Chief Justice Yeshwant Vishnu Chandrachud delivered many outstanding judgements. But on his death on July 14, his judgement in the habeas corpus case during the Emergency was singled out for adverse criticism by the media, as if he had made no contribution to law and justice.
In that landmark case, he along with three other judges, held that a person deprived of his life and liberty had no remedy in law as during the Emergency the fundamental right to life was suspended.
Justice HR Khanna alone dissented earning the admiration of lawyers and the public. While the majority judgements were inexcusably wrong, no one recalls that Chandrachud alone had the courage to admit publicly that he regretted his judgement.
Chandrachud’s contrition on his error was typical of the man. He was all too human. A kind generous and compassionate judge, he went out of his way to do justice. I recall three incidents from his court.
The notorious Billa and Ranga were sentenced to death and were awaiting execution. Ranga requested to meet him in his chamber before his end and, to the consternation of everyone, Chandrachud granted this unusual request.
On another occasion, a stripling youth appeared in the court praying for admission to an examination being conducted that very day, claiming that he was being wrongly denied admission. There appeared to be little substance in his complaint but Chandrachud said that the legality of his case would be considered later, ordering the admission of the student, and sending him to the examination hall in the court’s car.
In another case, a poor villager, with no means to defend himself, was convicted of murder. The circumstantial evidence was heavily against him. However, Chandrachud went through the case record and, finding that the man’s abject condition had led to his conviction, he set it aside and acquitted him. It is such unrecorded act of humanity that redeem the common man’s faith in the country’s highest court.
The pitiable plight of forcibly-evicted pavement-dwellers in Mumbai made Chandrachud give relief to them until they were given alternative places in a memorable judgement in the Olga Tellis case. In the Shah Bano case, the Chief Justice struck a secular chord in ordering the payment of maintenance to a 62-year-old Muslim wife who was abandoned by her husband.
Every citizen in a similar condition is entitled to this under ordinary law but not under the Muslim Personal Law. Regrettably, the government succumbed to the pressure of the Muslim orthodoxy and nullified the judgement by enacting the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986.
The verdict of history on Chief Justice Chandrachud will be that in his court the quality of mercy was never strained.
(TR Andhyarujina is former Solicitor General of India)