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Justice Rajinder Sachar : A life dedicated to people’s movement, socialist vision and human rights –by Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

One does not remember Justice Rajinder Sachar when he was the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court in 1985 but it is a fact that a forthright person like him was never to the liking of those in power.  As a judge in Delhi High Court, he was deeply disturbed and upset with the lack of seriousness and justification of brutal massacres of the Sikhs in the aftermath of the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi.  He spoke against it, passed orders but an interference from the then prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, who had a massive mandate in Parliament, Justice Sachar was denied hearing the cases related to 1984 pogrom in Delhi. He had been openly critical of the emergency in 1975 and was transferred from Delhi high court. That a chief justice of Delhi high court could not make it to the Supreme Court then we should understand that the loss was of judiciary and not the other way round. The rest is history. His ‘punishment’ became a boon for the civil liberty movement in India. Perhaps the period post retirement were more fruitful for him and for all those who got associated with him and engaged with him on issues of public concern. It is a reality that anyone who challenged those in power became victim of the power politics.

The fact is that Justice Sachar’s name would come among the top three jurists of India for their remarkable contribution for the rule of law and standing upright to the power as well as defending civil liberties and human rights after they got retired from their ‘official’ work. In fact, they never got retired because all these legends did extraordinary work of service to public life after they demitted their office. They are Justice V R Krishna Iyer, Justice V M Tarkunde and Justice Rajinder Sachar. Interestingly, all the three might not be called the best in the legal profession yet their concern for human rights, human values and social inclusion put them at very high pedestal than those who might be called ‘constitutional experts’. All the three were actually political personalities and participated in political movements and hence the pro-people thoughts were part of their basic DNA. Justice Krishna Iyer was a Minister in the first left government in Kerala while Justice Tarkunde played a very important role during the emergency and was close associate of Jai Prakash Narain, though prior to that Tarkunde was part of the Radical Humanist party formed by M N Roy and Justice Rajinder Sachar came from a very illustrious family background as his father was Bhim Sen Sachar was the chief minister of Punjab and an important leader of the Congress Party yet in thoughts and practice Justice Sachar was deeply influenced by Ram Manohar Lohia and his socialist thoughts in his very young age. In fact, he associated with various socialist political thoughts and talked about an alternative to both the Congress and the BJP.

One of the pioneers of civil liberties movements in India, Justice Rajinder Sachar was a very humble person and easy to access. Unlike many other luminaries, Justice Sachar was more comfortable in sitting and talking with activists of the grassroots. He would stand in solidarity with all the secular liberal forces seeking justice and fair implementation of law. When the human rights organisations were putting pressure for a National Human Rights Commission, he was among very few involved in supporting initiative for it. He was well versed with International affairs and was appointed the UN rapporteur for the Housing Rights but his main concern was the issues of minorities in India and the growing hatred being spread by the Hindu right in India.

Justice Sachar became a household name after the famous Sachar Commission Report that he submitted to the Union government in the year 2006 on the Social, Economic and Educational status of Muslim community in India. Nobody was expecting a miracle from this report. Many were skeptical about the ‘Lahore’ club as upper caste upper elite ‘seculars because Sachar Saheb and others who migrated from Pakistan actually never really bothered too much about the caste discrimination. They were thoroughly secular and would go to any extent to defend the rights of minorities but would rarely speak about the caste discrimination as an issue but the Sachar report surprised many because it did admit unambiguously that Muslims are not a monolith group as being made out and caste system exists among the Muslims in India. Though the issue of the Pasmanda Muslims were already gaining momentum but after the open admittance by the Sachar Committee that there are backward Muslims and they need to be identified and provided protection, the movement gained ground. Till date, a large number of Muslim elite institutions too avoided speaking about the caste discrimination among the Muslims terming it a lie and suggesting that Islam does not permit it but now they have realized that conversion to other religion does not actually remove our caste identity and prejudices remain the same.

Justice Sachar was one of the most active members of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and was very pragmatic person. People would go to him to seek advice whenever there was a crisis and his words were like final for many.  While human rights were his primary concern yet he was an active political activist whose concerns about growing isolation of minorities particularly Muslims in India was shared by many. Not many among his profession were that forthright as Justice Sachar when he spoke about the politics of intimidation and marginalization of Muslims. It takes a lot of courage of conviction when a man of his stature spoke as why djd not government act against those Hindu dealers who are owners of the slaughter houses and export beef. At the time when beef and Muslims were made synonymous, Justice Sachar openly spoke how a majority of the beef exporters in India are Hindus which infuriated many in the Hindutva camp.

Very few people know that Justice Rajinder Sachar had actually suggested a change in our electoral system and switch to proportionate electorate system. He submitted this to Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission suggesting that vote percentage and seat one must be the same. He was worried about the low voting percentage. When Campaign for Electoral Reforms in India actually organized a National Conference in Delhi in 2012, I had gone to invite Justice Rajinder Sachar for the meeting as I had found out that he had given a written submission to Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission. To my surprise, Justice Sachar said that he does not hold the same view now because now the Dalits and OBCs are coming in fair number in our parliament and no one party has the monopoly in our polity. Justice Sachar came to the programme and so did Justice D.S.Tewatia, former Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court, who he recommended. Ofcourse, that day, both of them disappointed.

I was disappointed with the turn of event on part of Justice Sachar for not supporting the cause of proportionate electorate system. Like many others, he too felt it was a bit complicated. He wanted to focus on the other issues of electoral reforms such as corruption, criminalization of the polity and the most important part was that voting percentage must be above 50% if any candidate has to win. I feared that most of the ‘libertarians’ were afraid that the proportionate Electorate System would open a Pandora box and divide the already divided society and hence they wanted to keep it in cold storage.

One thing remarkable about him was his enthusiasm and friendly approach to people. He was much in demand in the conferences, Dharanas and seminars and gave his subjects utter importance. I have observed him on many occasions where he would have spoken extempore but he came with notes and full presentation. He was very comfortable speaking on the issues of Muslims and minorities in India and was fairly popular among them.  Hailing from Punjab, he knew the Islamic culture and was well versed with Urdu language. This was the reason he felt at-home with the Muslim intellectuals and youths.

Partition created psychological scars in both the Hindus and Muslims. Punjab and Bengal were the most affected regions. The world saw the biggest migration of people, unthinkable hitherto from one place to other. Millions were killed. People saw brutalities of worst kind. The Hindu Right worked among these communities in India and the Muslim rights in Pakistan feeding them with all kind of rumours about Muslims and Hindus relatively. That resulted in the large number of refugees in both the countries developed virtual hatred against each other. Their narrative would give worst kind of picture of their ‘enemy’. The ruling elite also encouraged such and got strengthened on the fear psychosis of the people. As a young person he Rajinder Sachar must have seen and felt this and yet he did not succumb to all these narratives and stories that was being regularly fed to people. It needs strong conviction and courage to stand up and challenge these popular narratives when the atmosphere was thoroughly polarized. Perhaps, this was his biggest strength to stand up with the people suffering because of their identity. He has seen Pakistan and the failure of it because of the religious right dictated political system and therefore failed it. In India, thankfully, the first generation of the political leaders despite their differences, were secular and liberal democrats and hence we survived as a democracy and gave minorities equal rights unlike Pakistan. Therefore, it need big courage to stand up against the popular narrative and speak for the rights of all which he did all his life. Right from the issue of Kashmir to those dying in communal violence whether against Sikhs in 1984 or Gujarat in 2002 or Mumbai in 1993, he was always there standing with the communities marginalized by the bureaucratic and administrative structure because of pure communal polarization. He had seen it in pre-partition days, the division and hatred it created and that is why he knew the repercussion of it which made him a person championing the cause of minorities and their rights.

Justice Rajinder Sachar lived every moment of his life. There was never a dull moment for him. In fact he was very serious about socialist party and has been speaking to various people about its vision. At the age of 94 when most of his contemporaries avoided going to political protests, seminars and conferences, Justice Sachar was exception. The last time, we were at one platform was the huge public programme at the Talkatora Stadium organized by All India Milli Council where he spoke and defended the rights of the Muslims a citizen of India. His was the voice of sanity and for much authenticity too. At the moment when our judiciary is facing slumber and conspiracy theories are roaming around as the highest court of the land is under scrutiny, Justice Sachar’s voice would have been very sane and useful for all of us who believe in constitutionalism and rule of law. His death is a big blow to the civil liberties movement in India as well as to all the secular forces who looked upon him as a guardian. The country’s secular liberal democratic space will definitely miss him in these moments of national crisis when his solidarity and presence encouraged activists to fight their battle more vigorously.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

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