The Supreme Court has expressed regret for a 1976 judgment that said a citizen's right to life and liberty could be suspended during the Emergency which lasted from June 1975 to March 1977.
A bench comprising justice Aftab Alam and justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, while upholding the decision of the Assam governor to commute the death sentence of a murder convict to life imprisonment, said: "Instances of this court's judgment violating human rights of the citizens may be extremely rare but it cannot be said that such a situation can never happen...We can remind ourselves of the majority decision of the Constitution Bench of this court in Additional District Magistrate Jabalpur V Shivakant Shukla."
This was the case whose judgment included the observation that fundamental rights of the Constitution ceased to exist during an Emergency.
Justice Ganguly said, "There is no doubt that the majority judgment of this court in the case violated the fundamental rights of a large number of people in this country."
The verdict was delivered by chief justice AN Ray, justice MH Beg, justice YV Chandrachud and justice PN Bhagwati (all of the last three became chief justice later). One judge, however, dissented: justice HR Khanna.
The judgment effectively directed the high courts not to entertain writ petitions for protecting fundamental rights.
The damage was later undone by the 44th constitutional amendment, passed by the Janata Party government which came to power after the Emergency ended, and which said a person's right to life and personal liberty stayed intact even during the Emergency.
Shanti Bhushan, who as law minister in the Janata government was the force behind the 44th amendment in 1978, termed this a historic development.
"The admission that the Supreme Court was terribly wrong during the emergency and failed to protect the most sacred fundamental rights of citizens is very significant. All right-thinking people should welcome it."