Very rarely a judge of a High Court who was never elevated to the Supreme Court or even as Chief Justice of a High Court, has achieved such eminence and fame as justice Jag Mohan Lal Sinha did. His death on Thursday (March 20, 2008) marks the departure of a great judge but let us not mourn the loss of the flame but celebrate how brightly it burned.
In his foreword to the book, “The Case that Shook India”, Justice Hidayatullah compared Justice Sinha with Judge Sirica of the Watergate case, who was responsible for President Nixon’s downfall. He also complimented Justice Sinha in that foreword saying that his own approach in the Indira Gandhi case, by and large, would have been similar.
Justice Sinha was a judge with the highest integrity, objectivity, ability and judicial rectitude. He had not only set aside the election of Mrs Gandhi on the grounds of corrupt practices but also disqualified her for six years. As his judgment was subject to an appeal to the Supreme Court, he promptly stayed his order as soon as an application was made on behalf of Mrs Gandhi.
His judgment was an act of great courage. This courage was in line with the courage shown later by Justice H R Khanna of the Supreme Court who also died recently (February 25, 2008). The courage of these two great judges was in clear contrast to the judgment of other judges of the Supreme Court in the ADM Jabalpur case in which four judges of the Supreme Court except Justice Khanna declared that during the Emergency there was no right to life of liberty and even if people were shot illegally, the courts could not intervene.
It was not that those otherwise able judges really believed that what they said in their judgment was indeed the law. The fact was that fear had overtaken them — and their courage had failed.
Justice Sinha was always keen to maintain the dignity and prestige of a judge in court. The day Mrs Gandhi was to appear in his court, before calling Mrs Gandhi to the courtroom, he announced that according to court traditions, people rose from their seats only when the judge entered the court — for nobody else — and so people should not rise when the witness entered the court.
When Mrs Gandhi entered, nobody rose except her own senior counsel S C Khare who also only half rose. Justice Sinha, of course, offered a comfortable chair to Mrs Gandhi so that she could sit and present her evidence.
Justice Sinha was a keen golfer and was possessed of a great sense of humour. Long after Mrs Gandhi’s case had been decided by the Supreme Court, he narrated an incident to us at the golf course.
Justice D S Mathur was the Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court in 1975 when arguments were heard by Justice Sinha in Mrs Gandhi’s case. Justice Mathur belonged to the Indian Civil Service before he became a judge of the High Court. Many ICS judges were on visiting terms only with other ICS judges. Justice Mathur had never visited Justice Sinha’s house earlier.
However, one day when arguments in Mrs Gandhi’s case were at an advanced stage, Justice Sinha was surprised to be visited by Chief Justice Mathur and his wife. It was a social visit. Justice Mathur was closely related to one Doctor Mathur in Delhi who was the personal physician of the Prime Minister. During this visit, Justice Mathur told Justice Sinha in confidence that Justice Sinha’s name had been considered for the Supreme Court and as soon as the judgment had been delivered, he would get appointed to the Supreme Court. Of course, Justice Sinha maintained a discreet silence.
In 1977, after the formation of the Janata Party government, Charan Singh, who was the Home Minister, appointed Justice Mathur — who had since retired — to preside over an important commission of inquiry.
Justice Mathur was a teetotaller and a competent man and Charan Singh as Chief Minister of UP had a high opinion of him. This appointment to the commission of inquiry was made at a time when I was out of India for the “Law of the Sea Conference” at the United Nations. I came to know of it in London on my way back from the US.
On my return, I immediately met Charan Singh and apprised him of what Justice Sinha had told me about Chief Justice Mathur’s visit to him when Mrs Gandhi’s case was being heard and the subtle hint dropped by him. Charan Singh was naturally perturbed. I wrote a letter to Justice Sinha setting out what he had told me on the golf course in 1976 and asking him to confirm the same in writing. I got a prompt reply from him confirming the entire conversation. Charan Singh forwarded this letter of Justice Sinha to Justice Mathur for his comments. Justice Mathur, on receiving this letter, promptly resigned from the commission.
Justice Sinha’s judgment in Mrs Gandhi’s case was delivered on June 12, 1975. I was in Bombay for the Back Bay Reclamation case in the High Court there. On June 11, when reports came that the judgment was to be pronounced on June 12, I visited Morarji Desai in Bombay and he asked me what in my opinion were the chances of success in the petition against Mrs Gandhi.
I replied that the judge was a very competent judge and during the five weeks of oral arguments he had understood every point very well. I would normally feel that we were sure to win, but this was the first time in history that the fate of a sitting Prime Minister was going to be decided by a mere High Court judge and it was difficult to say to what extent the judge’s courage would hold and for this reason I would assess our chances of success at only 75%.
When the Janata party government was formed in 1977 and I was the Law Minister, I wanted to transfer Justice Sinha to Himachal Pradesh so that he could get elevated as Chief Justice when a vacancy arose. On being conveyed this suggestion, Justice Sinha politely declined the offer.
He was not an overly ambitious person and was content with being regarded as a conscientious, able and intelligent judge who was also a good human being. Justice Sinha’s life has a lesson for all of us. Greatness is not achieved by amassing wealth, or clamouring for higher offices but comes to a person for doing his work conscientiously and diligently with total integrity and objectivity. In the death of Justice Sinha, the country has lost one of its finest judges who has become immortal.
A great judge has departed. Let us not mourn the loss of the flame but celebrate how brightly it burned. (Courtesy: Indian Express, 22, 2008)
---Shanti Bhushan is a former Law Minister during Janata Party Government headed by Morarji Desai