Remembering Justice PB Sawant, champion of the poor and oppressed

Former Supreme Court judge, Justice P.B. Sawant, a champion of the rights of the poor and oppressed, passed away at the age of 90 in Pune on February 15, 2021.

Born on 30th June, 1930, Justice PB Sawant completed B.A. (Special) Hons. in Economics and LL.B. from Bombay University and started practicing as an advocate in Bombay High Court and Supreme Court of India from 1957. He dealt with cases on vast number of laws like Civil, Criminal, Industrial, Service Election, Constitutional, etc. He was also office bearer and Legal adviser of several Trade Unions and Social and Educational Institutions.

Before becoming a Bombay High Court judge in 1973, Justice PB Sawant also served as a Lecturer in New Law College, Bombay in 1965-66 where he taught Private International Law and Constitutional Law. Elevated to the Bench of the Supreme Court of India with effect from 6th October, 1989, Justice PB Sawant retired on 29th June, 1995.

♦Did you know? Justice PB Sawant served as a High Court judge for over 16 years before being elevated as a Supreme Court Judge. [1]

Here are some his notable quotes:

  • “Equality postulates not merely legal equality but also real equality. The equality of opportunity has to be distinguished from the equality of results. The various provisions of our Constitution and particularly those of Articles 38, 46, 335, 338 and 340 together with the Preamble, show that the right to equality enshrined in our Constitution is not merely a formal right or a vacuous declaration. It is a positive right, and the State is under an obligation to undertake measures to make it real and effectual. A mere formal declaration of the right would not make unequals equal. To enable all to compete with each other on equal plane, it is necessary to take positive measures to equip the disadvantaged and the handicapped to bring them to the level of the fortunate advantaged. Articles 14 and 16(1) no doubt would by themselves permit such positive measures in favour of the disadvantaged to make real the equality guaranteed by them. However, as pointed out by Dr Ambedkar while replying to the debate on the provision in the Constituent Assembly.”[2]
  • (…) the States have an independent constitutional existence and they have as important a role to play in the political, social, educational and cultural life of the people as the Union. They are neither satellites nor agents of the Centre. The fact that during emergency and in certain other eventualities their powers are overridden or invaded by the Centre is not destructive of the essential federal nature of our Constitution. The invasion of power in such circumstances is not a normal feature of the Constitution. They are exceptions and have to be resorted to only occasionally to meet the exigencies of the special situations. The exceptions are not a rule.[3]
  •  There is need to minimise the scope of the arbitrary use of power in all walks of life. It is inadvisable to depend on the good sense of the individuals, however high-placed they may be. It is all the more improper and undesirable to expose the precious rights like the rights of life, liberty and property to the vagaries of the individual whims and fancies. It is trite to say that individuals are not and do not become wise because they occupy high seats of power, and good sense, circumspection and fairness does not go with the posts, however high they may be. There is only a complacent presumption that those who occupy high posts have a high sense of responsibility. The presumption is neither legal nor rational. History does not support it and reality does not warrant it. In particular, in a society pledged to uphold the rule of law, it would be both unwise and impolitic to leave any aspect of its life to be governed by discretion when it can conveniently and easily be covered by the rule of law.[4]
  • The right to life includes right to livelihood. The right to livelihood therefore cannot hang on to the fancies of individuals in authority. The employment is not a bounty from them nor can its survival be at their mercy. Income is the foundation of many fundamental rights and when work is the sole source of income, the right to work becomes as much fundamental. Fundamental rights can ill-afford to be consigned to the limbo of undefined premises and uncertain applications. That will be a mockery of them.[5]
  • The correct interpretation to be placed on the expression “the right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business” is to interpret it to mean the right to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business which can be legitimately pursued in a civilised society being not abhorrent to the generally accepted standards of its morality. Human perversity knows no limits and it is not possible to enumerate all professions, occupations, trades and businesses which may be obnoxious to decency, morals, health, safety and welfare of the society. This is apart from the fact that under our Constitution the implied restrictions on the right to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business are made explicit in clauses (2) to (6) of Article 19 of the Constitution and the State is permitted to make law for imposing the said restrictions.[6]
  • The desire to be communicable is born with the Man. Hence the freedom of speech and expression is an inherent human right as are some other human rights which are otherwise known as the Civil rights or liberties of the Man. They are not created by any statute whether fundamental or otherwise. They are merely recognised by it. [7]
  • When it is realised that in a democracy, the political executive has a limited tenure and the administrative executive wields the real power, (they can truly be described as the permanent politicians), the antipathy to reservation on a pitched note, propelled by the prospective loss of power, is quite intelligible. The loss of employment opportunities can be made good by generating employment elsewhere and by adopting a rational economic structure with planned economy, planned population and planned education. That is where all sections of the society — whether pro or anti-reservation should concentrate. For even if all available posts are reserved or dereserved, they will not provide employment to more than an infinitesimal number of either of the sections. Unfortunately, it is not logic and sanity, but emotions and politics which dominate the issue.[8]
  • Democracy does not mean mere elections. It also means equal and effective participation in shaping the destiny of the country. Needless to say that where a majority of the population is denied its share in actual power, there exists no real democracy. It is a harsh reality. It can be mended not by running away from it or by ignoring it, but by taking effective workable remedial measures. Those who point to the past achievements and the present progress of the country, forget that these achievements and the progress are by a tiny section of the society who got an opportunity to realise and use their talent. If all sections of the society had such opportunity, this country’s achievements in all fields and walks of life would have been many times more. [9]
  • The preventive detention law by its very nature has always posed a challenge before the courts in a democratic society such as ours to reconcile the liberty of the individual with the allegedly threatened interests of the society and the security of the State particularly during times of peace. It is as much a deprivation of liberty of an individual as the punitive detention. Worse still, unlike the latter, it is resorted to prevent the possible misconduct in future, though the prognosis of the conduct is based on the past record of the individual. The prognosis further is the result of the subjective satisfaction of the detaining authority which is not justiciable. The risk to the liberty of the individual under our detention law as it exists is all the more aggravated because the authority entrusted with the power to detain is not directly accountable to the legislature and the people.[10]
  • Every society is in need of peace, stability and progress without which the building of the nation is not possible. The media as a mass-communicator can help preserve and promote harmony between different social groups as well as between the people and the authorities. It can also help build bridges of understanding, and good-will between the nations and prevent hot and cold wars. It can propose and pursue policies, programmes, projects and measures for the betterment of the people. It may also act as a catalyst of the needed changes and reforms. The legal and administrative measures adopted to alter and improve the conditions of the people need to be pursued constantly, and the media has the capacity to do so by keeping up the pressure, in the absence of which the needed changes may be sought to be brought about by the people through violent and undemocratic means.[11]

†Associate Editor, EBC Publishing Pvt. Ltd. 

[1] Judicial Tenure: An Empirical Appraisal of Incumbency of Supreme Court Judges by Rangin Pallav Tripathy and Gaurav Rai

[2] Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, 1992 Supp (3) SCC 217 

[3] S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, (1994) 3 SCC 1

[4] Delhi Transport Corpn. v. D.T.C. Mazdoor Congress, 1991 Supp (1) SCC 600

[5] Ibid

[6] Khoday Distilleries Ltd. v. State of Karnataka, (1995) 1 SCC 574 

[7] Media in Democracy on the occasion of Justice P.N. Ramaswami Birth Centenary Memorial Lecture, (2000) 2 LW (JS) 74

[8] Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, 1992 Supp (3) SCC 217 

[9] Ibid

[10] Addl. Secy. to the Govt. of India v. Alka Subhash Gadia (Smt),

1992 Supp (1) SCC 496

[11] Media in Democracy on the occasion of Justice P.N. Ramaswami Birth Centenary Memorial Lecture, (2000) 2 LW (JS) 74

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