Written by Deepak Gupta
At a time when doubts are being raised about the independence of the Indian judiciary, it would be worthwhile to remember a great unsung hero of the Indian judicial system, who passed away on June 5.
Justice Rajendra Nath Aggarwal was appointed additional judge of the Delhi High Court in 1972. Being the senior-most additional judge, in normal course he would have been made permanent. That was not to be. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in June 1975 and a large number of citizens were put behind bars. Justice Aggarwal heard a number of cases in which he upheld the right of liberty guaranteed under the Constitution.
In July 1976, senior journalist Kuldip Nayyar was illegally detained. His wife, Bharti, filed a habeas corpus petition in the Delhi High Court. This matter was heard by a bench comprising Justice S Rangarajan and Justice Aggarwal and heard urgently on a day-to-day basis, like all habeas corpus petitions should be. The oral observations by the court during the course of the hearing made it clear which way the judgment was going.
A few days before the judgment would be pronounced, the counsel for the Union informed the court that Nayyar had been released, and the order of detention revoked. It was prayed that the judgment not be pronounced since the petition had become infructuous. This was done to avoid an adverse judgment. The bench rightly did not agree and laid down the law, upholding the liberty of the citizen even during Emergency and quashed the illegal order of detention. Immense pressure was apparently put on Justice Aggarwal to decide the case in favour of the government. He did not succumb to direct and indirect threats.
The judgment in Bharti Nayyar’s case is a classic exposition of law. The postscript to the same in which the judges noted the offer of the Union of India, rejected the same and pronounced that the judgment is equally important. Since the detention order and consequent incarceration of a citizen were illegal, they felt that the order must be held as illegal. They did not choose the easier path of holding the petition to be infructuous.
In my view, if the rights of a citizen of the country are violated by the state and the citizen is kept behind bars, the state cannot get away by withdrawing such an order at the last minute. If the detention is illegal, the court must hold it so and may, in suitable cases, award compensation to the detainee. The approach of the judges highlighted their character and moral fibre. Justice Rangarajan was transferred to Guwahati, obviously by way of punishment.
During this period, I was studying law and since I did not get hostel accommodation, Justice Aggarwal, who was a very close friend of my father, generously invited me to live with him. Even though he must have been under stress, I could not feel any change in him. In October or November of 1975 Chief Justice Tatachari of the Delhi High Court came to visit and, with tears in his eyes, informed that the government had made it clear that Justice Aggarwal would not be confirmed as a permanent judge.
After serving as an honest and extremely competent HC judge for four years, he would be reverted to the post of district and sessions judge. He received this information with equanimity. Justice Tatachari and a few others, including Nani Palkhivala, requested him not to resign, as many of his peers had urged him. They felt that even as a fearless, honest and independent district and sessions judge, he could help the people of Delhi. Justice Tatachari promised that as long as he was the Chief Justice, Justice Aggarwal would remain sessions judge of Delhi and not be sidelined to some other post.
After the revocation of the Emergency, the Janata Party government decided to re-appoint Justice Aggarwal and restore his original seniority. All judges, who were junior to him, except one, agreed. Sadly, because of that judge’s views, he did not get his due. As Prime Minister, Morarji Desai had an unwritten rule that all persons considered for appointment as high court judges had to give an undertaking that they would not consume liquor. Justice Aggarwal refused to sign any such document. He said that he was not going to take oath as a high court judge after making a false statement. Better sense prevailed and he was appointed as judge of Delhi HC in 1977 and retired as its Chief Justice in 1987.
My father died when I was 13 and my two brothers were aged nine and one. Justice Aggarwal, or Jindi Uncle as we called him, was a pillar of strength and support to us and a father figure to me. He was a bachelor but devoted to his family and friends. He took great care of his parents, siblings, friends and their children. He was one of the most gentle and unassuming souls I have known. Even after all that he had suffered, he had no rancour and held no grudge against anyone. He was extremely calm and humble. He held the office of the judge lightly. Every morning, he would go to the market to buy fruit. He loved the mountains and our family looked forward to his frequent visits to Shimla. He would take us for long drives, picnics and to restaurants.
Justice Aggarwal was a remarkable person, the likes of whom are becoming very rare. RIP Jindi Uncle — hopefully, you have moved on to a better world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 16, 2021 under the title ‘The judge who said no’. The writer is a retired Supreme Court judge
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