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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 21 New Delhi May 12, 2018

Loss of a Sane Voice in Troubled Times

Sunday 13 May 2018


by Sanjay Parikh

It is often difficult to write about a person with whom you were close for several decades. So many thoughts come to your mind, some are chronological, bound by time and events, but many are those, which are eternal, which constituted that person—his sensitivities, concerns, simplicity, love and compassion, to which you were a witness.

Justice Rajindar Sachar’s life can be easily encompassed by his achievements as a judge and later his immense contribution in public life. The loss we have suffered, the void it has created, is immense. A man who was thinking and speaking about the concerns of the people and the nation persistently and also penning down his ideas on every crucial issue, is no more. Many told me in personal conversations that they have lost a mentor, a guide, a fatherly figure, a visionary, a man who was like a protective umbrella over them—always available at the time of crisis. No movement, no meeting on human rights and social issues was complete without his presence.

Many a time he would sit on the ground in solidarity with the farmers, oustees of development projects and trade union workers at Jantar Mantar. He told me often that he finds himself more comfortable and at home when he is with the people listening to their problems. I remember once we were going on a fact finding mission in Jharkhand and had to cover a long distance. On the way he asked the driver to stop the car and told me, “Yaar chai ke talab lagi hai (Dear I feel like having tea).” I looked around and found a small dhaba having a wooden bench. I said whether we could stop elsewhere. He immediately replied, what is wrong here? We sat there and he enjoyed sipping tea sitting on the bench. In one meeting, when all of us were feeling oppressed because of heat as even fans were not working, Justice Sachar though sweating but at ease, was willing to go ahead with the proceedings.

He was the President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties from 1986 to 1995. This organisation, which Jaya Prakash Narayan started, was closest to his heart. Not a day would go without his enquiring about its activities as well as about its members. He will have his firm views on what position the PUCL should take on important national and social issues, but only after listening to everybody. He preferred introducing himself as a worker of the PUCL rather than his being a retired Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court or the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing.

Born in 1923 at Lahore (now part of Pakistan), he had many heart-rending stories to tell about partition. His ideas on political governance were clear and profound. He had been a part of freedom movement since his childhood: his father, Bhimsen Sachar, was a freedom fighter who became the first Chief Minister of Punjab (1952) but was detained during the Emergency. His close association with Rammanohar Lohia and other veterans during that time had shaped his ideas. His thoughts on all crucial issues were therefore, very clear as they arose from his love for the people, the nation and a firm belief and faith that everyone, irrespective of religion and caste, has to be treated equally, without any discrimination.

His remarkable report on the status of Muslims speaks about his concerns. The Report is not only about a community but how people in that situation, irrespective of religion, have to be dealt with under the Constitution by a welfare State. When asked to speak about his report he very candidly declined as he felt that it was not proper to justify his report after he ceased to be the Chairman of the High Powered Committee and it was for the government in power to implement it and for the people to judge. Instances such as this exemplified his remarkable objectivity and maturity.

I met Justice Sachar for the first time along with my senior, Justice S. Rangarajan. They were good friends. Justice Rangarajan had earned a great reputation for being a fearless and bright judge in the Delhi High Court during the Emergency. He quashed the detention of Kuldip Nayar who was imprisoned during the Emergency for showing courage as an independent journalist. Justice Rangarajan suffered and was transferred to Gauhati as a measure of punishment. That is an interesting but different story. Justice Rangarajan joined the Supreme Court Bar as a senior advocate in the earlier part of 1982, after retirement as the Chairman of the MRTP Commission. When I started to work with Justice Rangarajan in 1982, I heard heaps of praises from Justice Rangarajan for Justice Sachar.

Very soon in 1985, after retirement as the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice Sachar joined the Supreme Court Bar and from those days, my association with him and daily interactions had been constant. Those days were different and the nuanced level of discussion between two great persons was worth listening to. Justice Sachar would often provoke Justice Rangarajan on some issue by saying, ‘Ranga, you are wrong’ and then would follow the dialogue in which no jurist or philosopher would be spared. The discussion remaining inconclusive was the best part of it.

Justice Rangarajan left Delhi to settle down in a village in Tamil Nadu in 1988. Thereafter, I started to work even closer with Justice Sachar and our association was very enriching. He introduced me to several people’s movements and in particular, the PUCL. We did many remarkable cases together in the Supreme Court: from mandatory declaration of assets and criminal antecedents by MPs/MLAs, NOTA, challenge of the draconian POTA, telephone tapping, police encounters, challenge to domicile requirement for Rajya Sabha, etc. PUCL judgments have been cardinal incivil rightsjuris prudence and are referred to in all-important judgments, including in the recent Right to Privacy decision of the Constitution Bench. He was keen that all PUCL cases of significant importance be collated into a book, which was accomplished and in 2017, the book ‘Taking Human Rights Forward: PUCL judgments” was published by Vani Prakashan, Delhi. He in particular was sad that after the Supreme Court gave judgment on declaration of assets, all the political parties ganged up together and unanimously opposed the judgment and brought an ordinance, though the Supreme Court later struck down the said ordinance. He was, in his last days, very sad about the decline in the judiciary, growing tension among the communities, human rights violations in Kashmir and erosion of values in public life.

There are many deeply touching personal encounters but this is not the time to discuss them. I intend to write on them separately, may be when we decide to publish a book on him. But I must say at least one thing: whenever he went outside and retuned to Delhi, he would immediately call me ‘Sanjay, tere pass haziri laga raha hoon ki wapis aa gaya hoon (Sanjay, I am marking my attendance that I have come back.)’ Each time, this sentence touched my heart.

Only day before yesterday, I went to see him in the ICU. Though in immense pain with oxygen mask and feeding tubes, he smiled, looked at me and held my hand in his hands, warm with love. He could not speak but I understood what he was trying to tell me, ‘Mark my attendance’ but for not coming back but for leaving...forever!

I find a desert today: of selfishness, divisions, greed, hatred, which is spreading rapidly everyday. It is so distressing, so painful; it leaves one alone. In this chaos, he was the voice of sanity, which we have lost. A great loss indeed!

(April 21, 2018)

The author is a Supreme Court Advocate and a Vice-President, People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

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