At a time when even the New York Times called the Indian Supreme Court’s “utter surrender” to an absolutist government, which had suspended civil liberties during the Emergency of 1975, one man saved the judiciary from utterly falling on its knees. And he paid dearly for it.
Amritsar’s Justice Hans Raj Khanna was the sole dissenter in the infamous ‘ADM v Jabalpur’ case wherein the SC held that no legal remedy existed to a person arrested or detained at a time of internal emergency.
When Indira Gandhi lost her election case on June 12, 1975, she also lost her voting and speaking powers in the Lok Sabha. Immediately, the Iron Lady of India declared a state of internal emergency in the country, which let her suspend elections and citizens’ civil liberties.
All eyes were then on the apex court to act, to strike down the dictator-like rule prevailing in the country at the time. But only one man, who was to become the stuff of legends, had the courage to speak out. A person who is ill-treated or his family members are detained without legal authority, he has every right to approach the court for justice, Justice Khanna said, while his colleagues ruled that no remedy existed in this situation.
It was a bold decision, and one that he knew would cost him his career. Reportedly, on the day he shared his opinion on the case, Justice Khanna told his sister that he had “prepared my judgment, which is going to cost me the Chief Justice-ship of India.”
And soon enough he was proved correct. Justice Khanna was superseded for the post of Chief Justice of India by the Indira Gandhi government in January 1977. He resigned from the top court the same day. He missed the CJI-ship but made history as a person who stood up to dictatorship and for citizens’ rights.
Justice Khanna was the son of freedom fighter Sarb Dyal Khanna. His father was a lawyer and was later elected the mayor of Amritsar. The decision to follow his father’s path was a natural move for Khanna and his practice was a huge success. Soon, he was elevated to the judiciary and the rest is, literally, history.
In his dissent in the ‘ADM v Jabalpur’ case, Justice Khanna said, “What is at stake is the rule of law… the question is whether the law speaking through the authority of the court shall be absolutely silenced and rendered mute…”
Unlike the other four judges on the bench, of whom Justice PN Bhagwati went on to confess that the decision was “an act of weakness,” Justice Khanna epitomised what the judiciary is meant to be — a body unable to stand injustice by anyone regardless of their position or power.
While 30 years down the line, Justice Bhagwati tried to distance himself from the judgment he delivered in the Jabalpur case by saying, “That judgment is not Justice Bhagwati’s,” Justice Khanna’s dissent will forever be remembered as uniquely his and no others.
He died in his sleep at the age of 95 on February 25, 2008.