislative Council.

Justice Romesh Chandra Mitter
Justice Romesh Chandra Mitter

The peculiar circumstances leading up to his early resignation from office served as an indicator of how conscientious the judge was. The episode has been recounted thus below,

Once he had to perform the duty of one of the Vacation Judges in 1889. One day he forgot completely that he was due to attend the Court where a junior judge, the parties and their counsel were waiting for him by prior appointment. When he remembered it, it was a couple of hours late and he rushed to the Court immediately. Offering profuse apologies, he completed his work and went back home.

He felt that the lapse of memory on his part was a serious matter and that he had no justification to continue as a judge. So he sent in his resignation to the Chief Justice which was accepted and became effective from 1 January 1890. As a result, he retired at the age of fifty only.

Nanabhai Haridas

Justice Nanabhai Haridas was the first Indian permanent judge of the Bombay High Court.

Justice Nanabhai Haridas – Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery
Justice Nanabhai Haridas – Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery

On the establishment of the Bombay High Court, Justice Haridas was admitted as a Vakil on the Appellate Side. Over an 11-year period between 1873 and 1884, Justice Haridas acted as a temporary judge nine times. His appointment followed an evolving policy of the British administration to have at least one native judge in the Presidency High Courts.

When he was not serving as a temporary judge during this period, he reverted back to his practice as Government Pleader or taught as a Professor of Law. Finally, in 1884, he was appointed a permanent judge of the High Court, following repeated endorsement by Michael Westropp, who served as Chief Justice of the High Court. Although it is said that Westropp personally preferred that an English barrister be appointed to the post, he wrote to the Governor at the time that it would be against prudence and justice if Haridas was not appointed a permanent judge.

Justice Haridas was appointed a permanent judge two years after Westropp’s retirement, in 1884. He held the office till his death in 1889. Justice Haridas is credited for have great knowledge of Hindu law. As noted in the Bombay High Court website, some of his judgments are among the earliest expositions of important principles of Hindu Law.

TRA Thumboo Chetty

Trichinopoly Rayalu Arakiaswamy Thumboo Chetty was born to Catholic parents in April 1837. Following a stint in the Legislative department, Chetty went on to clear judicial exams to eventually become the first Indian Chief of the Chief Court of Mysore. On the impression he left behind, a 1908 preface to his biography says,

Though not a Native of Mysore, and though alien in his religious beliefs – being a Roman Catholic – he was so universally trusted for his soundness of judgment and probity that commission appointed for practical purposes was incomplete without Mr Thumboo Chetty as one of its most prominent members. Yet this was not due to his thrusting himself forward. No one was less guilty of this.”

Judge TRA Thumboo Chetty
Judge TRA Thumboo Chetty

He was recommended to be appointed as District Munsiff of Purghi in 1866. He held the post for nearly nine months, during which time he is said to have distinguished himself as an impartial and popular judge. On the task he took on during this period, it is written,

In Purghi, deprived of all society and comforts, he worked hard in a court which had a very heavy file, ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 suits a year, almost all intricate cases, including many land and boundary disputes not easy to settle. With an establishment of Munshis, not one of who knew English, Thumboo Chetty had himself to fair-copy all his English judgments by an old rule or practice of the late Sudr Court, and also translate the judgments into Telugu, which was the language of the district.”

In 1879, he was recommended for appointment as District and Sessions Judge, the first Indian to be so appointed. In due course, he was appointed as one of three judges of the Chief Court of Mysore which was constituted in 1884. In 1890, he was made the Chief Justice of the Court, which was the highest court of appeal in Mysore.

Pramada Charan Banerjee

Justice Pramada Charan Banerjee was the second Indian judge to be appointed a judge of the Allahabad High Court, the first being Syed Mahmood (who had also been the first Muslim judge to be so appointed during British colonial rule).

Justice Pramada Charan Banerjee
Justice Pramada Charan Banerjee

Justice Banerjee enrolled as an advocate in 1869. In 1893, he was appointed Additional Judge of the Chief Court of Oudh at Lucknow. Shortly thereafter, he was elevated to the High Court of Allahabad. Justice Banerjee retired from judicial service in August 1923.

Apart from his illustrious career as a judge, Justice Banerjee was also a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of Allahabad, where he also served as Vice-Chancellor. In 1919, he was also conferred the degree of Doctor of Laws, Honoris Cause, by the University.

Badruddin Tyabji 

Badruddin Tyabji was the first Indian barrister to set up practice at the Bombay High Court. His brother had been the first native solicitor at the High Court. 

Justice Badruddin Tyabji
Justice Badruddin Tyabji

He went on to become the third Indian to be appointed as Judge of the High Court, and the third Muslim to be so appointed.

Apart from his legal practice, Tyabji also served as a Municipal Corporation member, a member of the University of Bombay Senate, a member of the Bombay Legislative Council, and President of the Congress before joining the Bench.

In 1895, he was appointed to the High Court Bench. He is said to have gained a reputation for prioritising equity and substantial justice over “legal abstractions”. Among his more memorable quotes, he said to have stated,

These law reports are becoming a cumbrous affair, and I sometimes wish we could manage to get on without them.”

Justice Tyabji passed away in 1906 in London of a heart attack while on year-long leave.

HJ Kania 

Justice HJ Kania is the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India. He remained in office until 1951.

Prior to his appointment as the Chief Justice of India, Justice Kania served as a judge of the Bombay High Court.

Justice HJ Kania
Justice HJ Kania

He served briefly as an acting judge of the High Court first, in 1930. Between 1931 and 1933, he served as an additional judge. He was promoted to associate judge in 1943. Between 1943 and 1946, he served as a High Court judge. During this time, he also served as Acting Chief Justice of the High Court between 1944 and 1945.

Following his High Court term, he served as a judge of the erstwhile Federal Court between June 1946 and August 1947. He succeeded Sir Patrick Spens as the Chief Justice of the Federal Court in August 1947.

After India was declared a Republic on January 26, 1950, Justice Kania was appointed the first Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court. In November 1951, he died in office of a sudden heart attack.

Patanjali Sastri 

The second Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court had his roots in the south. M Patanjali Sastri commenced his practice at the Madras High Court in 1914.

Justice M Patanjali Sastri
Justice M Patanjali Sastri

During his years of practice, he gained a reputation for expertise in tax law and was also appointed a Commissioner of Income Tax in 1922.

In March 1939, he was elevated to the High Court Bench. In 1947, he was made a judge of the Federal Court, being the third senior-most judge of the Madras High Court at the time.

In 1950, the Federal Court became the Supreme Court. Following the untimely demise of its first Chief Justice HJ Kania, Justice Sastri took over the role in 1951. Chief Justice Sastri remained in office until his retirement in January 1954.

MC Chagla

Mohamed Ali Currim Chagla became the first Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court to have been appointed in independent India.

Notably, Justice Chagla could have become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, going by an account written by Abhinav Chandrachud in 2014. It is said that Justice HJ Kania, who went on to become the first Chief Justice of India instead, requested that Justice MC Chagla take up the mantle after the Supreme Court was constituted. However, Justice Chagla declined the offer and chose to remain in the Bombay High Court instead.

Justice MC Chagla
Justice MC Chagla

Justice Chagla completed his studies abroad and returned to India in 1922. Upon his return, Justice Chagla joined the Bombay Bar, where he also met Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He joined the Muslim league thereafter but broke off ties after Jinnah began to endorse the two-nation theory and a separate Muslim state. Apart from his legal practice, Justice Chagla also taught at the Government Law College,  Mumbai.

He was appointed to the High Court as a judge in 1941. Between 1948 and 1958, he served as its Chief Justice. Following his retirement, he served in various diplomatic roles, and as External Affairs Minister and Education Minister in the Union Cabinet, as well as an ad-hoc judge of the International Court of Justice.  Among the various quotes attributed to MC Chagla is the following:

Law is a great discipline for the mind. It teaches you how to think clearly, precisely and accurately. Every word has its definite meaning, and must find its proper place in its own context.”

His son, Iqbal Chagla is a reputed Senior Advocate practicing in Bombay. His grandson, Riyaz Chagla, was appointed an additional judge of the High Court in 2017.

PV Rajamannar

PV Rajamannar was the first Indian to be appointed the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court following Indian Independence.

Justice PV Rajamannar
Justice PV Rajamannar

He started his legal practice 1924, practicing with his father Dewan Bahadur P Venkataramana Rao, who went on to become a Madras High Court Judge and later Chief Justice of Mysore High Court.

Rajamannar was appointed a judge of the Madras High Court in 1945. In 1948, he was appointed the High Court’s Chief Justice, a post he held until May 1961.

He continued to be active in public life following his retirement, serving in various roles including as Chairman of the Fourth Finance Commission, in various capacities in Educational Boards and as Chairman of the State Autonomy Committee constituted to study centre-state relations by the then Karunanidhi-led DMK Government of Tamil Nadu.

He has been conferred Honorary Doctorates from the Madras University, the Andhra University and the Annamalai University. He has also served as the Madras Governor twice

Feature Image taken from here.

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